I spent Saturday at a hockey tournament in a small town called Radisson, west of Saskatoon. I whispered into the boys’ ears at 7am, and we snuck downstairs to grab breakfast and get on the road. The hockey bags were loaded into the boot, and we took the highway towards North Battleford, a completely unfamiliar road up till now. The skies lightened as the car ate up the kilometres, and we caught glimpses of the shadowy expanses of snow-covered prairies on either side of us. The boys and I listened to the radio and watched the signs tick by for the myriad small towns dotted along the highway. We reached Radisson at about 8.20am, and I relaxed a bit, thankful not to have missed my turn-off, and that we had plenty of time to spare before the puck dropped at 9.15am. Finding the rink proved to be our undoing, however. I wandered up and down various sleepy streets for a few minutes, until we eventually came across a sign for the rink, which we duly followed. The big building on our left as we went straight through the crossroads should have been a clue, but we adhered to the direction indicated and sailed on up the road, where a large red people-carrier was doing a u-turn a couple of hundred yards ahead of us. As it came past us, we realised that it was Dennis, the team manager, who had spotted the rink on our left and adjusted direction accordingly. I drove on, and swung into a u-turn at the same place; the car slid gracefully off the road and refused to budge any further in any direction. I tried reversing and winced at the ensuing crunching noise. I put the car into a low gear and strained forward, only for the crunching to become a grinding. We all got out, with me wondering what the hell to do next, and the boys whingeing about missing their game. “Don’t be ridiculous!”, I snapped, “there’s the ice-rink across that field! We just have to get out of this first….”. I rang Janice, one of the hockey moms, and one of my favourite people in Saskatoon. She’s funny, sarcastic, warm and kind, and watching games with her is a great way to spend an hour. She answered. I wailed. “I’m stuck in a ditch. I need a number for one of the guys!”. Janice swung into action, while I listened to her stream of consciousness at my end of the line. “Ok, ok….Dennis’ number….why is this writing so small?…let me see…Don’t let the boys out of the car in case they get run over…are you warm enough?..are the boys in the car?…do you have a shovel?…where is this number? Oh, here it is…” she rattled off a number, that I scratched into a scrap of paper with a frozen pen. “Oh no, that’s not it, I read it backwards….here it is…” I scratched out the new number, cut Janice off in mid-admonition and rang Dennis. He answered immediately, sounding faintly puzzled. “Barbara? You were right behind me, what happened?” “I’m in the ditch”, I confessed lamely. “But”, I said, rallying myself, “it’s actually your fault, because I followed you into that u-turn.” He laughed, hung up and the cavalry arrived about 3 minutes later. The coach’s black truck spun up the road, out piled four of the hockey dads, and we were back on the road, lickety-split. I never heard the end of it for the rest of the day. “What happens if the next game is a tie, Dennis?” “I don’t know, I didn’t get time to read the tournament rules this morning. I was too busy pulling Barbara and the boys out of the ditch”. Funny guy, Dennis. Janice and her husband Conrad arrived in time for the second game; the boys were hammered by the opposition, and Benjamin was banished to the penalty box for tripping. They redeemed themselves in the third game, and went home triumphant and exhausted. I was numb with the cold and looking forward to a night on the couch.
Jeff, the photographer from the Star Phoenix, had come over to take some shots of the boys on the rink in the park the previous day. They called some of their friends to come along, and we all stood and froze our asses off while the hockey game raged on the ice. Jeff took loads of photos, Nicholas retired to the car, whining about the cold, Rebecca and Isabel skated around (and fell over a lot) and Janice and I kept calling out five-minute warnings which were completely ignored. We persuaded them off the ice eventually, largely through bribery (chocolate cookies) and shivered all the way home. Wind chill is a bitch. The photos were great though; the lads were delighted to see themselves in action, and Jeff even managed to get one glimpse of Nicholas just before he threw in the towel and fled to the warmth of the car.
