Signs of Life

The “on this day” features on my phone and Facebook and whatnot keep reminding me that last year at this time the city was really greening up. Leaves were unfurling, plants were sprouting, and spring had definitely sprung. This year, not so much. I mean, that’s probably a good thing, because it’s only been two weeks since we had an ice storm. For those who don’t live in northern climes, ice or snow on leaves instead of bare branches puts a whole lot of weight on trees, meaning a lot more breakage and overall damage. Not to mention the frost damage that would have affected lower-growing plants. So in the long run it’s probably good that spring is springing slowly this year, even if it does mean that things like Ontario parks have had to have a delayed opening.

But if you look closely, you can see some signs of life, like buds on a lilac bush:

Or on a pear tree:

And hardy rhubarb sprouting up despite being thoroughly trampled by the fence installation guys in the fall:

With any luck, my harvest will be better than last year’s.

Of course, the tiger lilies are one of the first plants to shoot up after the snow recedes — they generally survive the last few freezes of the season just fine:

And the first dandelions have started to bloom:

I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of digging dandelions out of my lawn and my gardens, but they are one of the earliest foods for bees in the spring before the rest of the plants flower. So, yay!

I don’t generally plant my gardens until after the May 2-4 weekend, as late frosts can kill tender young plants. Given the weather we’ve had this year, I may be extra-cautious and not plant for another week after that, at the start of June. I mean, it hit 28°C (82.4°F) yesterday out of the blue, but average temperatures for May are generally much lower than that. However, I still enjoy seeing the native and perennial plants coming back in force after the temperatures rise.

Earth Day

Yesterday I spent most of Earth Day on my bicycle, which I think is appropriate. It was less because it was Earth Day and more because the weather was finally nice (you’d never know we had an ice storm a week before), and I love to cycle.

I cycled with my mother along the Rideau River and the Rideau Canal, taking a break in the middle of the ride for a lovely bite to eat in the Glebe. A good deal of maintenance had been done since the ice storm, so most of the big branches had been pulled off of paths and roads, but the large numbers of smaller sticks and twigs sometimes made it dicey going. Every so often we’d find an area with constant shade, and we’d have to be careful of the ice hidden there. The water was really high on the river (although definitely not as bad as last year’s major flooding), so some of the bike paths that run alongside were a little dicey and sometimes inaccessible. Amusingly, when we traveled alongside the canal we realized that it has yet to be raised back to navigation level and was almost dry at the bottom — the water level is controlled by a series of dams and weirs, and it’s only partially filled in the winter to create ice for the skateway.

While the plants have yet to green up, the bugs were starting to reemerge (I learned that gnats stick to sunscreen) and we saw a plethora of birds. Although there were worries that the robins would starve in the late freezing weather, we did see quite a few of them. Also in large numbers were pigeons, gulls, and Canada geese; although we didn’t see many of them, we did hear songbirds singing in the trees. We even spotted the odd pigeon in the photo above, which caught our eyes because the pigeons around here generally have colouring more like this.

Honestly, it wasn’t the prettiest day. Despite the clear blue sky and the sun shining down, this isn’t the most beautiful time of year to be a tourist. If you wanted to film/photograph something with a post-apocalyptic vibe, this is the time to do it. Just wait a few weeks, though, and it will be beautiful again!

I did do a couple of things that are kind of stereotypically Canadian today, now that it’s warmed up a bit. First, I took my outdoor Christmas lights down. If you live in warmer climes that probably seems quite late, but although I turned mine off on January 1st, by then they were frozen to the ground and under a thick layer of ice and snow. Only now had things melted back enough that I could actually take them down!

Also, today I shoveled the lawn. That probably sounds ridiculous to anyone who doesn’t live where there’s a great deal of snow, so let me explain. At the end of the winter, you’re always left with a few drifts that are the last to melt, usually in areas that don’t get much sun or where you pile snow when you shovel your driveway or paths clear. Well, I have a few spots like that, and I’ve learned over the years that if I want them to melt (and hence dry out) a little faster, I can throw the top layers of snow into the parts of the yard that actually get regular sun. I know it’ll all melt eventually if I just leave it, but by this point in the year I’m impatient for the change of seasons. It probably only takes a couple of days less to melt the snow if I shovel it, but it makes me feel better, gosh darn it!

