Sitting in the seat of the International plow truck you start to feel like you can go anywhere and do anything, as long as anywhere includes snow and anything involves plowing it. Disengage the air brakes, pop it into gear and flick a switch on the centre console to drop the plow blade and off you go, making order out of the chaos that is a road covered in fluffy white flakes of frozen water.
As the blade lowers to the ground it makes a satisfying bump that can be felt through the cabin. A shock allows the blades to weather the many bumps that it inevitably hits going down the hundreds of kilometres of streets in Cranbrook.
My tour guide for the morning was Chad Girvin.
Girvin works the day shift driving one of the plow trucks or operating one of the graders. On Tuesday, Derrick Anderson, the Public Works Manager drove me out from the city’s yard to where Girvin was working in the north part of town. He was plowing one neighbourhood.
Of course, as the snow is pushed from the surface of the road it forms windrows, the bane of every homeowner’s snow shovelling existence. As the plow truck circles for the last time, residents start to come out, ready to shovel away the new windrows left by the plow.
Girvin said he always feels bad for leaving the long line of snow piled up. He indeed drives extra slow through the residential streets to keep the piles to a minimum.
As he makes his rounds he deals with obstacles such as parked cars, and has to remember where the sidewalks and concrete barriers begin or end.
The instruments in the plow truck are not modern — rather they rely on the skills of operators like Girvin to maneuver safely around the vehicles that dot the streets.
Another series of buttons and gauges controls the rock spreader and salt brine sprayer. At every intersection, we leave patches of sand and gravel. When the weather is cold and icy the plow trucks visit intersection multiple times in a day to deposit more gravel, as vehicle traffic quickly disperses it. The salt brine doesn’t work under -10.
The city’s snow plow operation is able to clear the city roads in three to four days, but that’s only if another snowfall doesn’t hit.
Multiple snowfalls this week meant that timeline for clearing the snow was drawn out. After a big snowfall, snow is windrowed into the middle of the street downtown and piled.
Eventually, when those piles get high enough, the snow can be transported to the city’s snow storage area on the north end of town, down Theatre Road.
At the moment the lot is empty of snow and ready for piling.
The city has four plow trucks, two loaders, one grader and three sidewalk plows/sweepers.
The crews work on a priority route basis, clearing the main streets and avenues that see the most traffic, as well the routes that emergency vehicles take.
Wheelchair access is also high on the list. Then there is cleanup of public sidewalks and parks.
One of the things that really slows the cleanup of the roads down is the traffic itself.
Anderson said if nobody was on the roads and the weather cooperated, it would be a much easier and quicker cleanup of the snow.
Girvin said that his favourite part of the job is when he can help people out in a small way, perhaps by clearing a route for a senior or clearing someone’s special parking spot. He said he would go out of his way for that as long as it doesn’t take too much time off his route.
At the end of my two hour shift, they allow me to get a feel for the truck around the Public Works yard. The heavy truck plows through the piles of snow with ease, as it’s big turbo diesel heart pushes the rear wheels along. The truck doesn’t buck me off like a raging bronco, but rather feels like the trusty old stalwart pony that just keeps chugging along, content to push and pile snow.
The day gave me an appreciation for the snow clearing crews of Cranbrook and the fine work they do.