I live in a winter city. I was born in Edmonton. I was raised in Edmonton. But here’s the truth. I have always hated winter. I hate the cold. I hate the ice. I hate the wind. I hate the dark.
I hate that sick feeling of suspense you get when it’s –35°C and you’re just not sure your car’s starter is going to turn over—or if your bus is going to come. I hate navigating sidewalks so slippery you never know when you’re going to lose your balance and concuss yourself. I hate pushing a grocery cart through the supermarket parking lot, wheels overwhelmed by the task of traversing the brown-porridge sludge.
And no. I don’t ski. And I don’t skate. (Falling down has never been my idea of sport.) The point of snowshoeing or cross-country skiing is lost on me. (Why make walking in snow even more awkward and ungainly by putting uncomfortable gear on your feet?)
But last winter…? Last winter something changed. Last winter I finally, belatedly, leaned into the weather of my birthplace. It didn’t take a miracle, not exactly. Just a lethal pandemic. And my dog.
Let me start with Issa, a dog of indefatigable temperament, a sure-footed working dog built for adventure. Summer heat makes her mopey, but a cold, crisp winter’s day is her delight. And her joy is infectious. Our previous dog, a princess of a bichon frise, simply refused to go outside when it got below –20°C. Not Issa. No matter the weather, she needs her romps. And because she’s a rambunctious breed, she needs legitimate amounts of exercise to tire her out—or she gets into mischief.
Then there was COVID. Like so many Albertans, I spent most of last winter stuck in my house. My usual winter recreations—going to the theatre, going to the opera, going to the gym, inviting friends for dinner—were all out of bounds. My regular trips to Ottawa were curtailed; I did most of my Senate work from my bedroom, via Zoom. (And adorable though my husband is, there is only so much “Netflix and chill” one middle-aged couple can manage.)
For me, a workaholic extrovert with more than a touch of ADHD, being shut in was slow torture. I’m a lot like Issa. If I don’t have enough to do, I start to climb the walls. (Although when I’m bored, I don’t generally chew up socks and shoes.)
The more we all walked, the more the streets and sidewalks of our hibernating winter city came alive with people just so happy to see their fellow citizens.
But there was one thing I could do last winter. I could walk my dog. After decades of cursing the Alberta winter, I finally figured out that if I put on enough cable-knit sweaters and polar fleece and long underwear and heavy knit wool socks, I could make a winter walk not just bearable but almost pleasant. I finally embraced the engineering genius of a babushka, the sort of scarf that covers not just your scalp and ears and cheeks but the back of your neck.
And once I’d layered up under all those clothes…? Well, it seemed wasteful not to walk for an hour or so, just to make the effort worthwhile. And so. We walked. And we walked. And we walked—discovering parts of the city and my own neighbourhood I’d never seen before or seen only from my car.
I’d never truly appreciated how lucky I was to live in a mature neighbourhood, designed and developed in the days when walking was part of everyday life. And I’d never been so grateful for the privilege of being able to walk, for the physical strength I’d found in reserve after all those years of cozy winter sloth. Most of all, though, I was grateful to Issa, whose boundless joy and curiosity made every walk into an adventure, a fresh exploration of the places I thought I knew.
Rambling with her literally changed my sense of perspective, my definition of near and far. Neighbourhoods and parks that had once seemed driving distance away now seemed an easy walk to reach. Our walks didn’t just enhance my mental and physical health—they changed my whole sense of urban spatial orientation, my sense of myself in my city.
And everywhere we walked, that strange and quiet COVID winter, we saw other people doing the same thing—out walking with their kids or their dogs or their thoughts. And the more we all walked, the more the streets and sidewalks of our hibernating winter city came alive with people just so happy to see their fellow citizens.
Another COVID winter is upon us. Despite the miracle of vaccinations, despite the commitment and bravery of our healthcare workers, this certainly isn’t the post-pandemic season we’d longed for. But it is a winter that demands tenacity and stamina and patience, a winter where we must come together as a community, to span the distances that separate us, be they real or virtual, near or far.
Still, I will try to face this dark winter ahead with courage, my scarves and socks and long johns at the ready, and Issa by my side. As we set out to seek the beauty and community of Edmonton, I hope we’ll find some hope along the way.
Paula Simons is an independent Senator, a former columnist for the Edmonton Journal and a long-time Albertan.