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It might take a moment to register. You gaze out the window to see tiny particles floating about. It’s months too late to be pollen. The stuff outside isn’t quite falling,
so it can’t be rain or hail. And it’s definitely not some cloud of dust. Then you realize—this is the first snowfall of the year. And it’s only September.

Do you sigh? Do you cry?

If you’re a Northerner, you dig out your skis and start waxing them. You throw on your boots and go whisper sweet-nothings to your snowmachine. You pick up
your paintbrush to attempt to capture the serene scene. Or you wait by the phone, shovel within reach, and dream about all the cool stuff you’re going to buy when your work is done.

Depending on where you live in the North, snow is an essential part of your life for anywhere from six to nine months. If you don’t love the snow, you won’t last very long up here.

For survival

The ingenious iglu:  With snow in abundance, Inuit innovated the domed structures to keep warm and out of the wind in winter. Photo by Paul Aningat

Snow can get you through some tough spots on the land. It can be used to build an emergency shelter—like a quinzee—or as insulation at the base of a tipi, a tent or lean-to to keep you warm during a winter howler.

It can also act as a compass. Solomon Awa knows. He was born in Iglulik, Nunavut and he says the winds in that region, which blow down the western coast of Hudson Bay to Arviat, generally go from north to south. “The north wind will be blowing days and weeks, not just for hours,” he says. “The south wind will just blow for maybe a day or two, and the north wind starts blowing again. The north wind is not really strong, but constant wind will shape snowdrifts.” Knowing this, when out on the ice or tundra, he can determine which direction he is travelling by the angle at which he crosses the drifts.

A building block

Snow has always been invaluable to Northerners as a construction material. It’s formed into ramps that snowboarders launch from or semi-trucks use to ease up steep hills from ice roads onto land portages.

But as a building block, snow’s usefulness is no more evident than with the iglu. Iqaluit’s master iglu-builder Solomon Awa loves the snow. When he hears people complaining about the onset of winter, he counters their misery with excitement— flying around on a snowmachine or heading out ice-fishing are what it’s all about. “The snow is kind of life up here,” he says.

Awa has won the iglu-building competition at Iqaluit’s spring Toonik Tyme festival so often that he jokes they’re going to kick him out of the contest. He knows what he’s doing—he teaches groups of people how to properly build the ingenious Inuit snow houses and he’s even written a children’s book about it.

Awa’s got a few basic guidelines: iglu walls should be about four-inches thick—if the blocks are much thicker, it can get too warm inside. “You want it to be 00C or 10C, when outside it’s minus-200C,” he says. “It is cool—10C—but it’s warm enough that you’re not freezing.”

Northern landscapes determine the characteristics of their snow, Awa says. On the tundra, the wind packs it down. “You can even cut it up to lift it up or to make blocks,” he says. But unless you’re on a big lake below the treeline, “there’s not much wind going along. It’s sort of softer and more powdery all year round.” That means you have to pack the snow down with your hands or with a shovel if you want to make iglu blocks.

It takes a lot more than hands and shovels to build the massive SnowKing castle on Great Slave Lake, with its stage, café, courtyard and ice slides. After 22 years at it, SnowKing and his crew have construction down to a science. They blow snow into plywood enclosures and once it settles, these form the walls or the hallway arches—or the beginnings of a giant, gentle snow Yeti—that make up the increasingly ambitious winter fortress. 

A playground

SNOW MUCH FUN: From left, Keanu, Gavin, Shaylynn, and Desmond watch as Jonathan Frost charges from the start-line of the  annual Father Mouchet Loppet in Old Crow, Yukon.

Think about it: without snow, there’s no toboggan and no snowmachine. And you’d only ever strap on skis to get dragged behind a motorboat. Snow opens our world up to so much fun.

“I actually have the same feeling now that I did when I was a kid when it snowed,” says Gary Bailie, Whitehorse’s philosopher on skis, following one of the city’s first snowfalls. “I just feel excitement, because I like it so much.”

Bailie came of age during the hey-day of Western Arctic cross-country skiing. He was part of Father Mouchet’s famed Territorial Experimental Ski Training program and Mouchet’s deep love of the sport rubbed off on Bailie. Now coach of the Kwanlin Koyotes Ski Club, he doesn’t just teach his young pupils how to ski, he teaches them to know snow. There’s wind-blown snow, hard-pack snow, corn snow, flour snow, new snow, old snow, sugar snow—and there’s a way to wax your skis to make the best of each of them. “I always tell people, ‘Grab that snow, hold it in your hands, squeeze it and really look at it.’”

