January 15, 2017
Ice Ice Baby
Born and raised in Toronto, I became a “born again” West Coaster when relocating to Vancouver in the fall of 1977. I found myself in a part of our Home and Native Land devoid of winter as we in the rest of Canada understood the meaning of the term.
The winter of 1969-1970 found your humble scribe working outside in the Northern reaches of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Can you say, “Uranium City?” This was an obscure, little outpost, way to hell and gone in Northern Saskatchewan accessible only by air. What do you think the town was famous for? I love legendary Canadian rock band, Trooper for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is Ra and Smitty are two of the nicest guys that ever walked the earth, but they are Hall of Famers to me for actually working Uranium City into one of their songs: “Real Canadians.”
The bulk of that winter was spent schlepping the bush on snowshoes, living in a tent north of the top end of Lake freakin’ Winnipeg. Check the map, kids. Yeah, up there. It was Jack London territory and cold beyond imagining. Temperatures averaged 20 below on the old Fahrenheit scale with periods dipping to an astonishing 40 below and wind chills taking it to 74 degrees below zero. I shit you not. There were times some nights crossing frozen lakes with the Aurora blazing across the sky that I swore I could hear the distant ring of sleigh bells and look off to see Lara and Dr. Zhivago blasting by in a Troika. Cue the balalaikas, Comrade.
I have come to value the experience more with each passing year, but enjoyable it was not. While I cling to the memories I prefer to live here where snow and ice are more commonly dealt with by Zambonis, or Sno-Cats on the ski hills.
That first winter on the West Coast was an eye opener. A record promo man for Capitol/EMI I was heading out to drop off the latest hits to CFMI-FM when she and sister station, the venerable CKNW was housed in a re-purposed supermarket on McBride in New West. Pulling out of the Capitol office in the Century Plaza on Burrard Street a light snow had begun to fall. This was barely noticeable to a native Torontonian. It hardly warranted turning on the wipers. I had yet to acquaint myself with local highways and byways so took the seemingly most direct route along Kingsway. Kingsway has always been a trip to drive. For a relative newcomer it was a delight.
During the call at CFMI the snow had kicked up a notch. Again, no biggie. Visibility was fine and accumulation was still minimal.
Suddenly, traffic was a nightmare. It was the middle of the day. Where did all these cars come from? Unbeknownst to me, businesses across the region started closing up and allowing employees to go home early clogging the streets with vehicles that not only began turning the snow on the streets to glare ice but impeding any snow removal assets from doing their thing with the plows and the salt.
Cars and trucks were everywhere skidding, spinning, sliding and coming sideways at you from every direction. Even a seasoned, navigate the 401 at night in a blizzard driver knew enough to pull over. You gotta know when to hold ‘em and when to park ‘em.
Determined to ride this one out from the sidelines I sought out a medicinal pint and called my boy Dave Chesney, a native West Coaster for some advice. I was a little shook up from the impromptu, bumper car course the slippery streets provided.
“There are two things you have to know about driving here when it snows,” Dave offered. “If you’re going up hill tromp on the gas pedal; if you’re going downhill, jam on the brakes.”
Yeah, that about summed up what I witnessed picking the way back along Kingsway to Vancouver.
The irony of that day was the snow’s turning to rain around about 5:00 PM when most would have been getting off work to rainy rather than icy streets for the commute home.
In the ensuing years snow was rare and when it did appear generally, like another fine Trooper song, “here for a good time, not a long time.” That old Vancouver adage rang true: sailing in the morning, skiing in the afternoon. Want to play in the snow? Go up to Grouse or Seymour. We’re going to sit on Bridges Patio, nurse one and watch the Granville Island Ferry bob by. Bring the binoculars and watch skiers on the Cut. Winter on demand. That’s the ticket.
Standard Operating Procedure when snow does arrive is: wait ‘til it rains. Let Mother Nature clear the streets for us. Welllllllll, in case you missed the memo, Climate Change has thrown all that thinking for a loop. Make no mistake. Another Ice Age is coming, but not anytime soon. The odd twist of the tired old phrase, Global Warming, however, is that all the snow and ice covering the Lower Mainland is the result of Earth’s getting warmer, not colder. It’s a puzzler, isn’t it, but there you go.
