Memorable sounds of winters past

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 10, 2007

For many today, the scritch of skates on ice and the swoosh of toboggans, boards, and skis on snow pretty much sum up the audioscape of a pleasant winter outing.

But last week over coffee, Cochrane petroleum geologist Mike Veloski and I got to thinking about other winter sounds – sounds that characterized the winters of our youth back east, where the snow banks were often way over our heads and tempted us on daring “mountain-climbing” expeditions to and from school.

There was the silence of giant snow flakes on a windless just-below-freezing day, gracefully meandering back and forth through the air in their downward journey toward our upturned faces till at last they landed on our outstretched tongues. Their crystals were so large we could clearly see their myriad shapes an instant before we experienced their tingling taste.

And speaking of crystal shapes and tingling tastes for a moment, what child could resist licking the exuberant frost plumes on bedroom windows in those days before triple glazing and central air heating made such magnificent shapes nearly a thing of the past? (Yes, I know now, in my grey-bearded wiser years, that sticking my tongue on frosty surfaces was not a very good idea, but back then ignorance was bliss!)

Returning to Mike’s and my audio memories, there was that crunching sound of fresh snow underfoot on a very cold moonlit night as we walked home across the fields after visiting friends. (We have that sound here in Alberta, too, of course – or at least we used to, in those days when we had enough snow to cover the grass.)

Then there was the sound of tire chains against pavement, especially along the city bus route where I lived during my primary-grades years around the end of the Second World War. Snow tires have long replaced chains in urban centres, but even the memory of chains clanking evokes the rhythm of “bells on bob-tail . . . making spirits bright,” familiar to me more by sparkly Currier & Ives greeting cards than by the reality they so nostalgically portrayed.

Mike especially remembered the sound of those huge icicles that hung from eaves of not-very-well-insulated buildings. I mean, these were really huge icicles, sometimes longer than we were tall. They’d build up on the phone and power lines near the buildings, too, where the melt from the icicles above them created even bigger icicles on the lines. Mike and I both recalled how, as kids, we’d break them off for simulated “sword fights.” Other times, we’d take a stick and run it along the icicles to create the music of a frozen xylophone.

Musical tones? Our reminiscence got me thinking about a story of winter sounds another one of our Cochrane coffee companions shared with me once.

George Suel is a horse trainer, saddle and bridle maker, and in his younger days, a hunting guide. About 40 years ago, he was working in the legendary Nahanni River country in the Northwest Territories.

He was just a young man back then. He had hired on with a guiding and outfitting company and, with his boss, three other guides, and a 45-horse pack train, was coming out from a five-month hunting trip in the rugged northern wilderness. Part way out they were hit with a two-foot snowfall, and to make up for lost time they had to travel late into the night.

That particular night the moon and stars were shining brightly, the temperature had dropped deep into the frostbite zone, and except for the breathy gait of the horses over the sparkling snow, all was very quiet.

Then, as they began a steep descent, George heard what sounded like wind chimes off in the distance – the kind that tinkle on breezy porches.

“Are we near a cabin?” he asked his boss.

“We’re at least two days from the nearest cabin,” his boss replied. George would find the answer to the mystery when they reached the Nahanni.

They continued their steep, slippery descent to the river.

And there it was, the source of the beautiful sound. It was like a giant pinwheel spinning slowly in a backwater: an ice floe about 15 or 20 paces across. The floe was arrayed with ice crystal spikes and spurs, and as they rubbed against overhanging branches, they serenaded the hushed night with their welcoming, tinkling tones.

So, these are just a few audio memories of winters past – a cozy way to spend a coffee break by a crackling fire on a crisp Cochrane day.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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