Dismay, disbelief after late-May Newfoundland snowstorm: 'Why? Why? Why?'

Snow falls in St. John's, N.L., on Tuesday, February 14, 2017. (CP)

GANDER, N.L. — A late-spring storm that buried cars in snow and closed a slew of schools in Newfoundland was prompting dismay — and disbelief — from residents along the island's northeast coast Thursday.

Photos posted on social media showed a barbecue entombed in snow, and drifts that reached halfway up a front door.

"You would think you were in January," said one employee of the Gander Public Library, which opened four hours late, after the town plowed the streets. "People have been golfing, and raking, everything here was very spring-like. So this has set us back."

Environment Canada meteorologist Linda Libby said more than 35 centimetres fell at Gander International Airport overnight and into Thursday, while more than 36 centimetres was recorded at Terra Nova National Park.

Josie Wells, a cashier at Canadian Tire in Gander, said customers were coming in Thursday to ask for "mostly snow shovels that we don't have. We're into summer now, right?"

"A lot of them are just taking a garden shovel. Which is not much good."

Dozens of schools in the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District delayed opening or were closed Thursday.

Libby said while the snow was expected to taper off Thursday afternoon, strong northeast winds gusting to 80 kilometres an hour were forecast to persist throughout the day. Drivers were warned that visibility could be reduced due to blowing snow.

"Today is still going to be very ugly on the island," said Libby from Charlottetown, P.E.I., adding that the temperature was hovering around -2 C in Gander. "It's very cold, winter-like conditions despite the fact it's the 24th of May."

Loretta Dwyer of Loretta's Flower World in Gander said her thoughts are with the "silver lining:" The snow will be gone by next week, and everyone's homes will still be standing, unlike the flood victims in New Brunswick and B.C., or people living near the lava-spewing Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, who may never return home.

"You know, my thought this morning was, 'I'm not in Hawaii,'" she said. "How lucky we are, we got a hit of snow."

She said she saw children across the street building a snow fort and enjoying the snowfall, and added she prefers the snow over the heatwave in Western Canada. Parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan remained under a heat warning Thursday, where temperatures were expected to reach 29 C.

"Meanwhile in Gander ... my daughter is waxing her skis. Why? Why? Why?" wrote Twitter user David Newell.

Dwyer remembers her sister's graduation in 1974, when they had a massive snowfall on June 9: "You never know in Newfoundland."

Libby said the snowfall was also likely bringing back memories for those who lived in Gander five years ago. More than 69 centimetres fell there on May 18 and 19, 2013.

In fact, some Newfoundland and Labrador folklore submits snow that falls in May has healing qualities.

Larry Dohey, director of programming at The Rooms art gallery, cultural museum and archives in St. John's, N.L., said his Irish ancestors from Newfoundland's Cape Shore region suggested bottling May snowfalls and using the liquid on your face as a way to soften freckles.

"My Irish ancestors always said, 'A snowfall in May will take freckles away'... Imagine looking out and seeing the snow and dashing out on our lawn with your little jar and filling it up and when that melts, you apply it to your face, and it takes away or softens the freckles," said Dohey.

Dohey also insisted on adding a disclaimer for Newfoundland residents with freckles who were considering collecting a sample of Thursday's snowfall: "A face without freckles is like a night without stars."

Other traditions propose May snow as a cure for sore eyes, he said.

Dohey said the seal fishery traditionally ended in late April or early May, and the men who went sealing often refused to wear goggles, "because goggles were considered very unmanly-like."

"You would often become snowblind because of the sun shining on the snow. Your eyes would start to sting and hurt," he said. "So when they came home, that sting would still be there, and so when the May snow came around, it acted as a cooling agent."

In John K. Crellin's 1994 book "Home Medicine: The Newfoundland Experience," he offers another explanation for the May snow folklore.

"One Newfoundland informant thought this practice was linked with May being the month of the Virgin Mary and the need to receive her blessing," Crellin writes.

"Perhaps, too, there was a vague link with a common treatment for sore eyes in Ireland, namely, the water of certain holy wells."

— By Aly Thomson in Halifax and Holly McKenzie-Sutter in St. John's, N.L.

The Canadian Press