The Sound of Snow…

Heavy snowfall where I live in Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I currently live in Ontario, Canada, where the four seasons are still distinct and winter comes with signature cold temperature well below zero degrees Centigrade along with lots and lots of snow. I grew up in Quebec, where the snow often piled up higher than I stood tall. Temperatures often went into the minus zero teens and twenties with wind chills reaching minus thirty degrees. This called for the right equipment. Insulated coat or jacket, snow pants, wool toque and mittens and/or gloves that are also well insulated. And, of course, warm snow boots.

Nina on a walk during a snowstorm, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)
Country road in the Kawarthas, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Nina’s car on ‘walkabout’ through Kawartha country after a fresh snowfall, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Farm in the Kawarthas, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Cows on a farm in the Kawarthas, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Country field in Kawarthas, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
School kids heading to class after a fresh snow, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
The Rotary Trail after a fresh snowfall, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Heavy snow falls on a trail in the Kawarthas, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Since moving to the West Coast then back east to Ontario, I’ve come to realize that I love winters. I love how snow covers everything, how it quiets the landscape and changes it in subtle ways. I love the frigid wind, how it bites the face with invigorating energy, reminding me that I am so alive. I love the sounds of winter, of walking on snow, crunching and squeaking, of the howl of the wind and the creaking and groaning of the trees, or the cracking and booming of the ice forming and reforming on the river.

Bridge over creek in Trent Nature Sanctuary during heavy snowfall, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Jackson Creek after a fresh snowfall, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Woman and her dog walk through cedar swamp forest after a fresh snowfall, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Riparian forest clothed in fresh snow, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Riparian forest after a fresh snowfall, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I am currently finishing a fiction book that takes place throughout Canada, but predominantly in northern British Columbia and the arctic of the Northwest Territories. My main character, a Gwich’in scientist, explores the land during a time of climate change, and much of it involves the expansive vast snowfields of northern Canada in which she describes the look, smell, feel, and sounds of snow. She thinks with great fondness of home in the Arctic where snow prominently features and, bringing in all her senses, of course, includes sound:

There are many different kinds of snow, and any native of the north can recognize them. We can not only tell something of the quality of weather from it, but also its history. Without having experienced the day or history of the place, we will know simply from walking through it. For instance, on a minus twenty-degree Centigrade day, when the cold bites your face and your breath coils out of your mouth like steam, old snow shines under a raking sun like an ice sheet. As though clear plastic was stretched over it. Sometimes, a hoar frost will form on the glassy thin layer, adding more glitter. Walking through it creates a symphony of crunch, pop and skittle sounds as each step breaks through the thin brittle layer into soft snow underneath. The scattering flat shards tingle like glass across the glistening ice-snow sheet.

Fresh snow that has fallen on a frigid night of minus fifteen degrees in a drier climate is fluffy, individual snowflakes glinting like jewels in the sun, and emits a high-pitched squeak and crunch as your boots press down on it. The colder the temperature, the higher the squeak. I just made that up. I’m not sure if it’s true. But considering the relationship of harmonics with temperature, it’s plausible.

Squeaky snow is the snow of my home up north, where it arrives in a thick passion in October with the winter darkness, and where a constant minus 16°C to minus 30°C pervades until spring, six months later. The snow resembles powdered sugar, glittering like millions of tiny mica flakes under the moonlight of an arctic winter night. It covers everything, the ground, the trees and tiniest vegetation with a white blanket of snow. And when the wind teases the trees, they rain glitter-dust. In places where the north wind freely drifts across open landscape, sastrugi form; frozen wavelets, mini-barchans and dune chains that resemble the wave ripples of a sandy white beach. In some vast open areas, the wind will sculpt a frozen sea of irregular ridges and grooves up to a metre high. Mary’s friend Jem from Igloolik calls these snowdrifts qimugruk, whose distinctive shapes become permanent features of the snowscape, with tips always pointing west-northwest. Igloolik hunters use these uqalurait to set their bearings when travelling across the expansive tundra, particularly during poor visibility from storms or darkness.

Tracks through a small path by the river, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Snow drift on a trail by the river, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

One of the sensitivity readers for the book, anthropologist and Gwich’in scholar Ingrid Kritsch, related to me an interesting account during attempts to open up to oil and gas development the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge–a critical area where the Porcupine Caribou herd calve. “To many Americans, it was just a big, white, barren expanse of unused lands,” said Ingrid. “She recalled a Senator speaking for development on these lands. The Senator held up a blank sheet of white paper and claimed ‘this is what the area looks like!’

The vast snowfields look nothing like that…

Snow drifts in Ontario (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

…Now, don’t forget to play in the snow…

Author’s son and friends play in fresh snow on Christmas in BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Nina Munteanu reads a book with her cup of tea in +8 degree C, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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