I live in a place that has been nicknamed Winterpeg, Manisnowba. I was born here. I learned to drive here, ice ruts and all. I have five decades of “remember the blizzard of [insert year]” memories. I think it feels “not so bad out” when the wind chill is -20° Celsius. But the scariest snow storm I ever travelled through was on a highway in the Maritimes.
We were on our way from the university town of Antigonish, Nova Scotia back to Moncton, New Brunswick to catch a flight home. The plan was to drive first to Sackville, New Brunswick to visit friends (a trip of about 2 1/2 hours), spend a night at the friends’ home, and then drive the half-hour on to Moncton the next day to catch an early afternoon flight. It should have been a leisurely trip.
The snow started falling a few hours before we left Antigonish. I had learned from my previous visit to Antigonish a few years earlier that, unlike Manitoba snow that keeps accumulating month after month until we can barely see over the snowbanks, Nova Scotia Snow can come and go completely many times over the course of a few winter weeks. And when it comes, it’s a different consistency than Manitoba snow. It’s wetter.
This storm was less like falling snowflakes, and more like raining slush. The result was a highway surface with the properties of a giant slip-and slide coated in cooking oil. After about 5 minutes of white-knuckle driving on this traction-free surface, I chickened out completely and turned the wheel over to my partner. He didn’t last much longer. By the time we had reached the New Glasgow exit we had both decided that this was not a good day to die, and so we pulled off the highway and checked into the first hotel we slid towards.
We called the Sackville friends to explain our plight, and arranged that we would stop there for a quick lunch before driving on to the Moncton airport. We entertained ourselves Christmas shopping at the mall across the street from the hotel, ordered a pizza, and went to bed praying that the storm would let up enough in the night so that we would be able to make our flight the next day.
Morning came and a call to the airline confirmed that our flight was still expected to leave on schedule, so we bundled our luggage back into the rental car and set out down the road.
The highway no longer felt greasy, but the snow was still coming down, so our progress was slow. While my partner drove I distracted myself by calling the airline at 30 minute intervals. Incredibly, they were still holding firm to our departure time. Finally it dawned on me that the chipper young woman who kept reassuring my that our flight was definitely on schedule was NOT looking out the window of her office tower at the swirling white. It probably wasn’t snowing at all in whatever city was home to her sunny call centre!
As we approached the outskirts of Sackville, I calculated that at the rate we were travelling we could not risk stopping for lunch. I phoned my friends and sadly conveyed our regrets. The nearer we got to Moncton, the deeper and heavier the snow became. We reached the first airport exit and discovered that the snow was so drifted in that the exit was completely impassable. We kept on chugging through the blowing snow until we finally reached a second, plowed (hooray!) airport exit.
Cognizant of the fact that we were cutting our check-in time mighty close, we sprinted from the rental car drop-off to the airline counter, where we were once again assured that the flight would be leaving on schedule. While I had been willing to concede this folly to the far-away call centre lady, such a stance seemed less credible coming from the ground crew.
“Have you looked out the window?” (I confess to being prone to sarcasm in moments of stress.)
But the computer (which was clearly taking its direction from someone who had NOT just spent half a day driving through a blizzard) said we were leaving on time, and so the staff faithfully checked our bags and issued us boarding passes.
Having driven past our lunch, we decided we had just enough time before boarding to get something to eat, so I secured a table at the airport food court while my partner went off to procure a couple of burgers. While I waited, I watched another prospective passenger in heated argument with an airline clerk who was trying to explain that he could not bring his enormous box of live lobsters on the plane because it was leaking profusely. I also watched Winnipeg musician Steve Bell and his tour manager check in, along with 32 big plastic storage bins full of gear.
I had only taken two bites of my hamburger when the voice on the intercom asked that all the passengers on our flight report back to the airline counter.
“So…,” said the windblown young man in the airline-issue parka, “So here’s the thing. We tried moving the plane into place for loading, and, well, it seems that it’s really slippery out there. Like, the plane was sliding around like crazy! So, yeah… we’re going to have to cancel the flight.”
And one by one they passed us back our bags, including all 32 of Steve Bell’s storage bins, as we negotiated new flight times and hunted up hotels in Moncton and cabs willing to brave the roads to take us there.
It took every ounce of self control I had left to resist the urge to phone the lady at the call centre to tell her our flight had been cancelled.