Snow ploughs and Santa Claus – 8/12/06

It looked wonderful in the catalogue. Yellow, gleaming, metallic – and all for a very reasonable thousand dollars or so. With funds dwindling but the first snowfall already upon us we decided to bite the bullet.
Perhaps nothing defines a Canadian homesteader quite as well as the means he uses to get rid of his (or her) snow.
There are so many options. The Luddite’s method is the shovel. If you don’t mind parking your car on the road and walking or snowshoeing in to your property (and a steady flow of ill-disguised pity from your neighbours) this is a tried and trusted approach.
Then there is the snow-blower – a machine that you push through your yard. It chucks the snow in a playful little arc about three feet to the right (or left). For the more lethargic there is even a model that drives itself. All you have to do is walk.
Next up is the ATV-mounted snow plough. Some people, including, unsurprisingly, the local ATV dealer, swear by them. But real country folk consider them a bit small and twee with their measly clearing path and their silly (although admittedly optional) flashing lights.
The only proper option for true wilderness types like us, however, is the truck-mounted snow plough. A huge metal shovel-like appendage, that hangs on the front of your pick-up truck, they come in all shapes and sizes and with a variety of controls.
Up in our valley there is no room for casual dalliance when it comes to snow removal. We are borderline rainforest. In the early spring and late autumn we have rain. And in the winter we have…. snow. Tons and tons of the stuff.
When we first arrived in March there was so much of it piled up in our garden that by the time our neighbour had beaten a path to our front door (with a huge digger) the snow piles were 12 or 18 feet high.
So I took the plunge. A local dealer, a telephone call, a credit card number, it all seemed so civilised and easy. A couple of weeks later a beautiful yellow snow blade arrived complete with mountings for my truck.
Proud is an understatement of what I felt. Sure the loggers and big boys had five and six thousand dollars ploughs but I now had my own “Personal Snowbear” replete with proprietary stickers. Kristin mocked me saying I was walking around like a peacock.
With Ed, the same neighbour who had (literally) beaten a path to our front door in February, we fitted the huge metal blade to the truck. It was harder work than it looked and took a fair bit of fiddling and a cold afternoon.
But when it was ready it looked magnificent. For three days it just sat in the drive and I looked at it. I pointed it out to visitors. I put on my checked lumberjack shirt and imagined myself manouevering it around the yard.
Of course, once the snow plough was ready for action, the snow melted. I suppose that’s the way life is. For two weeks it was warm and wet with not enough of the white stuff to dust even our doggies’ feet.
In the meantime I came to an arrangement with Sonny, a neighbour and new friend. He had an ancient pick-up he didn’t use and was also looking for a spot of occasional snow removal.
We decided to share – he would provide his truck and I would provide my new snow plough.
The deal saved him having to buy his own plough. For me it meant that I wouldn’t have to knock the hell out of my rather elegant but poorly-constructed north American pick-up.
Finally a happy day came. I peered out the window to find the garden shrouded in a pleasing white blanket. I got all ready to go about my business.
There was only one small problem. The contraption wouldn’t work. The winch, which controls the blade, had frozen solid.
Great. I’d bought probably the only snow plough in Canada that only works in the summer. I could happily plough thin air from April until September. But as soon as there was a touch of frost in the air, it seemed it would refuse to cooperate.
It was a bit like buying a boat that was particularly good on land but couldn’t handle the water.
After much suffering, I went to the shop where I bought it, a two and a half hour trip away by car. “Not our responsibility,” they said. “You’ll have to phone the company that makes them.”
So I phoned the snow plough company. “We don’t make the winch, we buy it in,” a lady told me. “You’ll have to call the manufacturer.”
When I finally reached them and mentioned that perhaps it wasn’t sealed properly, that water might have got in and frozen, the man said: “It’s not a submarine, you know.”
It was enough to set me off. My voice began to crack. I felt expletives rising from my stomach. Then – one of the drawbacks of living in the bush – just as I was ready to launch myself verbally at this unhelpful man, our satellite phone went into one of it’s frequent brown-outs.
To cut a long story short, we still have the plough. And the faulty winch. The company reluctantly agreed to look at it but I would have to pay the postage and wait weeks or months while they decided what to do next. Meanwhile the snow would be piling up.
So now, our snow mornings look like this: I surreptitiously make off with Kristin’s fanciest hairdryer, and using an extension cable and my back to shield the squalid act from her view, pummel the winch with hot air for about 20 minutes.
Sometimes it deigns to work. Sometimes it doesn’t. Another of the many joys of the Canadian wilderness. Next year I think I’ll just buy a shovel.
The other big news at the ranch is that this winter, just as its set to get nice and cold, we’re heading out. Hawaii? Mexico? Egypt? Sun, sea, sand? Nope. We’re off to Alaska.
The university in Anchorage has offered me an academic chair, a fancy word for a teaching position, lecturing students for a semester. I was up there earlier this month for an interview of sorts.
I thought that my lecture, cobbled together bits of war talk, would end in my being exposed as an imposter. Ignomiously booed off the stage. Eggs hurled at me as if I was a Ukrainian presidential candidate.
But no. My new Alaskan friends actually seemed to like it. A couple of the more alert attendees even noticed when I had finished and clapped a little.
If any of you would like to take pleasure in my discomfort the whole episode has been saved for e-posterity as a podcast. ( So – US work visa permitting – it’s Professor Strauss for the next couple of months.
Of course the logistics won’t be easy. The terms of our truck lease prohibit us from taking our fancy new Dodge Ram with the selectable four-wheel drive and huge driving cab, so we’re going to fall back on our trusty old VW Golf.
Even that would be fine, if we weren’t taking the dogs.
The last time Masha and Karu made a guest appearance on this blog, they were small, cute and (almost) fit in a shoe box. Now they’re nine months old, fierce looking things with a strong streak of independence and adolescent misbehaviour.
What’s more – true hill-billies that they are – they hate traveling in cars. Masha sometimes pukes. Karu always pukes and sometimes chucks in a bit of diarrhea for good measure. Great stuff when its minus 20 degrees outside and the windows are wound tightly up.
Not to worry. It’s only 2,500 miles. I reckon we can probably make it in four and a half days if I put my foot down. Mapquest reckon its 42 hours driving time, roughly London to Budapest and back again. Should be a breeze.
So. That’s the news from the ranch. Sonny, our neighbour with whom we share the plough, has agreed to house-and-horse sit for us through the dark months. We plan to be back in mid May just as spring will be arriving. We’re opening again to our guests on June 15.