Finding enlightenment in the dark

Twenty years after Montreal's devastating ice storm, some life lessons remain indelibly carved in a survivor’s psyche

Gavin MacFadyenClose your eyes and imagine a modern city that magically exists underneath the surface of the earth.

Further imagine that the surface above it is frozen and crusted over with ice. Now, picture what would happen if, through some force of nature – or the special effects of a science fiction movie – that city suddenly pushes its way upwards to break through the surface and rise so that it’s now visible.

What you would behold was the recognizable form of a metropolis, but one that still bore the outward signs of a fantastical, geological birth – as the still-clinging ice formed a kind of arctic caul around its body of concrete and steel.

That was Montreal after the ice storm.

Twenty years ago, at the beginning of January 1998, an ice storm brought much of life to a screeching halt in Montreal. The natural disaster was the costliest in Canadian history and was felt throughout Quebec, parts of Ontario and New Brunswick, and into Maine in the United States.

I spent more than a week without heat or power in my downtown Montreal apartment. When I finally ventured outside, the view of the city from ground level was startling. Looking down the full length of Saint Catherine Street, everything was encased in ice – the building fronts, the utility poles, trees and power lines. Icicles several feet wide and long hung from rooftops like some child had lathered icing on a cake far too generously – it spilled over from the top and flowed in rivers down the sides.

What sticks with me all these years later is how very quickly our modern way of living can be threatened and turned upside down. No matter how technologically advanced we believe we are, Mother Nature inevitably demonstrates how she’s in charge, laughing at our attempts to both manage and forego calamity.

In fact, it was because of – and not in spite of – our technological advancement that much of the problems were borne and hardships suffered. Power lines that stretched in endless spider webs dedicated to keeping the lights on were what brought the system crashing down when the ice became too much for the lines to bear.

Many of us were largely cut off from the broader world. We relied on the tried and true transistor radio, which served as a lifeline for much-desired information as we waited for heat and power to be restored.

There was something transitional about the ice storm. That would not only be my last year in Montreal, it would be the last year before I owned a cellphone and a personal computer. It would be the last year I viewed the Internet as a tool – like a toaster or microwave – instead of incorporating it as an integral part of living and socializing in the modern world.

So that solitude, which at the time was so barren and lonely, has morphed into a warm memory of a type of living that one can no longer enjoy absent great effort – and, of course, by defying social and business expectations others hold of always being in contact and available for them.

In the silence and the stillness – and the dark – one had the chance to do more than just think. One had the chance to contemplate, examine and ruminate. It was the kind of prolonged engagement in thought that we either avoid or are no longer easily afforded in our daily lives.

I will not go so far as to recommend a calamitous weather event like the 1998 ice storm as therapeutic. I’ll simply say that from time to time it might do us all a lot of good to turn the lights off and unplug.

But do yourself a favour and keep the heat turned on.

Troy Media columnist Gavin MacFadyen is a Canada-raised, U.S.-based writer. Blending insight and wit, he brings a unique perspective to the issues of the day.

montreal, ice storm

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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