Lost & Found: #countylove in the 2019 Whiteout from Hell

January 30th, 2019 started as a bright and sunny morning in the County. By midday, anyone on the road was playing survival roulette. There were snow squall warnings in the forecast and buses were cancelled, but we figured we could keep an eye on the weather and make quick decisions about changing plans should things take a turn. So we dropped our little guy at his school about 25 minutes away, thinking we’d pick him up early if we needed to.

When the snow started an hour or so later, we set out from Picton to pick him up, thinking we’d play it safe. Within minutes we could barely see twenty feet ahead. We plugged on; we had to get our child back. About three minutes from the school, the flashing lights of a lawn maintenance truck suddenly came into view forcing a quick stop. They were manoeuvring their vehicle to block the street and one of the men walked over. “There’s a four-car pileup up ahead. The police are asking us to tell everyone to turn back.” 

What to do? The guys were locals and seemed sceptical about whether it would be a good idea to take the only route that wasn’t a solid 45-minute diversion in perfect weather. The County has a lot of geographical features that aren’t crossable, so if a road is closed for any reason, it’s almost more reasonable to turn back. But our child was out there so we didn’t have a choice. We took Miller to Crowes to get back onto the route.

 

Driving that stretch was, without a doubt, the most scared I’ve ever been.

These photos are snapshots of the few moments of relative calm, before another image would become our whole world: my husband Mark, pushed up to the steering wheel; me crouched over the dash, desperately trying to see anything beyond our windscreen; opening and closing the windows to try to see anything at all, trying to find any physical markers in the world around us, not knowing if we were still on the road or entering a field, driving off a bridge or into someone’s home; sharply turning the wheel as walls of snow on the opposite side of the road loomed up, grazing our nose, inside this endless series of relentless, blinding squalls. The actual photo would have been entirely white and I was too terrified to take it.

Mark got us through it by sheer will. My husband, the most competent, capable person I know—none of his skill or wherewithal made any difference out here at all. The only thing he could do was keep going—and he did, despite every reason to just stop because there was no way to know where ‘ahead’ even was.

That made all the difference. We finally pulled up outside the Athol North-Marysburgh school after our detour through hell and I was surprised to be alive.

We both fell out of the car and into the building. Our boy was in the gym with a handful of other little kids who’d been dropped off that morning. I remembered seeing their moms earlier, cheerful about the blue skies and a reprieve from the previous week of snow days. His sweet face peeked out through the door and I grabbed him and squeezed him tightly, trying to stop the tears, to stop my whole body from shaking. They thought we were here to pick him up, but I didn’t want to leave and I didn’t want the other parents to try to come and get their kids. We hung around and other white-faced parents tumbled in and milled about trying to figure out what to do. 

Eventually, the teachers made a decision. We would drive the long way around in a slow convoy and drop everyone off on the way.

We had to try. My four year-old son’s teachers were brave and kind, they herded us the long way around the County, through Picton and up to Waupoos, a bunch of heroic Rudolphs. It was treacherous out there, but the hazard lights ahead and behind gave us the courage to keep moving.

We made it all the way to Sarah Harrison’s pub in Waupoos.

We’d been losing our leader Mrs. Overberg’s lights as the gusts and squalls increased and the roads began to curve. She was our last remaining escort, having brought us the whole way around, and she was almost home. After she turned off, we would have 12 km of road along stretches of unsheltered farmland and gusty Lake Ontario without a guide. I texted Sarah, she was open. We decided to wait it out there and watch for a window.

There was a small group of neighbours, including Scott Wright of Sunnydale Farms, who returned to the storm several times, joining the other local farmers pulling people out of the ditches with their trucks and tractors. “It’s beautiful out there” he joked brushing snow crystals off his eyelashes and brows. Sarah cheerfully fed and watered us. I had a glass of wine. We were warm and cared for, but not ready to get back out there. A FedEx van pulled up outside. He wasn’t dropping off or coming in, just waiting it out and trying to figure out what to do next, like us. Builder and neighbour, Dave Main, came in. He’d rescued a bunch of people on his way over. Sarah’s husband Bill said we’d be welcome to share their apartment upstairs, but joked that we’d have to agree to their choices on Netflix. We laughed and went to check in on the FedEx guy. He was still there.

The whole world outside the pub window was obliterated with white.

We went back to the table where our little boy had found a Wizard of Oz colouring book and was crayoning a tornado in blue and white. The group of multi-generational locals gathered in the pub told us that the last time it was like this was ’77, when the army had to dig everyone out afterwards. I remember doing the mental arithmetic— 42 years of respite from this nightmare sounded like a reasonable gap. 

At about 5:20pm we began to lose daylight.

David Harrison, Sarah’s dad and the former Councillor for North Marysburgh, had dropped in for a burger and offered to help guide us home on his way back up to Cressy — the peak of the peninsula. We strapped in, turned on our hazards, and crawled after David as he led us home through some of the most terrifying conditions a Canadian could imagine encountering on their home street. We followed him along the slippery hills and narrow roads, neither of which we could see. We strained to see his blinking red lights knowing that the edges of the road dropped away steeply towards the water at some turns, but not knowing if we were passing those points or where they lay ahead. He knew the way and brought us along with apparent confidence, slowing when we lost his lights and fell behind so that we could catch up. At one point, we picked up another car that had stopped on the side of the road for who knows how long, too terrified to keep going on alone.

When we finally reached our home, the driveway had been plowed.

Another neighbour, John Carter, had been over with the plow to make sure that whenever we arrived back we would be able to get in. David stopped at the end of our drive, knowing exactly where we lived even though he’d never come over, and I thanked him tearfully as he pulled off again into the darkening nothingness ahead. We white knuckled it down the final stretch of drive then sat in the car for a minute longer, gathering our hearts together.

I decided to write and publish this story, because even though it was the worst, it was also the best.

We are alive and we owe it to a bunch of people who would all shrug it off as just being ‘neighbourly’.

Our friends and neighbours, our teachers, our community; the County plow drivers and the OPP who were out there the whole time—trying to help, pulling people out of collisions and ditches, clearing the roads instead of going back to their own families and waiting it out. County people are good in the oldest-fashioned, biggest, and most important sense of the word. They do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. This is a community of family and selfless love and kindness. And, extreme weather or not—my god, we are all so very, very lucky to be here.

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