During that initial snowfall at the beginning of December our son took three passes at the sidewalk and I did two. We live on a corner, so have a much longer sidewalk around the yard. No squawk, just stating the facts. We prefer living on a corner and always have. The snow was coming down, but I’m no zealot. Left to my own devices I tend towards sloth and inertia. The couch potato in me realizes that snow is so much easier to deal with in small doses spread over time, so hit it early; hit it often. Shovel some, go inside for a hot chocolate and throw the toque in the dryer. Repeat as needed. And here’s the secret, numbskulls: WHILE THE SNOW IS STILL SOFT AND MANAGEABLE! Was everybody asleep in high school Chem. class? Solid, liquid, gas, anyone? Anyone at all?
Every once in awhile you have to, as was often said in my family, “get out and blow the stink off ya!” Shovelling snow is a marvellous opportunity to do this. It is also a marvellous opportunity for one of those shared, neighbourhood experiences. In today’s fast paced, sometimes insular, tech focussed, often self absorbed society we don’t interact with each other in person as we once did. It is amazing to step outside on a snowy night to the sound of snow shovels scraping concrete here and there. Up the street someone pauses, sees you with a snow shovel, nods, bends over and the scraping begins again. It was fun to be out there and quite literally see who on the block gives a shit. Memorize those faces and those addresses. They’re going to come in handy.
The stuff that wasn’t cleared was sopping wet, heavy and a pain in the ass to get rid of, sure, but in semi liquid state still much easier to deal with than when frozen. Guess what happened when the temperature plunged below freezing? That formerly wet, slushy snow was now granite. Even snow shovel owning idiots like me don’t have the tools nor the desire for that. I already snapped one vintage, cast iron chopping bar during the first cold snap at the beginning of December.
Snow removal became an oxymoron. At best the general effort was a lick and a promise. Plows appeared to make one pass and one pass only down backstreets and major thoroughfares alike leaving ridges of ice forming basic slot tracks and reducing most side streets to one lane traffic. Outside our city hall there are still mounds of rock hard ice in the middle of the street. How can the Mayor look out at that and not feel like a hump?
You hear all the time about its being the law that you have to shovel the walkway in front of your business or residence within a certain amount of time after a snowfall. While it is the law, does it really have to be? Do you have to be threatened with fines to do your civic duty? Can you not look out at a snow covered sidewalk and imagine it is your own, beloved osteoporosis suffering Mom, or Grandma trying to negotiate her way along the path? One slip and she can shatter like a pane of glass. Would it kill ya to get off your sorry, self indulgent butt for a half an hour and burn some excess holiday calories making the walk past your house safe for anybody’s Mom? Do we really have to send the cops, Chester? Are you that big a jerk?
Throughout the entire month of December in our little corner of the Lower Mainland I witnessed only one city snow plow-salter truck. Many concerned citizens manned the shovels keeping the sidewalks along their property clear. Pedestrians then, however had to contend with the streets themselves clogged, icy, rutted, awkward and quite slippery. Many side roads and residential streets are still ice covered and treacherous.
As local bombastic entrepreneur, broadcaster and entertainment magnate Bruce Allen would have said back in our shared music business days: “SHITTY, SHITTY, SHITTY, SHITTY, SHITTY JOB!!!”
The response by local communities across the region warrants a big fat “F” for both fail and flail. It was a disgrace.
An economist I’m not, but what do you think the negative impact was on local businesses? December is the biggest retail month of the year. The one month when many make or break the entire year. With most curb lanes clogged by mounds of ice and snow and its spilling over onto sidewalks further impeding passersby, how much did free standing Mom and Pop retailers take the hit this past Christmas? Just getting from point A to point B was slowed immeasurably. For a month we got used to the ZZZZZEEEEEE sound as vehicles tried to get up the slight grade of our street.
So here’s the kicker: If local municipalities across the Lower Mainland cannot handle the simple task of snow removal from the streets and sidewalks, how are these same entities of governance going to deal with a sizeable earthquake? We live along “The Ring of Fire,” for cryin’ out loud! Since setting foot in BC almost 40 years ago I’ve been hearing about the so-called “Big One.” You know that massive seismic event that is not a question of if but when it will hit?
Are the local powers that be simply going to wait ‘til it rains and washes the quake away?
God forbid it snows during an earthquake.
Make no mistake. If December 2016 is any indication, when the actual Big One does come we’re all going to be on our own.
How’s that earthquake kit coming along?