Ice storms, planes and automobiles

January 7, 2014

The first bad omen came when the lights went out.

Icy WeatherIt was just hours before I was to board a flight for New Brunswick, when the Dec. 22 ice storm descended on Ontario, knocking out power, throwing whole neighbourhoods into the dark and wreaking havoc on anyone with travel plans.

Predictably, a “flight cancelled” email appeared on my phone. I sat in my cold, powerless house, watching the thermostat’s temperature tick lower and lower, trying to book another flight by candlelight. Phone lines were jammed, websites were crashing.

So, I decided to try my luck at the airport. That was the next bad omen. Thousands of would-be passengers like me were also stranded, jamming Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and cursing the collapsed airline system that was overwhelmed by the ice and extra hordes of holiday travellers.

At the terminal, Air Canada was offering passengers a special “direct line” to its call centre to rebook their cancelled flights. After waiting in line for about an hour and a half, you could get on one of these land lines for the privilege of listening to a busy signal for the next hour.

I may as well have tried calling the airline with a wet string and a pair of Styrofoam cups. No one was reaching anyone. Alternative modes of transport, from the train, to the bus, to rental cars, were either sold-out or unavailable because of the storm too — if you were “lucky” enough to ever get through to those “offering” such options.

I was just about ready to quit and head home when my luck turned. I met a young electrician who was trying to fly home on leave from his job in Fort McMurray, Alta. We had both gone to the same corner of the airport to charge our cellphones, and soon realized we were both trying to get to the same city, Saint John.

We each had our reasons to be on the East Coast. He was coming home to his wife and kids for the holidays, and I was heading to a funeral for my grandmother. Neither one of us wanted to spend the next few days sleeping at the airport, hoping an extra seat would open up.

When I explained I needed a driving partner willing to follow the storm in an irresponsible, dangerous drive to New Brunswick, he agreed immediately. We piled into my car and were off.

At first, I wondered if I was foolishly walking into a sequel of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the 1987 comedy about two strangers thrown together for three days of misadventure while trying to get home for the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday.

But my travel companion proved to be as good a partner as you could ask for on a long, unplanned road trip. We followed the ice storm as it barrelled across eastern Ontario, through Quebec and down into New Brunswick, some 1,600 kilometres. In normal weather, it’s an exhausting 16-hour trip.

In the wake of an ice storm, it’s a white-knuckle ride from hell. At times, we crawled along the TransCanada Highway fighting black ice, blinding snow and mist that froze to the windshield, passing jackknifed tractor-trailers, upended cars and dozens of vehicles sitting in the ditch.

We pounded back coffee and energy drinks, trying to stay awake. My travelling partner saved my hide a few times, too — once, when the blinks were lasting a little too long after hours at the wheel, and again on the long stretch through western Quebec when I desperately needed some sleep.

We burned through a pair of wipers and single-handedly kept the windshield washer industry in business, dumping jug after jug of the stuff under the hood each time we pulled off the highway. Driving straight through the night, the only other stops we made were for gas and service station sandwiches.

Twenty hours after we left the airport in Toronto, my ice-caked car limped into the funeral home in New Brunswick, with 15 minutes to spare. Thanks to the help of a stranded stranger, I had made it.

 Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer whose column appears every third Saturday. He can reached and past columns can be read at Follow him on Twitter at @MercerRecord.

One Response to Ice storms, planes and automobiles

  1. Frank on February 15, 2014 at 9:32 am

    Great story …

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