Ian Brown is a Globe and Mail feature writer.
I broke out my giant down jacket last month, for the first time this winter. I hesitate to admit this, being a Canadian (and in my mid-60s) – no visible weakness here! – and of English extraction, and therefore congenitally allergic to complaining about the weather. I look upon the breaking out of the Puff, as we call it in our house – a trembling that occurs only once or twice a winter! – as a sad event, an admission of defeat, the climatological equivalent of popping erectile-dysfunction drugs. The Puff reveals the limit of my adaptability, and – this is more of a surprise – marks the fence around my imagination.
Then again, it is a deep pleasure to slip into the Big Puff, yah baby. My Big Puff is soft and enveloping and womb-like (but dry!), and it is almost impossible to be cold within its poofy, welcoming, self-containing embrace. It is cinchable below the line of the buttocks and strappable at the wrists and has many, many pockets in handy places, such as right there in the middle of my left breast, one of my main instinctive where-is-it slapping spots, the place I usually keep my pen and my glasses, two things I need and misplace throughout a day. I am told by more fashionable friends that a Big Puff is even a fashion statement this winter: The bigger and downier the jacket on the smaller the person, the hipper the look. What is signified by that look, I sometimes wonder: Nothing cold can reach me? I have so much money I can spend it on a jacket three sizes too big? I am a giant hors d’oeuvre, please eat me in a single bite? I have no idea.
I hasten to add that my Puff is not one of those Canada Goose puffs; I am no Johnny-Canuck-come-lately where down is concerned. I have owned this particular Puff for 30 years. (It predates effective synthetic down and the Responsible Down Standard, which certifies that ducks and geese are treated humanely, not force-fed, and killed for meat before harvesting the feathers, rather than live-plucked. More than half a billion ducks and geese currently qualify; 90 per cent of them come from Asia, where people eat a lot of goose and duck.) My Puff is Michelinesque and resembles a clot of giant marshmallows. The hood is twice the size of my head and removable (but why would you want to do that?), and the entire garment packs down to slightly less than soccer-ball-size in a bag formed by reversing a pocket. I purchased my Puff so that I could camp comfortably in winter on glaciers, because out on the high ice in the early morning or at the end of the day at 40 below, you stay warm or die. Also, there is nothing more comforting than spending an evening in a camp kitchen carved out of a snow drift in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a cold snap, knowing you will be warm in this particular garment, no matter what. The warmth of my Puff always manages to make me think about homeless people who have no such jacket, and makes me wish we handed them out free to anyone who has no known address. (Although, according to some shelter websites, subway tokens and underwear are more useful.) In any event, my Puff is reddish maroon. I wanted navy blue, but large puffs never seem to come in a colour I want to wear. My first, original puff, the one I bought in university, was bright orange and gave me a resemblance to a large traffic cone. But it was down; I had never worn down before that, and slipping into its close, body-moulding warmth in the store where I bought it after a childhood of drafty duffle coats and useless quilted “ski jackets” felt profoundly intimate, as if the natural world had designed this saving comfort for me personally. I could actually feel my body calming down and welcoming the prospect of being outside. In my current reddish Puff, I resemble a giant softening cranberry, but I do not care.
I think my capitulation to the Puff has been justified by the weather over the past fortnight. Two weeks ago, a large polar vortex spilled down through the middle of the continent from the North Pole, and has been further complicated this week by a moisture-heavy blizzard moving up from the south. The freezing temperatures are at least partly the result, paradoxically, of warming global temperatures and climate change: According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the melting ice caps desalinate the ocean, which alters the flow of the Gulf Stream, which in turn destabilizes the jet stream that normally keeps polar air contained and swirling around the poles like a pair of elastic cuffs. Instead, cold Arctic air leaks south and stalls for longer in one place, so that when it’s cold, it’s head-sucking cold. Nor is the long-term global forecast improving: In 2018, despite our 2019 freeze-out, the Arctic experienced its second-warmest temperatures ever recorded, its second-lowest overall sea-ice coverage and the lowest recorded winter ice levels in the Bering Sea. The end result is the eyeball-scalding, tongue-sticking, groin-closing, forehead-gnashing, face-burning, venture-stifling cold and whiteouts we have experienced in the past two weeks.
