How Parkdale plows shaped Calgary

IMAGE_03_Parkdale Plows

Colynn Kerr

You may have seen a recent article in Avenue Magazine titled “20 Decisions That Shaped Calgary“, but what you may not know is Parkdale’s place in what makes Calgary special.

It started in January, 1991 when I moved back to Parkdale, my childhood community. We’d bought a house near the river and, looking longingly at the pathway out the bus window on my commute, I was determined to cycle instead. My first bike ride wasn’t pleasant. It was a warm winter day but the path had been trampled into hard, icy bumps. It felt like sitting on a precarious paint-shaker! Each day of a blazing chinook, however, the path cleared a little more until the ride was wonderful. Then it snowed and the snow-packing and melting process repeated.

Remembering the tall plastic ice cream pails left behind Lics Ice Cream, I had a brainwave. Why not cut the pails in half, top to bottom, and make them into a “V” shape like a snowplow? If I could plow each light dusting of snow before it was trampled, the sun would do the rest. It worked!  Soon, mine weren’t the only bike tracks. Other cyclists wanted to winter-ride, too. That’s not all, because when a fellow cyclist saw me pulling the plow one morning, he enthusiastically built his own. Then another Parkdale keener joined in with his version of the ‘bikeplow’. From there it ‘snowballed’ (pardon the pun). Within a few years, there were teams of volunteers clearing after each snowfall, and even shoveling the Edworthy Bridge.

It wasn’t an easy task, and not just because of the snow. At one point, we had Bylaw Enforcement crews eagerly trying to catch us. It seems they’d received legal advice that we “were giving a false impression of safety.” But we knew by the compliments we were getting from cyclists, walkers, and runners, we were not only improving pathway safety but also enabling a healthy winter activity.

By year five, volunteers were putting up snow fencing, pulling a larger wooden plow behind a truck for big storms and pushing snow with a quad (the driver was chased by a senior with a fistful of money, “for gas”).

Then it stopped on St Patrick’s Day, 1995. A historic snowstorm dumped massive amounts of snow and the overnight band of volunteers ‘threw in the shovel’. It was impossible to clear the snow and it stayed that way until the next chinook. It was, however, a lucky storm for Calgarians. The City received many angry complaints from citizens imploring, “Why aren’t you clearing the paths anymore?” It seems we’d created an expectation that pathways be cleared!

In response, The City hosted a Public Hearing to gauge opinions and the turnout was amazing. The running club lobbied for pathway clearing, as did many citizens. “My doctor says I need to keep active in the winter,” one senior explained. A blind man, in a kilt and in a thick Scottish accent, told how he’d wandered off the path and onto the river ice “because the path was buried in snow.” In the end, the City relented to public pressure and agreed to clear not only the river pathway, but also several park pathways in each city quadrant. Today there are over 300km of city pathways cleared.

Over the years, the volunteer effort which began on Parkdale’s pathway, has received media attention. The Calgary Herald, out-of-town newspapers, Maclean’s Magazine, CBC, and even the book “Frostbike” by Tom Babin have made mention. But it came as a particularly humbling surprise to learn that Avenue Magazine recently lauded the “Snow Angels” efforts together with the likes of the Calgary Stampede, the Winter Olympics, Stephen Avenue, The GoPlan, Imagine Calgary and more, as being formative in shaping Calgary.

All I can say is, we never did it for the recognition. It started simply in Parkdale, with a homemade snowplow pulled behind a bike to commute to work.

Special thanks to volunteers Jeff Gruttz, Alistair and Gail Des Moines, Randi Lind, Bob Everett, Cheryl Protz, Ken Lamb, and others

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