For our Earth Day dinner, my husband cooked us up some steak and zucchini on the wood pellet grill, which I served with some nice homemade bread. We had actually intended to have hamburgers, but I think everyone else in town had the same idea and we couldn’t find buns for love nor money. I think anyone who could do so fired up the barbecue and cooked outside, if only as an excuse to do something out in the lovely weather. I mean, it went up to 16°C (61°F) for the first time since around October, so I really don’t blame them. Ah well, our dinner was probably healthier than burgers anyway — and it was delicious!

Ice Storm French Toast

Sunday going into Monday we had one heck of an ice storm. It was possibly as bad as the one in 1986, but nothing close to 1998. Even so, 43,000 people in town lost power and the city was turned into a virtual skating rink.


Apple tree branches encased in ice.


More apple tree branches.

Now, freezing rain isn’t a new thing in this city. But this is the latest that I can ever remember it closing everything down — I mean, it’s April, for crying out loud! My kids had a “snow day” (“ice day””?) yesterday. It’s nuts.


Roofing shingles under ice.

It got even more dangerous to be outside as the day went on and the temperatures rose, causing the ice to start falling off the trees and the roofs. Some people had flying ice shatter the windshield of their car. Everyone avoided the areas around buildings and trees to reduce the likelihood of being brained. At least here in Ottawa we don’t have any super-tall buildings like the CN Tower dropping big chunks of ice onto other buildings and damaging them.

As the sun set, the ground was covered in a few centimeters of slick ice from the freezing rain, and then another layer of broken ice from the branches and buildings dumping their loads. Many of the ice chunks were bigger than my hand, and almost two centimeters thick.


Pain perdu served with sliced apples.

Right before a big storm like this, around here the things that people tend to stock up on are milk, eggs, and bread. I think this is because, with a typically Canadian mentality, we tend to have lots of food put by in the freezer or the pantry to get us through bad weather, but we tend to run out of perishables. A common joke based on this trend is that everyone wants to make French toast when the weather is stormy (a dish which is comprised primarily of these three ingredients). Now, I don’t think I’ve ever made French toast during a storm before, but I was looking for a quick and easy meal for last night, so I figured why not? I had the supplies, after all.

I’d made Egg-Enriched White Loaf (page 67, Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf (Jennie Shapter (2002)) earlier in the day (although I’d had issues with the amount of liquid and had to add more than the recipe recommended). I sliced that bread thickly and used the recipe for Pain Perdu on the Restigouche from page 19 of Anita Stewart’s Canada (2008) for the coating. (Yes, the book I had on reserve finally came in at the library.) I do know how to make French toast the way my parents taught me, which has rather more eggs and less milk (I used almond milk in any case), but I rather liked this new way of doing it.

Hopefully the weather will clear a little Tuesday so that my house-bound children can get to school, and this stir-crazy mom can get out of the house, if only for a coffee!

It Was Supposed to Be a Barbecue

Last night I had planned on barbecuing. It’s not really BBQ* season yet, but the snow has melted from around our barbecues (although without any grass growing yet, the ground around/under them is a morass of clay mud). The grills not being buried or frozen closed is pretty much all a Canadian needs to get started cooking in the back yard.

That being said, the temperature plummeted last night. Heck, it snowed off and on since Tuesday night, but it had hovered around freezing for most of that time. But once yesterday afternoon came around, the wind picked up and it started getting cold fast. By midnight it was -7° (-16° with the wind chill), and by morning it was -11°C and felt like -20°C. As winter temperatures around here go, that’s not too bad, but that’s really cold for April. Not only that, but the wind reached 90Km/hr gusts — you know it’s windy when you’re driving and debris is passing your car. With that wind, the cold just cut right through you… So yeah, I didn’t want to stand outside and cook. Not only that, but winds like that make it very difficult to get an even temperature on the grill!

So dinner wasn’t barbecued steak, it was pan-fried. It was very tasty pan-fried steak, though, cooked medium and tender. I served it up with a heaping side salad, which kind of felt summery if you didn’t look out the window…

* Yes, I am fully aware that what we call “barbecue” around here is what people in the southern USA would call “grilling”. We don’t really have a low-and-slow BBQ tradition around here, although those few times I have had it, it has been mouthwateringly delicious.

