Ed’s note – Our youngest daughter Lila and I just spent two days camping with our Cub pack. The snow and -20° C nights are super chill for us these days. Winter ain’t what it used to be though. The snow doesn’t seem as abundant and fluctuations of temperatures day over day and week over week appear to be more pronounced.
This is a lightly edited post from The Finest Gift, a kids and family blog that predates my writing about play and play spaces. It was a way of holding on to memories and giving thanks for nine months that Mélanie and I were able to be at home together with the kids – all made possible by the Canadian government’s generous parental leave policies.
PlayGroundology is an organic exploration that grew out of those days drenched in curiosity, adventure, discovery and the love of kids.
The days are clear and bright as crystal. Each step crunches as we break through the old snow’s crusty covering. The powder underneath is a fine spray of fresh wisped away almost weightlessly, each flake a granule of geometric perfection. There is a lightness in the air, a cleansing crispness that shines and sculpts faces buffing cheeks and furrowing creases.
An unrehearsed symphony weaves its way in diminishing waves across open spaces. The refreshing crack of pucks and children’s voices are counterpoints to the traffic releasing us from its drone. Slapshotting sticks, squeals of laughter, skates spraying to a stop float across the white expanse. This soundscape rings true like impromptu celebrations, breathless victory dances and joyful embraces of fun.
We are getting a high quotient of snow and ice time. I’m enjoying plenty of kid flashbacks to winter days in North York – extreme tobogganing, outdoor hockey, snowball fights, frozen feet and perpetually wet mittens, the standard stuff.
There have been windows of winter wonder in the adult years just nothing sustained. Alexa and I had a few Citadel Hill sledding adventures in Halifax and a blast of Winterlude in Ottawa when we lived there. Halifax is not a blustery winter place. We can’t really lay claim to a deep of winter tradition unlike the culture in Québec as immortalilzed in the Gilles Vigneault classic, Mon Pays.
Our best winters are in Sorel, Quebec (birthplace of PlayGroundology:-). The town has a strong recreation program that maintains several outdoor rinks with boards, lighting and cabanes for changing and warming up. Over the years, we’ve checked out several including Parc Nadeau, Parc de la Rivière and Parc Bibeau. So many outdoor rinks, so little time.
The skating and hockey are big draws for Noah on each winter visit. This is where he first rattled the puck off the boards and then skated close to examine the black mark of vuclanized rubber smudged on the wood.
There is quality sliding nearby les grand-parents too. The hill is just a short walk from rue Hébert. In the early years my father-in-law and I pull the kids up and give them a little push down. In those days, we had the legs for about 20 trips. The general rule of thumb is that the kids’ energy and enthusiasm eclipses ours. As a toddler, Nellie Nellie would tumble off the back of the sled on the way to the top. Noah’s infectious laughter would be our only clue that something was up. Turning around from our beast of burden imitations, Nellie would be sprawled on the hill giggling, happily rolling around.
At the bottom of the run, where the squeals of delight start to trail away, the flats are a sheet of ice. Some of the smooth spots prove tricky for Nellie to keep her footing. She does well though only landing on her bum a couple of times. She improvises a little skating routine pushing her feet out and to the sides in an alternating sequence. She nails the movement and has a nice skating flow on the go minus the blades.
On that visit ten years ago, we were treated to a St. Valentine’s Day sleigh ride the day before we left. La tante Danièle harnessed up the gentle giants King and Prince to pull us along the back trails. It was a greatly anticipated family adventure in a class all its own. For over 2 hours we wisked over the snow in a toasty -8 °C and the trees cut the wind to a whisper.
On that day at La Halte there was a big gathering. Four sleighs, six horses, five or six dogs and about 25 people mill about the cabane. There’s a wood stove inside burning hot, bubbling chocolate for fondue with strawberries and pineapples. Hot dogs, toasted buns and all the fixings are the main course. Coffee with liqueur, champagne and beer are the beverages on offer.
There is lots of laughter and camaraderie. Danièle and Richard know everyone under this blue sky clearing. They are a passionate lot. They love their animals, the outdoors and the bonhomie of the woods and sweeping fields. Everyone is welcome to share a few moments of cheer, to befriend the cold, to imagine the days when sleighs ruled the countryside.
An older fellow comes to speak with Danièle. He has a horse he’s been trying to sell for two years, a ringer for King, he says. He wants to know if Danièle is interested. Danièle extends her arm, “My team is here. King and Prince pull this sleigh. I’m not looking for any other horses.” It’s a no pressure pitch. The old guy says, “You never know, he’s getting old…” Danièle is not biting. She’s polite and says she’ll keep in touch.
Out of reach of the horses, Noah, Nellie and Maxime are eyes to the sky, immersed in the snow waving their arms and legs in unison making angels. The white stuff’s powdery texture means no forts, projectiles, sculptures, snowmen, or other mischief. Now that the yummy Krispy Kreme donuts have all been scarfed the younger adventurers are starting to get restless for this show to get back on the trail. There is one notable exception, Lila-Jeanne. She’s as quiet as falling snow, not a rustle, not a sound. At three-months-old, this is her first Quebec winter, her first winter anywhere.
Noah’s favourite spot is a securely fastened saucer that drags, sometimes flies, behind the sleigh. It glides in a bumpity-bump fashion over everything including generous quantities of road apples in various degrees of freshness. Doris and Sam, the country dogs, do whizz, buzz, zips skirting the saucer on each side at full run. Noah hears them charging and looks out of the corner of his eyes for the flash of balled muscles in full stride. They’re our outriders making sure everything is right.
Noah is riding the saucer like a pro. He gets a little additional speed and requests even more juice. Then it happens. The saucer is off the trail. He tips and at the same time King falls to his knees. Prince continues to canter dragging King and the sleigh. I run back for Noah. His tears are quickly dried with a kiss and a hug. He has snow up his nostrils and in his mouth. Despite the scare he hops back into the saucer and continues until we hit the road.
The woods are lively
Light and clear
But biting cold this time of year
I’ll keep you warm, I’ll hold you dear
I’ll not let go, I’ll keep you near.
Apologies to Robert Frost for the doggerel.