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Weather outside frightful
Mar 13, 2009

How many times have you heard the comment in recent days: “It’s darn cold out! When’s winter going to end?” 

Undoubtedly these statements and similar versions using more unsavoury language  continue to make their rounds as Manitobans shiver under the chilly grip of one of the most prolonged cold snaps in recent memory.

Last Tuesday, Environment Canada recorded a temperature at noon in the city of -22.2°C with a windchill of -37°C. Brrr! And, the next day wasn’t any better.

Not even the common statement, “but it’s a dry cold,” can soothe Manitobans, since the humidity level has hovered between 90 and 100 per cent on some days, sending many into shock as they try to combat the mind-numbing effects of moisture-laden frost-filled air. 

It’s no surprise the weather has become the major topic of conversation  among Manitobans. 

Winter travel warnings have been commonplace throughout the winter. Cold Arctic air meeting a Colorado low has wreaked havoc, making the winter blues a fact of life. Weather-wise, February was a disaster. Rain and sleet fell when the thermometer briefly reached the moderate range, which was quickly followed by freezing temperatures turning roads into  sheets of ice. The best example of February’s wrath was a newspaper picture of a young adult effortlessly skating down a street. Meanwhile, vehicles were sliding off roads.

The severe cold has some Manitobans experiencing a primal urge to find a nice cozy spot in which to hibernate until warmer temperatures return — the consensus is that this should occur sometime in July.  

The record low for February was not shattered in Winnipeg, but city residents did wonder if the relentless cold was ever going to abate. Even the commencement of March provided no evidence of relief nor the advent of spring just around the corner.

For the record, the lowest sustained cold temperatures for the month of February were in 1876.

“The figure was -43°F (-41.6°C),” reported the Manitoba Free Press on February 12,1876. One degree higher has frequently been reached, in former years, but it remained for 1876 to carry off the palm (award) for a real cold snap. We don’t know whether it is anything to brag of, though.”

Certainly, no one will brag about the present “cold snap” being experienced in Manitoba.

In March of 1876, the Free Press  tried to indicate the spell of bone-chilling weather somehow brought out the heartiness of Manitobans. On March 3, the Winnipeg-based newspaper put its own spin on a London Free Press report about the adverse weather conditions in Manitoba. The local newspaper said if the Eastern Canadian publication would have been fairer in its assessment, it would have reported “all Ontario would stay indoors and freeze, where here the weather — owing to the dryness of the atmosphere — is not at all disagreeable.

“In fact, many residents prefer the winter to any other season. Eastern people can’t understand this, but such is the case; and, we venture to say, that in no other portion of the Dominion has more enjoyable weather prevailed this winter than in the Prairie Province.” 

It is hard to imagine how bone-chilling cold can be seen as “enjoyable weather,” but apparently Manitobans from 1876 were hardier than most from the modern era. 

According to the Free Press, the weather continued to be decidedly cold throughout February. On February 22, the temperature hit a low of -34.4°C and the next day the low was -35°C. On the last day of February — it was a leap year so the date was February 29 — the low stood at -30°C. In mid-March, the low temperatures for Winnipeg ranged from -26°C to -29.4°C. By March 24, there was a break in the temperature when the high was just above 0°C.

At least by 1876, Manitobans were better equipped against the winter conditions that swept across the prairie with a vengeance. For example in the winter of 1825-26, Alexander Ross, a fur trader and author who lived in the Red River Settlement (Winnipeg), wrote of a snow-storm “such as had not been witnessed for years” and lasting several days that “drove the buffalo herds beyond the hunters’ reach, and killed most of their horses.” When Ross travelled to Pembina in February, he saw ample  evidence of winter’s wrath. “Families here, and families there, despairing of life, huddled themselves together for warmth, and, in too many cases, their shelter proved their grave.”

Ross said people were found on the prairie in a state of delirium. He reported that a mother with a lifeless child on her back was found dead just a short distance from safety. “This poor creature must have travelled, at the least, 125 miles, in three days and nights, till she sank at last in the too unequal struggle for life.” 

Ross saw “forty-two others, in seven or eight parties, crawling along with great difficulty.” All he could provide to the starving people was a mouthful of bread apiece. People caught on the prairie resorted to eating their “dogs, rawhide, leather and their very shoes.”

A family buried for several days by the blizzard was found and dug out. The father died, but the mother and two children survived their ordeal.

Ross said the winter storm and temperatures reaching a numbing -42°C for many days had claimed 33 lives. Meanwhile, ice on the Red River reached from 1.5 to 2 metres in thickness. The plentiful snow and thick ice contributed to the worst flooding of the Red River Valley in recorded history, dwarfing in scale the 1997 “Flood of the Century.”

According to Environment Canada, the normal high and low for March 10 is -2°C and -12°C respectively. Temperatures in February and in mid-March this year have been well below normal, but we can be thankful we are in a better position to weather its effects than those who preceded us in the 1800s. Today, winter weather can be described as more of a discomfort than a threat, but unfortunately people still die of exposure, especially if stranded in the middle-of-nowhere when a snowmobile or other vehicle fails.

We may vigorously curse the cold encountered during our long winters, but, for the most part, it has been conquered.