Couple chooses Saskatchewan for its cold winters

By Ron Petrie, The Regina Leader-Post, November 23, 2009

Homesteads, fresh starts, political freedom -- whatever drew settlers to Saskatchewan decades ago makes for a list no less varied than the motives of recent arrivals -- affordable housing, lakes, space, family, jobs.

Here's one selling point for the province that you won't read every day: Winter.

Michael Pitt is by birth a California boy, raised in Sacramento; his wife Kathleen a west coast Canadian. All that was then and there, other lives. Here and now, the couple has swapped what most Canadians would consider the dream retirement, an island home in the Strait of Georgia, for a block of bush land near Preeceville. As many of us bear down for the coming winter months with resolve, resignation, perhaps even despair, Kathleen and Michael are pumped in anticipation of ice, snow, wind and the cold. Their November is our April.

Temptation is to shake your head in pity of the poor, poor deluded west-coasters, right? No need.

The Pitts do know what to expect of a Saskatchewan winter, and, no bravado intended, if it's anything like last year's clime, another piece of cake is on the way. Michael, a former grasslands ecology professor from the University of British Columbia, and Kathleen, an IT administrator at the school, once retreated to a one-room cabin on Coleville Lake north of the Arctic Circle, testing themselves against the extremes of cold and isolation from late January until the June thaw -- and loving it. "The most satisfying period of my entire life," is how Michael describes the 141-day sojourn in his newly released book, Beyond the End of the Road: A Winter of Contentment North of the Arctic Circle (Agio Publishing House).

For his fascination with Canada, the outdoors, winter, and, in particular, the North, Michael credits boyhood camping trips in California with his own father, accounts of 19th-century expeditions by Arctic explorers such as Hudson Bay trader John Rae, and, early on in life, the young ducks Huey, Dewey and Louie. Michael recalls at 10 reading a comic book in which Donald Duck's nephews fled to the forests of Canada to protect the fortune of Scrooge McDuck from the evil Beagle Boys and somehow knowing, even then, where he needed to be.

Like a compass needle pointed ever upward, his academic career took him to Vancouver, and then on to several summer canoe trips, paddling the rivers of the Northwest Territories with Kathleen.

Something was missing still. He and Kathleen did not know the North in the winter, an altogether different world where the sun teases, dancing the horizon in dazzling colors, and ice cover allows travel by snowshoe or sled to points otherwise inaccessible by lake and river.

In 1999, they applied for one-year sabbaticals and found their cabin, a 14-by-14 log structure for $1,000 a month, a three-season hunting lodge that was so remote the outfitter would not agree to a winter lease unless promised daily contact by radio. The Pitts studied all they could find about the provisions and skills needed for winter life away from civilization, but were, they readily admit, greenhorns.

Neither had ever walked on a frozen lake or river, and even the most ubiquitous of Canadian winter necessities, the block heater, was never an accessory on their vehicles.

They drove by van to Inuvik, and flew by Twin Otter to the cabin. Life would never be the same.

Cordwood for heat, a propane cookstove and naphtha lanterns for lighting might seem a severe existence, but one of Kathleen's first epiphanies was how much of their time, back in suburban Vancouver, was spent caring for things, as opposed to themselves, other people and life itself.

"When we were in the cabin, we really didn't miss anything. That really opened my eyes to how much time, in the city, we spend just maintaining a residence."

In 25 plastic bins they had packed their gear and provisions, hearty foods such as spaghetti, oatmeal and puddings to fortify the body against the cold and fatigue. From earlier canoe trips, the Pitts knew other tricks, such as serving Tang hot, topped with a teaspoon of butter for a calorie boost. "It is a different mindset," says Kathleen. "In the urban world we are so fat conscience. When shopping for sardines, most people look for the ones packed in water. We needed the ones packed in oil."

Baths were once a week, timed with laundry day. The Pitts wish now that they had taken a wringer, to help with drying clothes, as opposed to their heavy chisel for busting through ice, only to realize later their monumental brain freeze -- that for most of their water, snow could be melted. They are grateful, however, that they took woolen clothes, worn in layers and easily repaired if snagged, instead of modern miracle synthetics. They now swear by the traditional Dene mukluk. As long as snow is dry, footwear made from animal hide, even in a single pair of socks, is much warmer than any expensive boots.

With temperatures that at one point dropped to minus 45, even such rudiments as a bathroom visit had to be relearned. The Pitts hadn't been told that warm pee freezes almost instantly, growing as an icy stalagmite in the backhouse pit, eventually to the seat, and that the open air of the great outdoors was the only place to go for number one. "By late Feburary, we had literally pissed ourselves out of an outhouse," says Michael.

Everybody asks: Cabin fever?

Not in a term in Michael's vocabulary. He has since learned the expression first referred to the mood in the dank quarters below deck of overseas ship travel. Even far beyond the end of all North American roads, boredom was never an option, he says, not with wood and water to fetch, books to reads, dairies to write and frequent snowshoe expeditions into the vast wilds of the caribou, wolverines and whiskey jacks.

If anything, restlessness was an affliction of his office on the rainy west coast, surrounded by a million souls. No sooner had they had returned home to the bustle of Vancouver than the Pitts sensed that they had done no such thing, not really, that home for them was now somewhere else. What began as a search for an acreage on behalf of a friend who had been transferred from the Arctic to Prince Albert National Park and who didn't want to leave behind his team of sled dogs ended in the Pitts' own move to Saskatchewan.

In real estate, Michael says, he has been blessed with the dumb luck of chance timing, purchasing retirement property on Pender Island before development and land prices went crazy. From MLS listings, he discovered this intriguing proposition:
Their one island acre = a spacious bed-and-breakfast lodge on 565 acres, mostly aspen forest, along the shore of Loch Lomond near Preeceville + money left over.

"You're from Saskatchewan," he tells me. "I don't need to tell you what happened next. When we told people we were moving to Saskatchewan, they thought we were crazy. They laughed out loud. I'd hear the old comment that with the rain, at least you don't have to shovel. Well, with snow, you can brush it away. That rain, day after day, it penetrates the soul. I'd tell them, at least with snow, you can shovel it."

Kathleen knew she had found her place last December, their first Christmas in Saskatchewan. "My Christmas tree was the prettiest one I have ever known. And it wasn't because of any lights or decorations. It was all the sunlight streaming through the window."

While they eagerly await snow to begin daily runs through the trails of their forest with the now-adopted sled team -- the dogs Brownie, Grey, Sailor and Slick -- the Pitts have learned to love even Saskatchewan summers, those warm, dry evenings outdoors.

Four seasons, clear skies, privacy when they want it, good friends to join for tea or coffee in Preeceville, cities a short drive farther if they feel so inclined, and that wonderfully white, bright frigid winter _ the Pitts say they are hard-pressed to find any flaw in the move.

The kid with the comic from Sacramento is now the Saskatchewan guy who wrote the book on Canadian winter at its extreme.

"Acclimation" is a word he often uses, in awe of the human body and spirit. Just as many of us curse a zero-degree day in October, only to shout woo-hoo! and fire up the barbecue when the temperature reaches the same 0 in January, so too did he and Kathleen adjust without much psychological effort to the Arctic winter. When they first moved into the cabin, they took pains to keep the wood stove burning overnight; soon they were letting the fire burn to ashes, and rekindling in the morning.

"Sometimes, I think, we complain about winter when really what we dread is the automobile. Every day we leave a warm home for a cold car to go to a warm place of work.

"I understand that. People need to work. But maybe we're trying to live a summer life in the winter. It's easier to accept winter, to get outdoors and embrace it."

Copyright (c) The Regina Leader-Post, posted with permission.