Paul Dennis, seen here in the mirror of his Lambton County snow plough, bangs some of the snow from the machine.
It’s 10:30 in the morning and while children across Petrolia and Central Lambton rejoice over an extended Christmas break, Paul Dennis has already been hard at work for seven hours.
For the last 24 or so years, the Enniskillen man has risen each morning while most of us are still sleeping and climbed into the cold cab of a Lambton County snow plough in some of the worst weather a Canadian winter can throw at you.
This Monday morning has been “one of those days where you feel like you’re slamming your head against a wall.”
Two days of heavy snow, high winds and a cold arctic blast of air is making clearing the roads challenging to say the least.
The view from his seat high above the road is a canvas of white, especially as he turns south on Kimball Sideroad. The wind has blown the fresh snow into long fingers that stretch almost to the centerline of the icy, snow-packed path. As the blade and the wing push back the drifts, snow covers the windshield making it hard to see the oncoming car.
What would turn most drivers’ knuckles turn white is just another winter day for Dennis. The conditions don’t bother him as much as the frustration of not being able to keep up with the snow during his 12-hour shift which starts at 3:30 am.
“My wife and kids drive these roads, I want it good enough so they can get around,” he says.
Dennis and the other snowplough operators are alternately heroes and scoundrels; people love to see them come by their home until the ploughs push snow into the freshly shoveled driveway. And sometimes, despite their best efforts, drivers question what is taking them so long to clear the roads.
“My cousins travel my roads to work, they know my cell phone number and if it is not good, they call,” he says with a laugh. And then there is the people he meets when he stops during his shift. “If I stop to get a coffee people say ‘why aren’t you clearing the roads?’”
Aside from the speed of clearing road, Dennis has to dodge drivers, dogs and the occasional lawn tractor pushing snow across the road, right in front of him.
While Monday’s weather was wild, Dennis says it is far from the worst he’s seen. He worked through Snowmageddon pulling transports off county roads. But he says the worst years was 1996 when he worked 32 hours straight, long before the 12-hour shifts were imposed. Dennis can remember trying to break through a wall of snow on Petrolia Line near Meadowview. It took plough drivers hours to hammer through.
Monday there were no walls of snow but Dennis says the 12-hour shift is long and can be draining when the winds howl and the roads never seem to be clear. But it is clear there is some fun to his job.
As he steers between hydro poles and signposts to push back the snow, he smiles and says, “ It’s kind of like a ballet.”