Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Growing Up In Northern Ontario, Winter Preparations

It’s late fall here in Ontario and today I was reminiscing with a friend about winter preparations and how there are virtually no such tasks anymore, except for purchasing winter wardrobes. Other than that tedious task, we merely set our thermostats and continue as we have all year.

Well, now ‘back when I was young’!

In the Northern Ontario town where I grew up winter could, and often did begin with a snowfall in early September and if a short winter; warmed up in May. … so eight or nine months of winter! And yes the snow fell as did temperatures!  Fourteen feet of packed snow was not unusual, and the frost invaded everything! Walking through a forest in January one could hear trees splitting open from frost. On really cold nights you could hear the timbers in our two storey home crack! Frost in the north country was not merely a dusting of the ground and few inches of frozen earth. It could be up to a foot deep, depending on the severity of the winter. The weight of snow was also a hazard and roof tops often had to be sholved clear.  It was pristine, it was a wonderful winter wonderland, and it took much in preparation to survive the cold north.

There were so many winter chores lined up in preparation for -40F or colder winter months that they began as soon as summer took hold. They would begin in our kitchen with ‘preserving’ fruit. Baskets and baskets of peaches and pears and blueberries were prepared for winter. Mother and dad would process the fruit and pack in glass preserving jars, cover with a sweet sugar syrup and immerse in a huge caldron of boiling water. Then covered with blankets to allow to cool. Apparently covering with blankets was really important for it retained the ‘fresh fruit’ flavour of the fruit; although the only flavour I remember was the sweet, lovely syrup….with a ‘hint’ of fruit. The aroma was delightful and made us children wish for winter!

Many residents  laid up a store of root crops - potatoes, carrots, parsnips and other vegetables storing by the canvas sack in basements that were dugout earth or preserving as my parents did with fruit.  We did not have a root cellar so except for potatoes in our basement; we purchased vegetables in winter months in cans. To this day I have a strong dislike of canned vegetables!  Fresh produce became expensive during winter; all such items were shipped by train freight so the ‘fresh’ was hard to come by.

But there were pickled beets, mustard pickles, relishes and bean pickles from our grandmother’s kitchen.

The next prime consideration, after the stomach was appeased with thoughts of winter feasts was winter warmth. Gathering of wood for winter fires began in early July. The mining industry used logs to support tunnels built in the mines. The logging company would square off the trees and the cutaway rounded pieces were cut into 18” pieces called ‘slabs’. They were sold for winter fuel. Alternatively one could cut timber from the forest and use logs for winter fuel. We burned slabs. They would arrive in early July and father would pile column after column of ‘slabs’ in the driveway and at the side of the house; piled in such a way air could circulate and the wood could dry. Then after assembling all these piles they would be taken down in August and re-piled in the basement of our home and in the back porch. Most homes had wood sheds at the back of their properties for storage of winter wood – our back porch was our wood shed.

The wood was burned in a basement cast iron stove and in the kitchen cast iron range.  Fires burnt 24 hours a day in the winter.  I can recall sitting on the stairs watching the stove top glowing red in the dark of night.  I would wait until I heard my father snoring and would stealth down and throw baking soda on the fire....hoping to cool down the stove.  Then father would wonder why the fire burnt so low the following morning.

My parents and all members of our community worked hard to prepare for winter which leads me to thinking….it was a good thing they didn’t have television or video diversions, we might have all frozen or gone hungry.

The painting included here is described on my other blog site   pinnaclesandpotholes.


  1. What a great story Ruby! I think life was better with these sorts of survival chores, where you do them or you die, and one could find great satisfaction in being prepared for the long winter ahead.

  2. Today winter struck here. There was white everywhere as I set out to run. But what beauty it vreated with the crisp leaves underfoot and all the colours .