Standing in work boots in a muddy maintenance yard, be-speckled, blonde and immediately amiable, Karen MacDonald doesn’t quite look the part. But throw the mom-of-two the keys to any of the big rigs in the City of Nelson’s 16-machine snow removal fleet and she’ll likely get ‘er done.
With winter poised to submerge the Heritage City’s 122 cumulative kilometres of streets and sidewalks with snow, slush and glare ice, you’d be right to say the City of Nelson’s got the right man, er, woman, for the job.
“I can remember when I was 11-years-old hauling grain to the elevator,” smiles the Estonia, Saskatchewan native. She recalls that for safety’s sake, the elevator supervisor would drive the little lady’s truck into the loading dock for her. She’d hop back aboard and rumble back and forth to the family farm. Since then she’s run “everything” — truck, loader, back hoe, lumbering belly dump motor scrapers, grader and ‘dozers.
MacDonald, the only female Public Works and Parks supervisor in the province, is the field boss for the city’s roadways, and this time of year, that means she keeps a very close eye on a crew of two dozen (her “boys” as she fondly refers to them) who together plow through a snow removal budget that has averaged $595,000 per annum over the last four years, or roughly 20 per cent of Public Works’ annual operating cash.
Here in the Kootenays, especially in precipitous Nelson, snow removal is a big job. And it’s a yearly task the city wants the public to know more about; not only how it all happens, but how the city’s citizenry can help out. In fact, in some cases home and business owners are legally required to. (see “You Can Dig It Too” below).
First, the facts
• The city exerts 7,900 man-hours or 993 man-days a year clearing snow, with a crew that never tops 15 people per shift; that’s three shifts a day, between 4 a.m. and 11 p.m.
The same crew is required to simultaneously trouble shoot sewers, water mains, park space and tackle trash pick up too, snow or no snow.
• All of the city’s streets and 22 kilometres of its high-use sidewalks are cleared, in most cases on only one side of the road.
• The plowing process is prioritized: emergency and bus routes first, (Yellowhead Road and Bridge takes care of the highway through town), next come remaining downtown routes, residential streets third (beginning with up/down streets, then cross streets) and finally, all 78 of the city’s often difficult-to-navigate dead end streets and alleys. And on top of that, a tonne of hand-shovelling on stairs (all 73 sets of them), downtown crosswalks, stops signs, catch basins and fire hydrants.
The challenges, according to utilities supervisor Gil Bogaard, who works in concert with MacDonald, are ample. And increasing. There’s on-going maintenance, our notoriously undulating urban geography, soggier, icier weather patterns than ever before, and the sheer and very unique job stresses heaped on the City of Nelson’s snow removal squad.
“Operating snow removal equipment here is an art,” says the silver-bearded Bogaard, who ran his first city plow in 1981.
It’s an art that can run operators through an emotional wringer on particularly hairy days. And there are many more of those tough shifts as of the last few years, with temperatures hovering more often around the deadly 0 C mark, where despite the application of 5,000 tonnes of sand per winter, everything becomes unpredictably slick, unlike a decade or two ago when most storms dumped deep, dry snow, rarely ruined by rain. Beyond the day-to-day, the unpredictable month-to-month weather has made Public Works’ seasonal scheduling a veritable Rubik’s Cube for management to figure out.
The City of Nelson garage’s six-member pit crew are kept on their steel toes too. Despite the fact the fleet is “relatively current” according to new manager of operations Jim Dinwoodie, many sets of brakes, transmissions and plow-cutting edges take a licking. Dinwoodie — who relocated to Nelson from the City of Fernie this summer — is quick to point out that he’s the guy to call if there’s any snow removal complaints, not Macdonald or Bogaard, who are often on the road with crews.
And yes there are complaints. Plenty. It’s part of the job, Dinwoodie admits. There have been stormy days, with crews flat out, when more than 100 calls have jammed Public Works’ four lines. For some, patience has grown thin — there’s rudeness, unnecessary obscenities, even the odd screamer.
“But there are a lot more people who appreciate us than don’t,” says MacDonald, adding that shovelling locals will often stop to cheer or offer the thumbs up to operators like veteran drivers Aldo Pulice and Norm Rich.
“It’s great when people phone just to say ‘thanks,’” says Rich, a grandfather of three.
“We’ve got families here too,” adds Pulice, an ace on both “the blower” and “the blade. “And we want them to get around town safe.”
With fat raindrops dappling puddles in the Public Works yard, MacDonald and her crew hustle out of the wet and into the city garage. It’s Friday afternoon. A weekend of relative rest awaits before a 10-day stint the weatherman says is loaded with precipitation, and temperatures likely bobbing in and out of freezing.
MacDonald has no doubt her staff are up to whatever meteorological mayhem rolls their way.
“I’ve got the absolute greatest crew ever,” she says. “I’ve worked with all of them and come up through the ranks with them too.”
That can-do attitude runs through the city’s snow removal family, and evidently MacDonald’s as well. One of her two adult daughters runs a behemoth electric shovel — one of biggest digging machines on earth — near Fort McMurray, Alberta.
She beams with pride when she talks about her two gals, her co-workers, and the locals who chip in to offer a quick bit of praise when the snow and slush gets deep and ornery.
So next snowfall or storm, it couldn’t hurt to offer a cheer, and where you can, even a few minutes to chip in. The boys would surely dig it.
You Can Dig It Too: Tips and requirements for residential and commercial snow removal
• Street parking. To assist snow-removal crews, on odd-numbered days, park on the odd-numbered side of street and on even-numbered days, park on the even side. If you have off-street parking, please try to use it.
• Parked cars must be clear of snow for visibility to our plow operators. Vehicles should not be parked on City streets for more than 72 consecutive hours.
• Please do your best not to shovel snow from a sidewalk or driveway back onto a plowed street.
• Business owners, homeowners and home occupants: It’s your responsibility to remove snow on the sidewalk or stairs adjacent to your properties — before 11 a.m., any day it snows.
• Under City Traffic Bylaw 3156, the City has the right to impound vehicles/trailers that interfere with snow removal. Residents will also being responsible for impoundment fees and a $50 administration charge.
• Need more info about snow removal and City bylaws? Visit www.nelson.ca or call 250-352-8238.