Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Snow, The Soo, and high winds in Alberta

Welcome back to winter Carolyn. It was spring in London with crocuses and stuff, in fact it was relatively mild in Ontario too, come to think of it. The snowbanks were melting, leaving behind piles of brownish sludge and puddles in the road which freeze overnight. But, we were destined to head north and west and it didn’t take long to be back in real, proper winter. Northern Ontario goes on forever, it takes a full 24 hours driving to get anywhere near the border with Manitoba and the roads are slushy, hilly, bendy and tiring. They do, however offer a little more in the way of places to drive through than the main drag through the Prairies.

We opted for a new route this week. We are tired of Highway 11. We have tried all the coffee stops and tested all the bathroom opportunities. There is a decent enough truckstop at New Liskeard and a Tim Horton’s you can park near in Cochrane, but the road is difficult to drive and prone to blizzards. The time had come to sample Highway 17, which snakes around Lake Superior and takes in Sudbury and Sault Saint Marie. Now Sault Saint Marie, for some arcane reason I have yet to discover, is known colloquially as The Soo. (I've tried Googling, any offers on what a Sault is and why it's a Soo would be appreciated.)I would like to be Canadian enough to refer to it in so friendly a manner but it seems a bit presumptuous to be that familiar with a city you’ve not actually visited. This was my chance to remedy the problem. We’ve driven through The Soo. Can’t tell you much about it though, except that its Esso commercial diesel stop does not boast any bathroom facilities.

The drive was pretty, the lake will no doubt look spectacular in summer, but has a bit of an odd look to it just now, with all manner of forbidding grey lumps on the surface where waves and swells have frozen in mid-wave. Or possible mid-swell. Then on through the boring bits and through the border town of Lloydminster, which lays partly in Saskatchewan and partly in Alberta. The provincial border is pointed out helpfully but in an unassuming sort of way at a set of traffic lights along the main drag. Since there is an hour’s time difference between the two provinces, the helpful little sign at the traffic lights denotes a time zone change as well. I can’t help wondering how they manage to get the school buses to run on time.

It got a bit windy on the Alberta side of Lloydminster. Snow began to drift from the fields onto the road. As dusk fell the wind got worse, so much snow blew from the fields across the road that it became a tad troublesome finding the road. Darker and windier, now the snow was blowing across my field of vision as well, almost a whiteout. Not so total a whiteout that you couldn’t see the cars in ditches all over the place, or the trucks on the hard shoulder who had clearly given up trying to drive for the night, but nearly there. Stopping on the hard shoulder for anything other than a breakdown is a bit of a major no-no, dangerous and frowned-upon in all circumstances so I wasn’t minded to join them. I decided to keep driving, somewhat slowly, until I reached one of Alberta’s famous ‘roadside turnout’ lay-bys to stop for the night. Only in Canada would these natty little places exist, sort of drive-through recycling centres where you can pop your accumulated picnic rubbish into a series of car-window height bins angled for your convenience. They are also handily truck-sized for taking a break. I probably passed several, couldn’t see them of course.

It got windier. Now blooming great snowdrifts were blowing onto the road so that every time I drove through one it totally obscured the car behind me, presumably blinding the driver. Whenever anyone passed anyone, kicking up that little bit more snow as they went, the whiteout was total. I plodded, white-knuckled and awaiting the sickening lurch into a ditch for 400 kms. As we reached Edmonton and buildings began to block the wind a bit, it was clear enough again to be able to see the road. And all the ice all over it. Neil popped his head out from the bunk, nicely timed to help me find the Canada Post facility (I always get lost in Edmonton) and asked how the drive had been. “I’ll tell you in a minute, I just have to find a washroom and throw up first.”

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous16/3/09 04:47

    Well, the Sault in Sault Ste. Marie is pronounced Soo, and means waterfall, or rapids.
    More here, if you like: