Snow squalls paralyze much of Cottage Country

The central Ontario towns of Bracebridge and Huntsville have declared snow emergencies amid a record-breaking squall that is expected dump nearly a metre of snow before sunrise Saturday.

According to Environment Canada, up to 80 centimetres of snow is expected to fall by Friday night – eight centimetres more than the Muskoka area’s average snowfall for the entire month of December.

More than 50 centimetres had fallen this month before the snow squall hit, and the previous single-day snowfall record for Huntsville – 54 centimetres on March 4, 1985 – was smashed.

A news release on the Town of Bracebridge’s website urged motorists stay off the roads and not park on streets, as the "continuing snowfall is creating a hazardous situation."

Declaring a snow emergency frees up plow operators to work overtime hours to clear roads, Huntsville Mayor Claude Doughty said Friday.

Municipal offices were closed and buses to schools in the Trillium Lakelands District School Board were cancelled.

"The major highways are snow-covered, and snow-removal crews are working feverishly . . . ," said Ontario Provincial Police Const. James Reading. "But the snowfall is so heavy and the accumulation is so rapid that they’re unable to stay on top of it."

"The main arteries are treacherous and at some points impassable. Secondary routes are for the most part impassable," he said. "Residents of the area have been advised to stay indoors unless they absolutely need to go out."

Reading said that there had not been any major car crashes by noon. But plenty of vehicles have slipped off roads, leading the Canadian Automotive Association to issue a plea to members in the area to not drive as they have been swamped by calls for assistance.

"People are saying it’s the worst weather they’ve seen in a decade," said Jason Ballantyne, a spokesman for CAA. "Our message today is simple – stay off the roads for your safety."

Customers in Gravenhurst and Bracebridge can expect at least a two-hour wait before a tow-truck will respond, he said in a release.

The snow squall developed off the coast of Lake Huron, and has blown east across the Bruce Peninsula and through the Muskoka area toward Ottawa, according to Environment Canada.

Whiteout conditions were reported throughout the region, the heart of Ontario’s cottage country. Wind gusts of up to 40 km/h made it feel like -15 C.

Snow squall warnings remain in effect for all communities from Georgian Bay to Smiths Falls, about 300 kilometres to the east. The Environment Canada warnings considered the squall to have "extended unusually far inland," with about 15 cm expected in the Smiths Falls area.

Randy Brown, who owns a confectionary in Gravenhurst, said the snowfall is causing headaches for businesses primed for holiday shoppers.

"It’s just been awful," he said of the snow, which hasn’t relented since Wednesday. Half the stores in Gravenhurst are closed through what should be one of their busiest weeks of the year, Brown said, adding he only made it in to work because he lives above the store.

The highway connecting the three communities, Hwy. 11, has been closed for most of the storm’s duration.

Many of the 60,000 permanent residents in Muskoka live in homes and winterized cottages that dot the scenic lakes of the region, often far from major roadways. Brown said most of these people are snowed in, their only hope of getting to town being snowmobiles.

The area can expect some relief for the weekend, however, as Environment Canada has forecasted temperatures above freezing and mild flurries through Monday.

The region is about 160 kilometres north of Toronto, between Lake Huron and Lake Simcoe.

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