Avalon in Winter

"But now farewell. I am going a long way
  With these thou seest—if indeed I go
  (For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)--
  To the island-valley of Avilion;
  Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
  Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
  Deep-meadowed, happy, fair with orchard lawns
  And bowery hollows crowned with summer sea,
  Where I will heal me of my grievous wound."

The Passing of Arthur, Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Contrary to the Avalon of the Arthur legend and Tennyson's imagination, the actual Avalon, a peninsula jutting into the North Atlantic ocean at the far eastern edge of North America, is about as far removed from the imagined Avalon as one can get. As winter begins to envelope this Avalon the winds seem to never stop blowing, the temperature fluctuates between freezing and thawing, the weather cycles between rain, sun and snow. The ponds gradually freeze over and yes, apologies to Tennyson, the valleys do indeed fill with snow. Late December and early January is a transitional time, when winter settles in, the summer tourists have long gone and even the locals tend to stay inside for the most part, venturing out for errands or for hunting in the back country. Walking around towns and villages I only come across the occasional person willing to deal with the fierce, freezing winds. Walk around at night and the pedestrian population dwindles even further. Walking also reveals one of the hazards created by the rapidly fluctuating temperatures, a layer of slippery ice coats almost every chosen route.

Along the shoreline there are numerous fishing boats hauled on shore for the winter, propped up by rough logs cut from the nearby forest. These logs reveal the stunted nature of the native trees, incessantly battered by the ceaseless winds and short growing season.

The Avalon Peninsula has a well deserved reputation as one of the foggiest places on Earth. This, however, is really only true in May and June as the warm gulf stream mixes with the cold Labrador current. The same time of year when the waters along the North coast fill with ice bergs, and whales become a common site in the bays. Towards winter it's the wild winds and frequent snowfalls that dominate the Avalon environment. The wind creates an exaggerated sense of cold, the actual temperatures, moderated by the surrounding ocean, usually average only few degrees below freezing in winter.

Walking through the cold forest using only the glow of the full moon against the snow and ice for illumination, stopping and looking skyward reveals the prismatic effect of the moonlight passing though ice crystals in the high atmosphere. The constellation Orion shines through the thin veil of cloud, framed by the diffusing vapor trails of jets passing in the distance, their silent pulsing lights mirrored on the ground by the pulsing red light of a distant radio tower many kilometers away. There is total silence save for the occasional cracking of surface ice somewhere in the far distance.

The weather shifts daily, and often hourly. One day will bring the brightest sunshine and bluest skies, the next a dumping of heavy, wet snow that sticks to trees and rocks, bathing the landscape in pillowy white. Frequently, while standing on the shoreline I can spot a diffuse white mass in the far distance over the sea. Inevitably, a vigorous snow-squall will come ashore masking the bright light of the low afternoon sun in gray-white. Everything goes dark and sharp ice pellets or sloppy snow flakes are driven ashore. Low drifts of white snow float across the rocky beaches and black asphalt. Sometimes the combination of high winds and a full moon conspire to create strong storm surges against which low lying communities have had to construct various tidal barriers to prevent flooding. As quickly as the dense darkness of the storm arrives it can depart again, inland over the Avalon forest, replaced along the shore line by bursts of sunlight between fast passing clouds of gray, white, black and purple. The passing shadow and light reflected in the ocean surface itself.

Walking along a beach after a fresh snowfall reveals that the white is being eaten away by the rising tide in a pattern that repeats itself, white snow, red-brown algae, brown sand and small waves. Rinse and repeat far into the distance.

Walking further inland along narrow ocean inlets of salt water reveals the beginnings of the winter freeze up. A thin layer of snow covered ice forms over water. Along the shore line soft granular ice rises and falls with the tides, slowly becoming firmer and finer, covering the rounded rocks and extending coverage as the days pass and the land cools. Along the shoreline the previous summers vegetation, reddish and golden wild grasses, become slowly enveloped in accumulating snow. The land turns brilliant white.

Passing through the evergreen woodlands one is greeted by the ‘caw-caw’ of curious black crows high in the trees, the only animals visible. Though I follow the tracks of a fox through the snow for over a kilometer the trail disappears high up a hillside into thick woods and the creature remains elusive.

Heading over the undulating road southward the low forests transition to empty barrens at the extreme southern tip of the peninsula. Passing through tiny villages, never consisting of more than a couple of dozen houses it becomes obvious that most choose to populate the deep valleys which offer some shelter from the relentless winds as well as access to the ocean. Only where the land flattens do larger settlements take root. Along the way a quick glance towards the ocean reveals white capped waves, driven by the winds which rip a misty spray from their crests. Looking in the other direction reveals the pink and purple glow of the fading sun on the snow covered barrens.