Driving On Ice

By: Sarah Telfer

Volume 19, Issue 2, February 2024

On a quiet January weekday afternoon, I drove along the waterfront in Gan. The place was deserted, except for a tour boat moored alongside the town dock, tucked in for the winter. I parked the car, and meandered over to the swing bridge, to look over at Tremont Island.

Ice, as far as the eye could see.

As I looked, I wasn’t seeing what was there, but instead, what once was.

At a River that once froze so solidly that every winter, one of the local service clubs would tow an old wreck of a car out onto the ice, half way between town and Tremont Island. The game was a fundraiser, to try to guess exactly when the car would fall through the ice in the spring, to the day and hour. Even close to the mouth of the Gananoque River, the St Lawrence froze solidly enough that we could skate on the ice without fear.

And of course, we used to drive on the River.

Ssshhhh!! Don’t tell anyone! Especially not my Mother!

Ssshhhh!! Don’t tell anyone! [Illustration by Marie-Anne Erki, ©2024, Kingston, ON]

We were teenagers and figured that we were sneaky enough that no one would ever notice. (uh huh, right – you believe me, don’t you?!) Local folks of a certain age will remember the boat ramp that was at the south end of Stone St, right between Mrs. Johnston’s house at the corner of Stone and South Sts, and the Rochester’s home on Stone St. We used that ramp to access the River – you could drive south on Stone St, down the ramp, and straight out onto the River. A right turn (or a gentle skid) would take you west around the point to the mouth of the Gan River, in front of The Inn. Of course, it never occurred to us that Roy Hicks (then owner of The Inn) might be looking out. In hindsight, if he had been, it probably was a good thing. Had we gone through the ice or had an accident of some sort, at least someone would have seen us and raised the alarm!

But I digress. In my last year of high school, I had my driver's license, and in exchange for driving my younger brother to various activities, I was allowed to use the family car if my Mother didn’t need it.

"The Mean Green Machine"[Header illustration by Marie-Anne Erki, ©2024, Kingston, ON]

This car was a 1969 Chevy Brookwood station wagon, known variously as “The Heavy Chevy” or “The Mean Green Machine.” It really was a rather unpleasant shade of green (heaven only knows why Dad picked that colour – perhaps it was the only option?), but hey . . . it was wheels! She had a 327 V8 engine, rear wheel drive, and you better believe that we had really good snow tires! We drove into Kingston almost daily over the winter, so good snow tires were a must. The air was blue in ‘72, when Ontario banned studded snow tires – Mother was not happy about that ban! Learning how to drive in snow and on ice wasn’t really an optional program for me.

The advantage of having a working mother was that there was a gap between when she and I got home from school. As long as the car and I were home when she got home, all was well. A few days a week, that gave me about an hour of daylight and use of the car!

At the time, it was just fun, being silly, hooting about, pulling doughnuts on the ice, and messing around. It was totally safe – the ice was solid – and if one stayed far enough from the shore, there was absolutely nothing out there to hit.

In retrospect, I learned a lot – about driving on ice, about driving on ice with a layer of snow, about skid control, and perhaps most importantly, about what not to do when skidding on ice. Lessons that have served me well over the years.

I returned to Gananoque about a decade ago. In the intervening years, I’ve lived on the West coast, the East coast, and in Ottawa. Was totally gobsmacked, early one morning in Vancouver, when I drove into the city, and discovered that people had abandoned their cars in the middle of major city roads . . . because there was literally one inch of snow on the ground! Drove the mountain roads in the interior of BC and discovered that some people in the province really did know how to drive in the snow. Spent time on the East coast, surviving blizzards that came in off the ocean, and gingerly moving around snow-covered hills in Halifax in concert with other cautious drivers. Moved to Ottawa and found a mix of people who didn’t believe in snow tires and thus caused accidents on the 417 (the major highway through Ottawa) and those who figured that snow tires were the prudent course of action, but who also had the wit to stay off the roads during heavy snows!

Pulling donuts [Illustration by Marie-Anne Erki, ©2024, Kingston, ON]

But I still miss pulling donuts out on the ice in front of The Inn!

P.S. Many years later, I discovered that in fact, my Mother had known all about our playtime on the ice. I should have known . . .

By Sarah Telfer

Sarah Telfer grew up in, on, and beside The River, even in winter – a part of which is the story recounted here. Despite many years away, she has always considered herself a River Rat. She returned to The River a few years ago, after she retired. And found a beaver trying to eat her boathouse . . . but that’s a different story!

[Author’s Note:  This story was started several years ago. Anyone who lives in Gananoque (Gan) these days knows that the River close to town hasn’t been frozen solid for a number of years. So do not do as I did!]

Posted in: Volume 19, Issue 2, February 2024, Essay, History, Nature

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