37 Centimetres (But How Much is That in American?)

CBC Radio’s local show interviewed the man in charge of keeping Ottawa’s streets clean and passable. He figured that last Sunday’s snowfall – a one-day record 37 centimetres of fluffy dumpage – was going to cost between $4 and $5 million to clean up. We should hear numbers like this more often; among other things, it’s a good reminder that five million bucks, from the collective standpoint, isn’t really a lot of money.  It costs a tremendous amount to run a city, to provide the services that we taxpayers so often take to be automatic rights. (And “free” ones, too! Because when we’re that blisslessly ignorant of what city work costs, it’s easier to whine about how much we pay in municipal taxes.)

Taxes are, for the most part, a considerable bargain. I know how much private schools for my boys would have cost. I should probably know the price of all the pipes and pumping and purification to bring us clean water, too. But to tell the truth, the connection between the ploughing of my streets and my tax bill wasn’t the main thought that snow brought, thankfully.

I walk the street, with cold crunchy snow and the odd patch of black ice, and I remember hockey on Sutherland East, kitty-corner from Edinburgh Square, between the Timsons and the Martindales. When I was a kid, the streets couldn’t have been salted and sanded like they are now, and it’s not just my childhood-days-were-better hindsight to think that the winter temperatures were generally colder. That ideal street-hockey surface – snow packed hard by the passage of maybe a day’s worth of cars – was not always present, I know; we played eight or nine months of the year, anyway, and were as unstoppable as postal carriers (which my little town was too small to have). But winters then were, well, more wintry than they are now. (And no, no global warming rants today, except maybe for this: Walter Gretzky couldn’t build that famous backyard rink in Brantford now. Not enough chillin’.) And that’s one of many reasons for enjoying Ottawa, where I now live. It may still be considered the coldest national capital in the world. It’s the real northern deal here, especially this week.

Even though I don’t do a lot of winter sports, I still love genuine, made-in-some-idealized-Canada-of-the-mind winters, and Ottawa comes through more regularly than southern Ontario does. I was sidelined from most of the shovelling post-Sunday, as my back has been painfully wonky from a high school typing class injury. (No joke, but not even that good as a story.) And I was ticked off – I LOVE shovelling snow! I’m not quite the pitching machine I once was, but it’s a fun workout. I met more neighbours, even with my limited lifting, on Sunday than I have in weeks. Pushing folks out of snowbanks, commiserating, smiles and mitten-shakes, need an extra shovel? and why not just park it in my driveway for the night? Even though basketball dominates my sporting thought in winter, I live in hockey country and get out for an outdoor whirl and some puck-bashing several times a year. There are times when I idly wish that I was a skier. I do remember, though, how my thighs burned as I snow-ploughed down Mt. Tremblant on my second downhill excursion ever, and as for our region’s superb cross-country trails? Bought the equipment (used, archaic). Took the lessons (humiliating, painful). No doubt the snow angels I live with will try to strap me on to those accursed boards again this year, and I will resist with spotty success. (Course, there’s always hope that I won’t spend so much snowbank face-time, and it is a beautiful thing to be out in the hills and trees…) I love skating on the Rideau Canal, but I don’t get on it more often than an eager tourist does. New season, clean slate, and there is the outdoor rink two streets over.

Winter’s great, even if I’m not gliding down hills. I like striding down the middle of snowbound roads when the sidewalks are stuffed. I like watching Sam climb the mountain of snow collecting in the vacant lot down the street, or furiously excavating his front-yard fortress. And one of my ongoing pleasures, ridiculously and quintessentially Canadian, is building and maintaining our tiny townhouse backyard rink. Sam is seven now, and still wanted the rink, even though two hard skating strides necessitate a hard turn, even for him. He’ll have no choice but to learn stopping and turning; he’s been on the ice several times already this year. Perfect conditions, and so much earlier than the last three seasons!

One problem. Thirty-seven centimetres is a lot of snow — in Canadian or American — especially on a fenced-in rink with already maxed-out banks. Every shovel load needs to be pitched over a six-foot barrier into the common ground behind, and I figure it ain’t kosher to fire it into the neighbours’ yards. Although Diana wielded a mighty shovel on the driveway during my lameness, she draws the line at backyard silliness. Sam isn’t strong enough. I’ve had one very careful, old-mannish, bent-kneed session of human Zamboni-ism, and I’m looking at another two slow hours. So far, my back has made only grudging complaints, but I can’t afford the screaming spasms of last week. Slowly, ol’ buddy. Easy does it.

But now my weather report calls for RAIN this weekend! Five degrees! (Nearly 40 for metric deniers in the USA.) What is this, southern Ontario? Indiana? How’s a dad supposed to Gretzky-ize his son and keep his ice hard when spring comes in December?! (And that’s among the most emotionally compelling signals of climate change for Canadians, next to struggling polar bears: the northern migration of the home-made outdoor rink.) Hey, presto! I’ve just found what every Canuck carries as standard equipment: a reason to complain about winter weather. It’s just NOT COLD ENOUGH!

I’ve already spent more time hosing my backyard to flood the rink than I did in watering the tomatoes last summer. It’s looking good, or will when I excavate a few hundred more kilos of snow. Rain, rain, go AWAY / Fall as snow so we can play…

Through a Skier’s Eyes: Global Warming

There’s a good story in The Toronto Star today about the point where the ski wax hits the snow. Or doesn’t, as it happens…

Two of Canada’s best winter athletes, the alpine skier Thomas Grandi and his Olympic silver-medallist wife, cross-country star Sara Renner, have outed themselves. They are environmentalists. They have a broad social consciousness that may have been pricked by their chosen sports, but which extends far beyond the winter playground to a greater concern for the way we live, especially in the wealthy Western hemisphere.

Grandi’s World Cup season is in jeopardy because of a lack of snow. Snow-making (and preserving) equipment is now critical to international meets, though it was rarely needed two decades ago. Many of the world’s top cross-country ski teams train together now because there are so few places with reliable snow cover. Renner skied through a driving rain at a meet well above the Arctic circle in Finland this year. The United Nations even proclaimed it a few years ago: skiers may be an endangered species.

What’s encouraging about Renner and Grandi is that they see beyond their sport. Athletes are young and they are focused. Elite competitors often live narrow and self-interested lives, and may be required to do so by coaches and associations that insist on Olympian levels of concentration as a prerequisite to success. But here’s the thing: especially for athletes in the well-paid professional ranks, how do they fill the other 18-20 hours a day beyond their training and competition? How much X-Box can they reasonably be expected to play?

No problem for these Canadian stars. They’ve seen An Inconvenient Truth. Not only do they know who David Suzuki is, they’re working with him on a public- awareness campaign on greenhouse gases and climate change. Their sport, and the industry and municipalities that support it are threatened. But for Thomas Grandi and Sara Renner, it’s not just about sport, either. They work hard – biking, cutting household energy use, buying sustainably – to reduce their own environmental footprints, and they even purchase carbon credits to offset the greenhouse gases produced when they must fly or drive. It’s everybody’s air; it’s everybody’s water, they say.

Bully for them for saying it, and for walking their talk. Now, when Sidney Crosby starts to express public concern for the increasing difficulty in building an outdoor rink, or when LeBron James begins to buy back the carbon offsets for his basketball road trips, we’ll know that the jock world is waking up to smell the global warning. (It’s about Climate Change, smarty!)