As part of the recent Expat Blogs contest, I submitted a piece about the 10 essential facts everyone should know about Saskatchewan. This is it:
10 Essential Facts about Living in Saskatoon/Saskatchewan
By: Barbara Reidy
Winters are cold in Saskatchewan
Icicles on eyelashes cold. Our first clue as to what a Prairie winter is like should have been when our friend in Toronto didn’t manage to muffle her horrified shriek quickly enough. “Is it that bad?”, I asked, surprised (oh, the innocence of the past). When you’re sitting in Ireland, complaining about it being a bit chilly at 4 degrees, it’s hard to fathom what waking up to minus forty might feel like. A Prairie winter is a communal event. We all dig out our cars, shovel our paths and sidewalks, discard our snow boots in the entrance of every home and business. Our cars are plugged in overnight. Bizarrely, no-one ever comes along with a couple of drinks in them, and thinks that unplugging them all would be the most hilarious thing ever. Getting the children ready for school is a achievement. “Where’s your jacket/hat/gloves/scarf/snow pants/snow boots?” “Lost/wet/in school/he took them/I don’t want to wear them/it’s not cold outside”. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve said, through gritted teeth – “This is WINTER. In CANADA!”. I’m not sure whether they just don’t feel the cold as adults do, or whether they just enjoy seeing me channelling that kid in The Exorcist as they leave the house. Winter lasted for six full months last year. By the time April rolled around, I was insane. A slight thaw showed me an inch of grass on the front lawn, but a snowfall that night obliterated all hope for another few weeks. I found myself sobbing on the phone to an Irish friend living a few blocks away. “Do you think”, she said gently, “that you might be over-reacting to the weather forecast for more snow this week?” “Do you realise,” I countered, “that we’ll have winter again this year? In another six months, we’ll have winter, and we haven’t even seen green grass yet!” We are now experiencing that second-winter-in-a-year, and thankfully, so far, it’s not as bad. We have snow and ice, and temperatures today of minus 42 with the windchill, but next week will bring us back up to the minus teens, which is almost tropical. Acclimatisation officially occurs when the temperatures reach minus 15 and you don’t bother with your jacket because it’s so warm outside.
It’s essential to know how to skate
Canadians are born with skates on their feet. They glide and swoop around the rinks and skilfully dodge all those non-Canadians who are repeatedly falling over, emitting squeals of terror and clutching at thin air. Some of the rinks provide Zimmerman-like devices to help propel beginners around the ice; this involves abandoning any iota of dignity and self-respect that you might have possessed, and joining the two-year-old Canadians as they gain their ice-legs. It’s important not to assume that hours spent at the roller-disco in your misspent youth will stand you in any stead whatsover. Skates are laced up with numb, cold fingers, while keeping one eye on your revoltingly adaptable children, and another on the 102 year-old couple that’s swanning around like Torvill and Dean. I tried staggering around an outdoor rink last Christmas, holding on to two of my sons, and breathlessly repeating “Don’t let me fall!” over and over again. After 15 minutes, I was exhausted, and they had disowned me. I tried again at an indoor rink last week, in a fit of misguided optimism. I managed one circuit, clinging onto the side and swearing at my husband when he offered suggestions. It’s time to accept that skating is not one of my talents.
Ice hockey is terribly important
When Bill Shanley made his comment that football was not just a matter of life and death; that it’s more important than that, he clearly hadn’t experienced ice-hockey. Hockey is deeply embedded into the Canadian DNA. Two of my sons decided that this was their sport of choice this year, and so we bravely took up the mantle of hockey-mom/dad and sallied forth to kit them out and get them started. I think that their hurling days had made us complacent; we used to arrive at a muddy field five minutes before the game started, slap on their helmets, hand them their hurls, and off they went. It didn’t take us long to discover that if the puck drops at 6pm, Operation Get Ready needs to begin by 4.30pm at the very latest. The boys need to put on the under-armour, the chest armour, the boxers with the built-up cup (“make sure it’s all tucked in!”), the shin guards, the socks, the elbow pads and the suspenders. They need to pack their enormous bags, haul them up the basement stairs, put them into the car, throw in their hockey sticks, fill up their water beakers and get on the road (after unplugging, defrosting and clearing the snow off the car). When we get to the rink, we have to find parking among all the other clinically-insane moms and dads, haul the bags and sticks into the appropriate dressing-room, and start Operation At The Rink. This involves donning the neck-guard, mouth-guard and helmet, and being laced into their skates. Finally, the puck drops, and it’s time to cheer them on, all the time knowing that the whole process has to happen in reverse in an hour’s time. Would Velcro skates be too much to ask for?
There is endless sunshine in Saskatoon
It didn’t take us long to get used to never-ending blue skies, wall-to-wall sunshine and mind-blowing sunsets. It rained twice during the day last winter. We could plan days out without packing for every season. Our bodies were overloaded with Vitamin D, and we started every conversation with Canadians with a remark about what a lovely day it was. Cue puzzled looks. “Well, what other kind of a day is there?”, we could almost hear them thinking. It’s a luxury that everyone should experience. Even winter, with its ridiculous temperatures and longevity, is sunglasses weather.
