Celebrating Christmas in the middle of snowmageddon

7:03 am on 25 December 2022
Traffic moves slowly along a snow-covered Highway 401 in London, Ontario, Canada, during a large winter storm on December 23, 2022. - Schools and some highways in the region were closed, and air travel was disrupted as the system made its way across the province. (Photo by Geoff Robins / AFP)

Traffic moves slowly along a snow-covered Highway 401 in London, Ontario, Canada, during a large winter storm on 23 December. Photo: GEOFF ROBINS / AFP

First Person - I knew travelling in winter in Canada was going to be treacherous.

Before I left to spend Christmas with my best friend's family, I stocked up on merino and waterproof shoes. I bought a massive battery pack so I could charge my phone in case I got stranded somewhere. I fretted over taking two suitcases, because I knew I would have to drag them with me everywhere.

I didn't expect this. I am writing this on a train somewhere in Southern Ontario - headed to Kingston, about halfway between Toronto and Montreal. For the past hour, we've been 51 minutes from our destination.

All week, people have asked me "wait, how are you getting to Kingston?" They relaxed a little when I said I was taking the train, but still grimaced. "It's going to get bad, they're saying."

First, flights to and from Vancouver were cancelled. The news filled with people struggling to get home for the holidays. One news clip featured an airport worker telling people "if you've got a home to go to, go there." Passengers weren't getting on flights any time soon.

And then on Wednesday, dire warnings. Schools would be closed on Friday, people should consider changing their travel plans. WestJet cancelled a bunch of flights for all day Friday. Every province has some kind of weather warning, which seems astonishing in a place as big as Canada. Roads would be slick with ice, power lines and trees would crumple.

Megan Whelan.

Megan Whelan is having a white Christmas. Photo: RNZ / Megan Whelan

On Thursday, the news said this would be the coldest Christmas in decades. That night, the shopping mall in downtown Toronto, where I'd gone to buy more warm clothes, was busy, but nowhere near as packed as it would normally be three days out from gift day.

Mid-morning on Thursday, Toronto was blanketed in snow. I had an 800m walk to the train station, and the hotel staff were very concerned that it was going to be slippery. I've never felt so intrepid.

By the time I arrived at the station, my ankles were frozen, despite my wool socks, and my be-mittened hands took a long time to unwrap themselves from my suitcase.

Not normally a relaxed traveller, I told myself I would have to relinquish this trip to the weather gods, and understand it would be slow. I was lucky I could travel at all - so many people can't. In the United States, about 200 million people are under some kind of weather watch.

What I didn't expect was to be on a train in the pitch black night, where over the PA, the service manager told passengers we were going slow because not only had we caught up to the trains in front of us, they had to manually switch the tracks at every intersection.

At one stop on the route, the power was out at the station, and the only light was a man coming through what looked like a wooden gate with a lantern. I wondered if I had somehow stumbled into a Dickens story.

In Kingston, it's been snowing all day, and the station car park is covered in it. The wind has picked up, and it's hard to see, just to get the 10 metres to the car. By the time I get there, I'm feeling every degree of the -20 wind chill.

Still, at least I am getting where I am going, albeit many hours late. Friends who were driving to see family in the US will miss Christmas now. Other friends who were flying can now only get a flight on the day they were due to return.

People are stranded at airports, without power, and it's going to be a tough Christmas for emergency workers.

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