The snow, and how it reacts to the weather, means each ski experience is different. Bailie really enjoys what he calls transition snow—“when it melts a little bit and refreezes. I like that mainly because it’s a real fast snow for skiing.” But he’s also partial to newly fallen snow.

Though it cuts down his speed, it creates an atmosphere of peacefulness and quiet. “I like skiing in the evening with my headlamp when it’s snowing,” he says. “I like those big fluffy flakes when they come down and it just builds up and it piles up. I just love to see snow, like lots of it. It can’t snow enough for me.”

Bailie chases the snow, following it up into the mountains early in the fall and late in the spring. This gives him an eight-month-long ski season. When the snow finally arrives in Whitehorse, he likes to be one of the first on the trails. “When I do all my trail grooming, I pack the snow, then I grade it so it’s level and then I set my track,” says Bailie. He finds what skiers call “the line”—considering things like G-forces in trail corners. “At the end of it all, I look back at it like a piece of art.” 

A muse

 Photo by Fran Hurcomb

If you’ve walked the streets of Yellowknife the last few winters, you’ve probably come across the occasional snowball—immaculately smooth, perfectly round—placed conspicuously by its enigmatic creator on a bench or garbage bin. You stop for a few seconds, on what would be an otherwise humdrum commute to work or the store, and contemplate the snowball’s simple beauty.

Snow inspires—and its physical properties make it an ideal medium for artists to work with. It’s malleable, but also rigid enough to keep its form.

Every day in February and into March, Katie O’Beirne is out on Yellowknife Bay carving decorative patterns into the SnowKing castle’s walls and archways. With saws and chisels, she sculpts 3-D shapes and ornate detail—brickwork around doors, elaborate flower frames around windows—into the gigantic artistic and architectural oeuvre.

During the day, when the sun shines on the walls, the snow gets soft. That makes it easier to carve, O’Beirne says, but “you just have to be careful that you don’t go too deep.” When the snow is harder, it takes more effort to carve it away, and that also presents a challenge: there’s the risk of accidentally cleaving off a big chunk. The wall-builders design against this. They chew up the snow by going over it with a snowplough twice before pouring it into the forms to settle. This makes sure the snow is consistent and the walls contain few “snow pebbles.”

If a chisel cuts too deep though, there is a fix. During the carving process, O’Beirne uses a saw to draw out form lines and to also cut away snow. This produces “snowdust,” which can be affixed to an area that needs patching up. “It’s like butter,” she says. “You just take it and fill it in.” She lets it sit for a day and then gets back to work.

O’Beirne says there’s nothing like working out on the lake, under the sun. “A lot of the time, you plan your day based on where the sun’s going to be,” she says. “It’s amazing to work outside all day. At the end of the day, you just feel so good,” she says, laughing, “You want to eat everything.”

Hannah Eden/Up Here

As pay dirt

The morning after a big snowfall, Northerners get to work.

It’s big business on the highways, where snowploughs fulfill million-dollar government contracts, scraping down to asphalt or gravel surfaces and churning up sparks while clearing roads that are lifelines for residents. Meanwhile, the sidewalks of any Northern city or town big enough to have sidewalks are briefly home to a small army of workers who chip and shovel away in the dawn twilight to make urban pathways passable.

Last spring, Miles Brewster, 11, and Matt Nowdluk, 12, were walking a snowy Iqaluit street trying to figure out a way to make some money. The answer, it turns out, was under their feet. The two pals made posters at the library that advertised their snow shovelling services and put them up around town—at the post office, at banks, at Arctic Ventures. One of Brewster’s mom’s friends saw the poster and put it on a popular local Facebook page. Then the phone started ringing.

The pair didn’t say no to a job, be it driveways or decks or stairs—or all three. They even dug out some tires from under a set of stairs, freeing them from the heavy, wet spring snow.

Nowdluk and Brewster worked after school and on weekends and despite the late-spring start, they were still able to make almost $200 each. “I bought myself a phone,” Nowdluk says. And their success didn’t go unnoticed—it may even have encouraged some competition. “Some of our friends are trying to make their own businesses,” says a mildly concerned Brewster.

In October, the business partners were waiting patiently for winter’s first snowfall—their first financial windfall.