“…And There Shall Be Snow”

Connell recalls some of the “Big Snow” winters of his youth and various adventures through the snowy landscape of rural and suburban Victoria.

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, November 24, 1940

Despite all temporary and local discomforts there is a fascination about snow most of us never quite cease to feel. Children always are peculiarly susceptible to it, I suppose because it introduces them to a new world. They go to bed with the old familiar places and things about them: they wake up to find everything transformed. A gleaming white cover is spread over the landscape except where the trunks of trees or evergreen foliage show a black bareness. The fences look funny with white caps on the posts and little rounded roofs along the rails, and in the still unswept roads and streets the people have a commercial air as they trudge heavily through the soft whiteness. The domestic cat first venturing from the protected veranda shakes a puzzled paw at the dazzling spectacle. The comicality extends to inanimate things, many of which take on queer and grotesque forms under their burden.

Uplands Park, 2019

Some of the childish delights of other days are gone. The lamplighter, always interesting, took on his most delightful guise as he went down the snowy street at dusk and with his magic- as it seemed to us- touched off one after another yellow stars. And in more recent years, and therefore more widely remembered, what new beauty of sound came on the transformed town and country as the tinkling sleigh bells mingled their music with the muffled tramp of the horses and the low, smooth hiss of the runners. Edgar Allan Poe, in “The Bells”, connects the sleigh bells with a cold frosty night because their sound is so much more distinct then and, I may add, because the snow itself has a strange other-world beauty then. I can still recall, as no doubt many of my readers can, the sensation felt as a child on looking out of a bedroom window on the countryside in that curious reversal of values as darkness falls and the light comes rather from the snow below than from the sky.

A child in Victoria has less chance of experiencing the novelty of snow than one anywhere else in Canada. The little we see most winters is scarcely enough to work a real metamorphosis of the familiar scene. There is hardly enough for snow-balling or for hand-sleighing, although in the sprinkling about Armistice Day I saw one garden with a snow man, rather leafy it is true and lacking the perfection given by abundance of raw material. Some winters we see no snow at all except on the Olympics or on the Sooke and Goldstream Hills.

“Snowy Weather on the Farm, Vancouver Island” by Robert Connell, Jan. 27, 1943.

A car from Up-Island with snow on its roof and fenders impresses the Victorian much as a sleigh and dog team from the far North does a resident of Edmonton. Our younger people might be almost like those of a mid-Californian town who drove up the neighbouring hills to bring down snow for snow-balling, never having seen it fall in the valley. Sometimes the weather prophets are right and there comes a winter that rejoices the hearts of those who recall the joys of an Eastern winter. In 39 years here I have seen just one big snow winter which many of my readers will recall as that of 1915-16 when in the first week of February Victoria and all its hinterland lay smothered in as beautiful a fall of snow as might be seen anywhere.

A train passing the Rogers farm on the outskirts of Victoria after the big snow of 1916

Over the hard-packed drifted snow I went to town across the Songhees Reserve with one of my sons picking up on our way my old friend Mr. George Young who felt, as I did in the bright crisp air and the clean dryness of the snow, a delightful reminder of Alberta. It was not the first snow we had that winter, for in December I took a walk in that part of Saanich where the country was just beginning to succumb to the town- the Tillicum District– and this is how I described it in some notes made at the time:

It was a real Winter day; that is to say, so far as we can produce the real article at Victoria. Frost in the air, nip in the wind, and just a little dash of snow on the ground. The sky was not bright and clear, and yet it was too broken in its cloudiness to be dull, and it had a lovely bluish, purplish tinge in the deeper parts that was particularly striking, though it spoke of more snow to come. Over in the suburb of Tillicum I crossed a field not so completely frozen but that there were little streamlets hurrying down its slope, but yet crisp enough for the most part to make mud impossible. I was in that peculiarly delightful frame of mind in which one has no prejudice in favor of one direction over another, but is led by any trifle this way or that. And so a flock of robins gave me the needful bias towards a little clump of trees in whose branches they sat restlessly as if the unwonted weather distressed them. In the wood the sprinkling of snow did not hide the golden green of the ground mosses, and one little colony of lichens lifted pale spikes above the dark decay of leaves. Christmas tree hunters had evidently been busy among the balsam firs, whose comb-like branches are more attractive than the shaggier and more sombre fir ones of the Douglas Fir, and there was that fragrance of exuding juices that is another happy attribute of the balsam fir. Over all there was singular quiet. Even the birds did not break it. If anything, they accentuated it as did too the distant voices of children at play coming down the fields. Northward were the hills dimly seen in folds of mist upon their snowy sides, and seeming greater and grander for the very dimness.

Then in January I went with a friend up on the High Rocks, the hilly region just south of the E&N Railway. It was a somewhat unique experience to wander among the snowdrifts within a few minutes walk of Victoria. The snow of the past month made a visit across the valley out of question, especially upon that warm and misty Saturday morning when all the ground was filled with the waters of melted snow. So up the side of High Rocks I went with my companion, dodging the deeper drifts and leaping across the numerous streams. It was very beautiful in the quiet simplicity of a winter day. Where the snow had melted the brilliant green of mosses, interspersed with great clumps of fern, made quiet resting places for the eye. The frost and succeeding thaw had not touched the hardy beauty of the moss, while many of the plants which will make the hillside gay with color in April and May were already in evidence, biding their time with patient expectancy. Over all, the great firs kept watch as over the little ones of the woodland family. No wind stirred their branches, but everywhere upon the snow beneath were strewn fragments which told of mighty conflicts in the upper air. Other traces, too, we found of battle in which the combatants were not wind and tree but frost and rock. The expansion and contraction of Summer days and nights fissures the surface of the rock in exposed places. The rains of winter saturate the weakened surface, and then the harder frosts, using as lever and dynamite in one the expansion of water, shatters the mass, and that sometimes to a considerable depth. So the mountains are brought down and the valleys filled in the unceasing activity of Nature’s forces.

The last week in February, 1922, I walked into the Lake District by way of the Prospect Lake Road, I mean the back way off the Burnside. There had been hard frost and a fresh fall of snow and, so far as bare ground was concerned, my friend and I might have been walking in the heart of Saskatchewan. Roads were not then cut up by fuel trucks as they are now at all seasons, and we had good footing by hill and dale. We made no special observations, contenting ourselves rather with the exhilaration of exercise in the bright crisp air to the accompaniment of the crunch underfoot. Then at last we came in view of Prospect Lake.

“A Winter’s Day, Prospect Lake” by Robert Connell, Feb. 23, 1922.

But what a change! Instead of its waters reflecting the sky or the hills or giving at closer hand peeps into its green depths- “earth’s eye”, Thoreau calls a lake- it was now one broad , flat expanse of dazzling white, like one of those salt lakes yo come across in certain areas of the prairies. Round about it, however, rose the hills with their evergreen forest and cottages peeping out between trees or lording it over a rocky promontory. The sky above was a dazzling blue, the forest a deeper blue, and here and there blue shadows fell across the snowy lake. In the foreground some bare bushes and a young fir were accompanied by a small arbutus looking in the wintry scene more charmingly even if protestingly the symbol of our climate than ever.     

Published by Ben C. Baker

The best stories, I think, are those that connect us to place, and as an historian this is the focus of my interest and work here in Victoria, BC, Canada.

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