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.


When I was a kid, one of the big things we did as a family was go for nature walks. In the woods, in the wetlands or fields, it didn’t matter, so long as we went and explored. Sometimes my parents would drive us quite some distance to check out the local scenery. Sometimes we stayed within minutes of home. As I grew older, I was allowed to roam with other children or on my own.

Me carrying Bud, my friends’ rescued pigeon, through the woods on a walk near the friends’ parents’ cottage. I was about 11 in this photo.

In retrospect, I never went all that far from wherever my parents were, but I reveled in the freedom of exploring on my own. My favourite time to explore was in the fall when the milkweed pods were dried out and bursting. I loved picking the pods and freeing all of the seeds and the silk. Flinging handfuls of silk into the air was akin to blowing on a giant dandelion.

Milkweed flowers; I’m pretty sure the kind commonly found around here is either common milkweed or prairie milkweed.

I’ve only discovered recently that parts of milkweed are also edible. From page 183-184 of Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat Ellen Zachos, 2013):

There are a lot of misconceptions about milkweed passed around in books and online. Some people claim it’s bitter; others say it’s downright poisonous. Correctly harvested and prepared, it is neither. […] Here’s what you need to know. No milkweed parts should be eaten raw. The shoots, flower buds, and pods of milkweed should be boiled, or blanched and then cooked to completion in a second way. It’s not necessary to boil in three changes of water, as some people believe. However, cooking in water takes away the milky latex (not pleasant to eat), which is why I recommend blanching, even if you choose to cook the milkweed in a different way. […] Also, mature milkweed foliage can indeed be bitter and should be stripped from the young shoots before cooking. If cooked, the large leaves will impart their bitterness and obscure the taste of the milkweed stems, which would be a crying shame.

This book goes on to identify the best practices for collecting and preparing shoots, flower buds, flowers, and young seedpods. There is also a tempting recipe for milkweed flower syrup on page 212.

Immature milkweed seed pods.

Immature milkweed seed pods opened.

Immature milkweed seed pods interior. This pod was over 1.5″ long, so probably too old to eat, but it was still fully white inside.

My copy of The Edible Wild: A complete cookbook and guide to edible wild plants in Canada and North America (Berndt Berglund & Clare E. Bolsby, 1971) also has a section on milkweed starting on page 53:

The young shoots of milkweed may be boiled in the spring. The older stems are too acid and milky for use, but the very young seed pods are excellent when cooked. […] The young seed pods, no larger than a walnut, I usually fry in fat of any kind. If I have a little flour, I mix this into the fat and make a stew of the pods.

Mature milkweed pod, much too old for eating.

Milkweed silk.

The Edible Wild has recipes for:

– milkweed pods soup
– cream of milkweed pods soup
– young milkweed pods, blanched and buttered
– milkweed stalks and wild onions in sour cream
– milkweed stalks with ham and cheese
– steamed and buttered milkweed stalks
– young milkweed stalks braised with wild onions
– glazed milkweed stalks
– stewed milkweed pods with frogs’ legs
– baked milkweed stalks omelet
– steamed milkweed stalks with brandy butter
– milkweed pods and chicken pie

Obviously, the authors have had to have eaten a lot of milkweed to come up with these recipes, which gives me confidence to try it out myself. I am often a little bit wary of foraging plants without an expert in the subject showing me what to do. Perhaps I can find someone local who is willing to teach me, and then I will try out the milkweed pods and chicken pie, which looks delicious. I may skip out on the frogs’ legs, though.

Despite all of the culinary potential of milkweed, I still find this plant at its most appealing when it’s at its least edible. I love it when there are fields so thickly coated with bursts of silk that it looks like the first snow of the season.

Milkweed is such a part of my childhood that I was very surprised when I started talking about it to a relative from the Sudbury area, and they’d never heard of it. While it’s thick on the ground around Ottawa, apparently the conditions aren’t right for it to grow further north. I guess it was silly of me to assume that every Ontarian’s childhood included milkweed. I hope that they at least had cattails! (Parts of which are also edible, by the way.) In the fall, once the plants have started to dry out, a cattail’s flower head explodes wonderfully into a mess of seeds and fluff when rubbed on a hard surface. It’s not quite as satisfying as cracking open milkweed pods, but it’s close.

Breakfast With a View

I spent the weekend at my in-laws’ cottage, which is built uphill from a lake and hence commands beautiful views from one side.  (The other sides look into the woods, which is quite pretty, but definitely isn’t expansive.) I love that the side overlooking the lake has a screened-in porch where we can eat meals undisturbed by mosquitos and, in the evenings, moths attracted by the lights. I would love a screened-in porch outside of my patio door, despite the fact that I would only overlook my own back yard. I think that almost every summer meal would be eaten out there.

Breakfast on Sunday was two eggs over-easy, a slice of buttered crusty white bread fresh from the bread maker, a grilled chicken burger patty left over from the previous night’s dinner, and a banana.

And of course, then there was The View. What a fantastic way to start the day.