Temperatures in half of Alberta and half of Saskatchewan this week were expected to drop as low as minus-40 C, including wind chill; meanwhile southern British Columbia and most of Eastern Canada are being buried, as I write this, under 20 to 40 centimetres of blowing – well, I suppose you could call it snow, except that it’s melting and freezing at the same time, and at up to 80 kilometres an hour, to boot. The Toronto District School Board had its first snow day since 2011. During the cold snap in Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago, U.S. news stations reported breathlessly, the temperature hit minus-30 C, and minus-40 with wind chill. To which much of Canada replied: Pah! Child’s play! Winnipeg was the coldest city in our country during the big freeze, at minus-39.8 C, and she didn’t need any wind chill to get there. The coldest place in Canada, period, was Key Lake, Sask., which is on the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border: minus-47.2 C. That was colder than the North Pole (minus-32 C) and even colder than Mars, where the temperature ranged from a high of minus-26 C to minus-82 C. “Winnipeg is colder than Mars” is no longer a term of regional derision; it’s just a fact. There has been so much snow in Victoria – 55 cm so far in February alone, making it the snowiest ever there – that the legislature’s Throne Speech ceremony was cut short; the website YouPorn made up for that disappointment by offering Victoria’s buried residents a free premium subscription to its service, and said it would buy the city another snowplow (Victoria has five). Meanwhile, in Australia, according to The Washington Post, a record heatwave drove the country’s hundreds of species of snakes to seek refuge in toilet bowls. You can’t say climate change doesn’t have a sense of humour.
This new, leaky, climate-changed polar-vortex cold is especially notable, of course, because it tends to arrive with a wind that is almost unbearable on exposed skin and capable of bringing on frostbite within five minutes. I resorted to a balaclava, the face-covering garment worn traditionally by soldiers at Balaclava (now part of the city of Sebastopol, on the Crimean Peninsula), the site of the famous Battle of Balaclava and the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade. My experience with my balaclava was about that successful, as is often the case with balaclavas: My breath froze around my mouth and leaking nose, which was even more unpleasant than having my skin flash-frozen. Plus, a balaclava makes me look like a squash ball that intends to rob a bank.
Still, it has been cold and stormy enough of late to pull out all the tricks. People actually stayed inside: The streets of Toronto haven’t been this car-free since I arrived here as a university student. One woman in the news even recommended wearing thin rubber gloves under mitts, a popular strategy when I was a child in Montreal, where minus-22 C was considered a warm cold day. At least 21 Americans died from cold-related causes in the cold snap. Thousands of flights have been cancelled and grounded; even postal service stopped, in both the United States and Canada. A shortage of natural gas in the Midwest forced Consumers Gas to ask customers to keep their furnaces at 60 F (15.5 C). General Motors cancelled production at more than a dozen plants to keep energy demand low.
What’s most interesting about cold snaps, of course, is that we seem to relish them as much as we fear them. I am not suggesting this romanticizes the horror of someone freezing to death, or lessens the plight of the needy and the homeless. But there is something in us that makes us chin up to the cold, lean into it and mutter, “Bring it on.” I can survive this, we tell ourselves: I’ve felt colder. The English indulged this habit for more than 200 years, seeking out ever more inhospitable climes to conquer (the Arctic, the South Pole) as tests of national character, with ever more disastrous results (Franklin, Scott). Polish mountaineers do the same thing today, trying to climb the world’s most dangerous peaks in the middle of winter, partly because no one else will. And every year another pack of lunatics takes on the challenge of pulling sleds across the Arctic or Antarctic ice cap.
Why do we do that? Doesn’t the sophistication of my Big Puff, to say nothing of GPS, make surviving cold weather less of a human achievement than it was? But maybe that’s not what we’re trying to prove.
After all, even here in rich, warm, down-covered Canada, as many as 30,000 people go homeless every night. But then along comes a cold snap, and those of us fortunate enough to be able to do so climb into our insulating bubbles of down, to convince ourselves all over again that there’s something out there colder than we are.