Snow creates winter playground for farm kids

The farm gives lots of space for kids to play, and my childhood was no different. For my brother and me, our farmyard was one giant playground of bush, junkyard, tall trees to climb, water to get soaked in, and of course, a barn and bale stack to re-explore. Each new season had its characteristic qualities and my brother and I relished it all, especially our Canadian winters with its changing snow scapes and weather.

Being nine years old, tunnelling in the snow was the most fun. With anticipation, we’d eye the places where big drifts usually developed. We’d watch for the depth we needed and the hard crust on top. To start, we might dig into the side or top depending on the shape of the drift. No tools required, we’d poke a hole with our boot, then start digging with our mittened hands.

In our first winter of tunnelling, we worked together on one, but in later years, we built separate burrows to suit our tastes. We were becoming connoisseurs of the snow tunnel. It entertained us for hours, a benefit for which I’m sure our mother was grateful. I liked to go in and curl up, pretending I was a mouse under the snow. I’d listen to the birds, the cows and sometimes, the wind outside. Inside my little hole, the sunlight filtered through and it was absolutely silent except for my own breathing and noises outside. To help us out and keep our holes from blowing in, Dad gave us pieces of plywood to lay over top of the doorways. A couple of times, we tried building a snow house, but our feeble skill and the low density of the snow always failed us.

The four Hathaway children play with a cousin, Milton McLean, in 1956, “the year of the deep snow.” | Hathaway family photo

We spent a lot of time outdoors. Our land was too flat for good sledding hills but we’d go to the dugout and slide down one side. Not a long run, but still fun for nine year olds.

We had to get Dad’s permission after he checked the ice for thickness because invariably the sled took us out to the middle. The aluminum, circular Flying Saucer-style sleds we got for Christmas one year were the best at gliding over the snow and tough enough to last through our childhood. Eventually, one was forgotten on the ice and sank to the bottom in spring. It’s probably still there. Other, newer innovations that followed the saucers didn’t work as well, but a sturdy cardboard box slid on the snow better than some purchased sleds, and it was all right if they eventually crumpled after a lot of good fun.

We also liked to skate on the dugout but it appeared lower on our list because of the work to clear the snow off the ice. Cleaning it filled an afternoon and dampened our enthusiasm until we grew bigger. After I started figure skating, I had more incentive to give myself a place to practice, and by then I was a teenager so it was easier work. If we wanted to get creative with snow clearing, we’d make a circle or figure eight and leave the snow in the middle for another day. Practicing turns, backward skating and figures, or games like tag filled our afternoons. A backward race, anyone?

We were always sent scrambling to the banks by the booming sounds of the ice cracking. We never seemed to learn not to panic, but caution was preferable to the alternative. We never broke through.

Neighbour skating parties on a slough or lake also serve as great memories. Square bales were still plentiful then, and they made good benches with a plank across them, arranged in a circle with a fire in the centre.

Skating at night with friends on unfamiliar ice held enticing fun we seldom got a chance to experience. Sometimes someone played music from a vehicle or on a portable player. Of course, there was food and hot chocolate.

Games like fox-and-goose were always good fun.

Later, the next generation enjoyed their own variations to many of the games we once played.

Hide-and-seek had new appeal in winter because snow drifts and sometimes whole blocks of snow turned up after grading. Plowing the road after a storm created such big blocks in a lunar-like landscape that my kids played for hours after getting off the school bus before coming into the house. They had tunnels, too, caves and forts built by stacking blocks.

In the spring, the snow gives all farm kids new fun in the form of little streams running across the barnyard. The slope of the land on Dad’s farm gave my brother and I a wonderful mix of mud and running water. We armed ourselves with a long stick to move obstacles out, widen our streams in places and give us a sense of importance. The cows didn’t mind our activity among them and gave us room. A short piece of twig became a boat to float down river. A gully ran with water through our yard in spring. Many times, we went in for supper and stood our soaked boots upside-down over the furnace vent because we had gone in too far, allowing the icy water to run into them.

Children may like to pretend they are mice living under the snow but in reality, they don’t have a mouse’s protective coat and circulatory system.

My brother and I used up several variations of winter clothing, but no matter the style, layers always work best, allowing us to enjoy endless fun on our giant farm playground during our wonderful Canadian winters.

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