Mosquitoes live here
The beautiful Saskatoon summers have one tiny, but multitudinous, drawback. We bathe in bug spray before we leave the house, and then spend the day thinking “what’s that horrible smell? Oh, me”. We had a rude awakening on our first morning in Saskatoon, as we traipsed around the park at 5am (jet lag) and wondered why there were clouds of “black things” rising from the grass. Lots of savaged arms and legs later, we realised that mosquitoes live in Saskatoon and they’re no fun.
Roads are different in Saskatoon
They drive on the opposite side of the road. It took some time for us to get the hang of waiting for the bus on the correct side, and not getting run over when crossing the road. Once we started driving, there was a white-knuckle period of transition. There were lots of “Other SIDE!” moments and some scary car-park encounters. Saskatoon is also home to the three-way and four-way stop phenomenon. This involves arriving at a junction, and taking your turn to go. Imagine the chaos that would result in other countries. “I was here first!”. “You were in your a***!” Three-ways aren’t too bad. Four-ways can cause some anxiety in anyone with short-term memory challenges. “Ok, the red car was first, then the truck, then me, because that Dodge Ram arrived last. No, wait, did it pull up before me? Oh God, the truck has gone through, is it me or the Dodge? ME OR THE DODGE?” Another thing to watch out for is the disappearance of all road markings during the winter months. They are either obliterated by snow, or scraped off the roads by the snow ploughs.
There are over 100,000 lakes in Saskatchewan
This is an important fact, as knowing it will prevent you from making a complete fool of yourself in conversation. Everyone in Saskatoon goes to The Lake during the summer. As we met more Canadians, and heard about their cabins, boats and weekends at The Lake, it assumed gigantic proportions on our mental map of Saskatchewan. It took a while, and some near-misses on the revealing-our-stupidity front, but it gradually dawned on us that people were going to different lakes. There are thousands of them, some only accessible by plane.
Saskatchewan is enormous
This province is 651,000 square km. Ireland can boast of 84,000 square km. A long-standing joke in Saskatchewan is that you can watch your dog running away for three days, but the prairies are only part of the story. Saskatchewan moves from rolling sand-dunes in the south, through the prairies, and into the forests, lakes and mountains of the north. It is incredibly diverse and astonishingly beautiful. Saskatchewan people think nothing of driving long distances, at any time of the year. They set off to neighbouring provinces or the United States at the drop of a hat. “It’s only six/fifteen/thirty-seven hours”, they say reassuringly, and we have become accustomed to the fact that nobody gauges distance in miles or kilometres. It all spoken of as hours taken to get there. So I know it takes about two and half hours to get to Regina, the capital, but I’ve no idea how many miles away it is. You’d need to ask Google for that, rather than a Canadian.
A shared language can be a barrier to communication
What’s a bunnyhug? Is it a. A type of rabbit? b. An expression of affection? c. A hoodie? d. None of the above? c. It’s the uniquely Saskatchewan term for a hoodie. A hat is a toque, pronounced tooook. We shop at grocery stores and load our bags into the trunk. We fill our cars with gas, and try to remember to say 2.30pm instead of half-two. We have moments in supermarkets where we ask for something like “chutney”, and it becomes a group think-in, as we stand around with all the store assistants describing what it is and then trying to think of a Canadian equivalent. We visit the washroom and try to avoid confusing Customer Service people by asking for change for the trolley, instead of a loonie for the shopping cart. A loonie? A loonie is a one-dollar coin, and a toonie is a two-dollar coin.
Animals can kill you in Saskatchewan
They have bears here. And coyotes. Snakes, moose and gophers. Chipmunks and white-tailed deer. It’s quite disconcerting to go for a walk through nearby grasslands, and encounter a sign advising the public to make plenty of noise to deter cougars from attack. Of course, the people in Saskatchewan are well able to reciprocate on the whole killing front. Hunting and fishing are huge here. My son’s teacher sent us home some freshly-slaughtered moose (which was delicious) and coils of white-tailed deer sausage (which the kids adored). He butchered the moose in his garage, which filled me full of admiration for his wife.
Saskatonians are incredibly friendly and welcoming
My husband and I have lived in Saskatoon for over a year now, and we are still bowled over by how friendly and open the people are here. This city is unbelievably family-friendly, with infinite activities and sports for children and adults alike, and various events on every weekend. We’ve spent impromptu evenings toasting marshmallows in backyards, days at a nearby lake, weekends at outdoor ice rinks and nights at open-air cinemas in the park. There is an old-fashioned, community feel to Saskatoon, and a constant willingness to help out, share stories and issue supper invitations. People are interesting, and interested in you; one hockey-dad summed it up when he said “We’re all immigrants here”. Saskatchewan is a young province still, and it’s fascinating to live in such a melting-pot of races and cultures. The positive energy and hope here is contagious.