First Barbecue of the Year

Around the start of March, the weather begins to get warmer, but it’s still below freezing most nights and we’ll likely get a few more good snowfalls in. The weather has been quite mild recently, and is predicted to remain so for a while. We’ve managed to avoid Winter Storm Riley, which is hitting south and east of here. Canadian winters being what they are, we’d be prepared for the kind of snow that Europe is getting right now, but that weather system is much too far away. Instead, what we’re getting right now is the first hint of spring.

The photo above is a really old one of Thing 1 at the start of March, playing in the back yard while we cooked dinner on the barbecue. I love it because it shows the weird accommodations we have to make for the weather this time of year. (I also love it because I think Thing 1 is adorable, but I am somewhat biased.) It takes quite a while of above-zero temperatures for all of the snow to melt, and after that for the ground to thaw enough so that the water doesn’t just sit on the surface in a coating of mud and puddles. But it’s warm enough out that anything with good sun — or that sticks out of the snow covering — gets well dried out, and for the most part we get away with lighter clothing because it seems so much warmer than the frigid winter was. If you have kids in school, you send them in all bundled up for the morning temperatures (which are often below freezing), and they come home in the afternoon with 99% of their outerwear in hand or in their backpacks because it’s just much too warm. I’m pretty sure that this time of year is when the most stuff gets turned in to the school lost-and-found, to be honest.

One of the perks of this time of year is that our barbecues can be started up again, since they stick out of the ground a fair way and aren’t in areas prone to drifts. Technically, they can be used year-round, but we would have to dig them out after every snowfall, and missing just a bit of ice means that the covers end up frozen to the ground until the next big thaw. Actually, the gas barbecue’s cover is still quite encased in ice, but the cover for the Black Olive (an insulated wood pellet grill) is shorter and hence could be freed sooner. This device was handed down to us at the end of last fall, so we never really got the chance to test it out. Yesterday, my husband fired it up for the first time this year and we had our first hamburgers of the season — a sure sign that spring will soon be here. I had my burger with lactose-free cheese, mayonnaise, mustard, avocado, and lettuce. And dill pickles, of course.

Family Day Chicken Dinner

Yesterday was Family Day, which is neither a religious nor a festival holiday. Rather, it is mostly an excuse to have a day off in February (a month with no other statutory holidays in Ontario) when you are nominally supposed to spend doing fun things with your family. This year I didn’t even get to spend it with my entire household, since my husband was off to Sweden on business, the lucky duck. I’ve never had a job where they flew me halfway around the world to attend meetings, I’ll tell you that right now. So while he was visiting the Arctic Circle…

And driving on ice roads…

And eating smoked moose and visiting fortresses, I am here at home with the kids. I might just be a little bit jealous.

(From his photos, Sweden during the winter looks a heck of a lot like it does here in Canada, so I’m not as jealous as I might be if he were in the Bahamas or something. And to be fair, the only time he had to go explore was the weekend, since he is working. I’m trying to talk my way out of jealousy here, and it’s not working very well.)

I’d hoped to take the kids to Winterlude and possibly skating on the canal, but it’s been unseasonably warm since Sunday and it started pissing down rain about halfway through Monday. So instead we went to the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum for the afternoon. The highlight was all of the baby animals — most of whom, like the calf above, didn’t want to stay still long enough for a good picture. But the kids were thrilled to be able to pet the sheep and the goats and the calves, so it was a win. The calves were big favourites, since they were very sociable and leaned right into a good scratch. A few of them made my kids laugh by licking their hands and arms; I’m not sure whether they were looking for food, or tasting salt, or just investigating, but by the time we were out of the cow barn all of our winter coats needed a wash. After raising children and small animals, cow slobber doesn’t bother me that much, but that doesn’t mean I want to be wearing it any longer than I have to!

Given that we were out and about well after I’d usually be starting dinner, I needed something easy to feed the family when we got home. In the oven, I reheated the Costco rotisserie chicken that I’d bought the day before. I pricked a few potatoes with a fork and microwaved them until they were soft for easy “baked” potatoes. And then I steamed some spinach. Not the fanciest meal in my repertoire, but we had all worked up an appetite from our adventures, so it went down well.

