Points North

By James Fife

We expected that our transition to life in Victoria would involve some acclimatization of various sorts, including the most obvious one of a significant change in the actual climate. We were pretty starry-eyed in general about our decision to buy a home in James Bay. But I think we were positively deluded, if not deliberately misled, about the degree to which we would need to adjust to the differences in winter between James Bay and San Diego.

I know every one of you is rolling his or her eyes at that last comment. I mean, how could we not expect there would be some major getting-used-to in our first winter here? But, in our defence, we had received some misleadingly optimistic indications at the time we were buying Home North. To start with, the visit during which we first seriously considered the possibility of retirement in Victoria was deliberately slated as a reconnaissance mission—we wanted to see how our winter impressions of the city compared with our prior summer and fall ones. What were we to think, then, when we come to Canada in February and find Montreal Street, lined as far as the eye can see, with white and pink cherry and plum blossoms? Can we be blamed for being impressed with that? And with the fact that the only snow visible was across the Salish Sea in Washington? Were we not put off our guard by such things? And, of course, everyone in the city loves to talk about how Victoria has the most moderate climate in Canada. In Canada, mind you. But what do we Southern Californians know about what it’s like in Moose Jaw in January? For us, anything below 10°C is time to break out the parkas and gloves. When we heard that the City of Victoria’s usual, annual, snow-clearance budget is something like $30,000, we figured we were not letting ourselves into such a weather-shock by settling in here. We could definitely survive this.

Now, you have to bear in mind that for us, any sort of wintery exhibition is a novelty. We are like aliens from another planet when we encounter legendary phenomena like frost or a frozen-over puddle. We were like little kids the other day, going out and tramping over the 1 cm of snow that hadn’t yet melted away in the morning. When I wadded up a little snowball the size of a robin’s egg to throw at Marilyn, we were living a sort of Winter Wonderland existence that people in San Diego usually just see on TV. So that part is still fresh and exciting, and I hope it continues that way for a while yet, before we get jaded and embittered by the Other Side of Winter.

Yes, that Other Side. That’s the part that we weren’t quite prepared for. Again keeping in mind where we are coming from, readers will feel a knowing smirk grow on their faces as they read how we prepared for this seasonal visit. We did this initially by bringing items from San Diego that we thought were the closest, suitable clothing for what was coming. We brought up coats, fleeces, gloves and the like against the coming onslaught. These could be spared from Home South, since they were too heavy to get much use there. Perfect for James Bay, we thought. But the long-sleeve, “heavy” jersey I found so useful on my early morning walks to the Breakwater in May was no longer adequate for the December outings. Oh, no. And those semi-waterproof shoes that proved sufficient for a Paris rain (Paris, mind you) were supposed to tide me over in a Canadian Wet-Coast winter. We found out this trip how deluded we were.

I started out optimistically with adding the “heavy” stuff from San Diego to the usual clothes. “Layers” we called it. It was probably more what locals would call suitable for pyjamas. We made one trip out in such a get-up and thought, “You know, next time I’ll just put on that heavier coat underneath.” And so it went. Each outing seeing more and more added to the clothing array, until every feeble effort at warm clothing brought from San Diego had been exhausted. When that wasn’t enough, we had to fall back on the ultimate solution: buy the sort of clothes that Canadians were wearing. That need was apparent the first time we went for a walk the morning after some rain had been left on the ground at sunset: we were carefully avoiding iced puddles and any slightly shiny area of tarmac. That is, after the first dozen times we nearly lost our balance boldly tramping through them in our “winter” footwear.

So, while at the start, I was wearing a shockingly SoCal-heavy assortment of clothing, by the end of the stay, I was properly trussed up in native gear to brave the ultimate of James Bay walking challenges: a trip to the end of the Breakwater just after sunrise. Now, I had my Canadian light trail boots (with woolen socks, not the regular cotton sock I wore on the plane) and up top my Canadian windbreaker (with hood, covering my toque—a Canadian word I had recently learned), over my Canadian fleece, and finally that paltry San Diego jersey I had imagined would suffice for my winter walks. Oh yes, and gloves. With this outfit, I was finally prepared to face the wild, 40-knot wind blasting from the north as I was blown past the Breakwater Café (oh, how I wished they were open at this time of the morning). And even though the windward side of my face was starting to harden up by the time I got back from the end of the jetty and made it closer to the shelter of the wind-breaking buildings along Dallas Road, those parts that were properly bundled up had survived the ordeal. So I felt satisfied that a lesson had been learned.

I know Victoria winters are not something for most Canadians to brag about surviving. But things are all relative. To us, for whom all of this is so new, it is both a wonder and an achievement. We can still appreciate the way that the winter winds create a choir of sounds we never hear down south: the tenor sounds of wind howling through the empty branches on Beacon Hill, the baritone murmur of the wires strung between the stanchions on the Breakwater, and the shrill, soprano whistles from the shrouds of the boats moored in the Laurel Point marina. You may well chuckle at our newbie/cheechako impressionability with the weather here in BC’s Banana Belt. And we’ll surely be less enchanted with it come next winter. But, in the meantime, we at least have the residual ability to impress our San Diego friends with our tall tales, à la Robert Service or Jack London, of how we lived through a wild and woolly Canadian winter.  Courtesy of Roots and BC Hydro, naturally.