January 27, 2012

Even sanders occasionally need a sander.

Ice is so central to our experience in Eastern Ontario that we don’t think about it much. It’s just there, an underlying challenge and occasionally a threat, until it erupts into a major problem the way it did last week.

The eerie part of the recent ice storm is how similar the weather was to many days before it. Every time the thermometer rises and clouds form, we come under the gun. But most times the shot misses, because weather is not the malevolent force we see on American television. No, Mother Nature in Canada just doesn’t give a damn, so it’s up to us to adapt.

Since 2001 our culture has elevated the firefighter to heroic status, and deservedly so. But how about the snowplow driver who day in and day out goes before us, quietly and invisibly battling the most dangerous thing we face in our lives, the icy road? For the most part we curse the guy for slowing us down, or curse him for not showing up, or for abrading our paint and windshields if we get stuck behind him in traffic. But that driver keeps us alive.

I met one of these invisible men last Friday when we woke to the sound of shouting and the sight of a rotating blue light stopped in the middle of Young’s Hill.

Speaking of ice, the dog fell flat when she stepped out the door. Then she scratched her way back up to safety and slipped past me into the safety of the living room.

You know how after you’ve finally gotten stopped on a difficult ski run a little voice in you asks for a rope or railing to help you down to the foot of the hill? Well that little voice was whimpering pretty loudly as I prepared to face the two-foot drop over twenty feet to the driveway. I picked up the pail of sand I am normally too proud to use. A sprinkle before each step took me to flat land.

But on the driveway the footing didn’t improve. Two days earlier I had spread a trailer-load of salted sand from the quarry because Frank the fuel guy called and told me that if we wanted oil, he needed sand. Oil trucks do not have sophisticated winter tires, and if they start to slide they’re in big trouble. The new layer of ice completely covered that sand, even though I could see every grain through the transparent covering. Yikes!

Normally on icy days I slip and slide over to the Ranger, fire it up and rely upon its traction to move me around. But I wasn’t sure even it would make it back up the lane today. I’d have to walk out first.

So I grabbed a larger pail of sand, wrapped an arm around it, and gritted my way out 500 feet of sloping driveway. I was sure that the centre-bare section half-way down would be good walking once I got to it. Nearly broke my neck. Just because you can see gravel through the ice doesn’t mean you can walk on it.
Quite a while later I fetched up at the scene of the confusion on the hill. A tow truck with a car on its bed was nosed up behind the county snowplow, which seemed to be holding itself in place on the hill by one wheel carefully planted in the right hand ditch. The rig sat about two feet up the slope from the hydro pole which supplies our house.

The driver, Steve Halladay, explained to me that his truck’s sanding wheel spreads grit only on the left side so as to cover both lanes of the road. But the truck’s drive wheels are on the passenger side, so in some situations the snowplow’s as badly off as any other vehicle.

His overloaded rig had run out of traction on the steep part of the hill and subsided into the ditch. Steve said he could easily back out, but he was concerned that the plow would hit the hydro pole if he didn’t have a better grip on the ice.

We heard a roar. A small township truck with a sander on the back came screaming up Young’s Hill Road from Forfar – in reverse. I couldn’t believe how fast a GM pickup with a determined operator can go backwards. The unseen driver pulled up tight to the car hauler, then backed into our driveway to make a path to allow the wrecker to turn around.

After a conference with Steve, the rescuer decided to sand his way up over the hill, spreading enough grit to get the plow out of trouble and enable the wrecker to free two cars in the ditch on the Hwy. 15 side. He backed up the steep slope, passing close enough to the larger truck to make Steve hold his breath, then blasted on over the hill and out of sight.

Steve backed out onto the gritty surface, put the sanding disk in gear, and continued his morning’s work.

A few hours later a small dump of soggy snow stuck to the ice and the crisis was over.


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