Ice Storms

Freezing rain happens every winter here in Ottawa. The temperature will be steadily below freezing for a while, freezing the ground and all exterior surfaces, and then we’ll get a day or two of warmer weather that brings rain. The rain freezes when it comes into contact with those cold surfaces, turning immediately to ice. This encases everything outdoors in a slick coating that can make driving or even walking extremely dangerous. Most of the time, the ice doesn’t end up being very thick, and it can be dealt with by a generous coating of road salt and sand. Often, it’ll bring on a snow day (the schools stay open, but the buses are cancelled). Then the weather will shift again and either melt the ice or snow over it.


Photo taken by one of my parents.

Twice in my life I can remember the weather going from “freezing rain” to “ice storm”. The difference is really a matter of scale; we don’t call it an ice storm until the coating of ice is thick enough to damage trees and power lines. The first one I remember was in 1986, pictured above. That’s my little brother and I taking a slow and careful walk around the neighborhood we lived in at the time. It wouldn’t have been a snow day, since the storm occurred over the Christmas break (not that my brother was old enough yet to be in school anyway). I even found an old news broadcast in the CBC Digital Archives.


My parents’ Neon after the 1998 ice storm.

The second ice storm that I remember happened in from January 4th to 10th, 1998. I’m vastly understating the case when I state that this was a much bigger deal. The ice coating was so thick that the weight crumpled enormous hydro pylons, in addition to downing power lines, trees, and tree branches (which then took down power lines, smashed cars, and wrecked roofs of homes and outbuildings). Roads were shut down, over one and a half million people were without power; 945 people were injured and 35 lost their lives (Source: Historica Canada). The storm damage cost billions of dollars to repair. It is considered one of the worst natural disasters in Canadian history.


This birch was bent almost double by the weight of the ice, then the ice froze the branches to the ground.

We were very, very lucky because of where we were living at the time. First of all, we didn’t get as much precipitation as some other areas, which received up to 100mm. That alone saved much of our area. We were on a relatively-new residential street, so the power lines were buried underground. Because we were in a city, even though the power cut out often, it never went out for long. Also because the neighborhood was relatively new, we didn’t have any massive trees that, when downed, could do much damage. Sure, many people lost their trees (or had to trim them back severely), and some fell across the roads and had to be cleared, but nothing was growing tall enough to fall on peoples’ roofs, for example.


An ice-coated park near where we lived at the time.

We were also very lucky that we had a well-stocked freezer and pantry, so we didn’t have to travel until the roads were safe again. We went for a walk on Day 2, which is when I took the photographs, but we only made it to the end of our street before we turned back, worried that we might slip and fall and be injured. Emergency vehicles were having just as tough of a time with the roads as everyone else, so you were in real trouble if you got hurt.


My mom looking through frozen branches.

It was something like two weeks that the schools were closed — and I mean fully closed, not just “snow day closed”. Nobody was going anywhere. Some of my friends, who lived outside of town, stayed out of school longer because their roads were not yet safe, they had no power, and they had to feed the fireplace to keep their houses from freezing.


Branches and berries under the ice. I think this photo is right-side-up.

The reason I am writing about these ice storms is twofold. Firstly, it’s almost exactly twenty years since the 1998 ice storm, an event which had great repercussions along an west-east path of something like 500km. If you lived in the area that the storm affected, and were old enough to have memories of that year at all, you remember the Ice Storm of 1998.


This bush collapsed almost entirely over the fence, weighed down by the ice stuck to its branches and leaves.

Secondly, we had freezing rain yesterday morning, although it was warm enough for most of it to melt later in the day. Overnight it rained, and then this afternoon it is supposed to go below freezing again so that everything will freeze up. The temperature is supposed to drop until it’s back to more seasonal norms, falling over 20 degrees Celsius in twenty-four hours. We’re supposed to get a combination of rain, freezing rain, and snow. I really hope that this doesn’t end up being a proper ice storm. I wouldn’t be at all surprise if we get frost quakes, though.