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Creative Sunday: Tales from Long Ago Ottawa winters by Bruce Burwell

By Bruce Burwell on January 24, 2021


Welcome to this month’s edition of Creative Sundays on Apt613: A monthly themed showcase for short fiction and creative nonfiction by local writers. This month’s theme is stories no one would believe. We hope you enjoy these stories, real and imagined.

According to Environment Canada, the snowiest winter on record at the Ottawa airport weather station is 1970–71, when 444.6 cm fell.

Let’s be clear right from the beginning. These stories are completely true and you should believe them. As the former leader of the U.S. has shown us, however, almost any story, no matter how unlikely or untrue, can be believed if you just want to believe it.

These are stories from the winters of Ottawa’s old days: Let’s say late sixties to early seventies. In those days, the snow was deeper, the cold was more extreme, and the indoor entertainment options were very limited.

How deep was the snow? Well in 1970–71, when I was in my snow-shovelling prime, we set the all-time record for the winter season. Perhaps you have seen Ottawa mayor Jim Watson around the city. He’s a tall guy, right? Well let’s say Mayor Jim had stood on your front lawn in November of 1970. By January, there would have been just a tuft of hair showing from the top of Jim’s head. Now let’s imagine you had some more Jims you could stack on top of the first. By the end of the snow season, you would have been onto your third Mayor Jim—and he would be up to his knees in snow.

So with all that snow, there was a lot of shovelling to do. But once you were done all the shovelling, unless you wanted to go inside and play Monopoly yet again, there was much more fun to be had outside.

On the surface, the activity we called “bunking” was stupidly dangerous. Maybe the reason that none of us ever got killed doing it was that the required conditions for doing it didn’t come along very often. In order to “bunk,” you needed a very heavy snowfall and you could only do it before the city snowplow crews cleared off the streets.

To bunk, you would loiter near a stop sign and wait for a car or, better yet, a bus, to stop. Crouching down, you would squat behind the car and grab its back bumper from underneath. Few cars had snow tires back then, so the cars would pull away slowly and you would “bunk” down the street. It was basically a form of urban water skiing. If the conditions were perfect, you could go a block and then fall off into the slush. Occasionally an angry driver would stop and chase us, but we’d just run away laughing.

Today tobogganing looks pretty tame to me. In my neighbourhood, the city even puts out bales of hay in front of the trees and fences. I’ll bet some parents even outfit their little darlings with helmets and padded clothing. Back in the day, the goal was the exact opposite. You’d enjoy a thrilling ride that brought you as close to death as possible without actual serious injury.

My most memorable toboggan ride ever was at the Dominion Arboretum at the Experimental Farm. It was March and we’d had a day of freezing rain followed by a cold snap, so we were hopeful that the hill would be sheer ice. When we arrived with my aluminum toboggan, I could see little kids slipping and sliding as they tried to climb up the hill. This was going to be epic.

We picked a launch location on the steepest section of the hill. With the extra speed, there was a good chance we could go all the way to the edge of Dow’s Lake! I sat in the front of the sled and my friends squeezed in behind me. Sitting in front was the high-risk/high-reward position. On the plus side, I would experience the whole thrilling ride. On the minus side, if we ever hit a tree (it’s called the arboretum for a reason) then I would be the one chewing bark.

We pushed off and quickly achieved escape velocity. The ride was definitely thrilling and things went well until we got closer to the bottom of the hill. While travelling at our maximum speed, I could see a man a ways in front of us with his back turned. He was watching his own kids further down the hill.

A toboggan is not really a steerable vehicle. If we had been going at a slower speed, I suppose we could have rolled off the side to reduce the momentum, but we were going way too fast. I started screaming at him and my friends behind joined in. At the last possible moment he heard us and turned around to face his doom. By that point it was too late for him to get out of the way. He did, however, show an admirable presence of mind, or maybe just a massive fear reaction, and jumped. This likely saved him from two broken ankles. As he jumped, his boots struck the front of our sled. He then turned into a human pinwheel and spiralled through the air high above our heads before landing a long way behind us.

If I was in that front toboggan position today, I’d video that whole incredible run on my phone. I’d post it on Instagram and get a lot of likes and comments. You’d look at it and know that my story was true. But that’s today’s way of doing things. With these stories, you’re just going to have to trust my memory and believe that that’s exactly the way it happened back in a long-ago Ottawa winter.