Dear Friends

Letters home from Prince George.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Dear Friends 22

Written: January 16, 2009

Dear Friends,

I know I said I wasn’t going to do another one of these, but since I have had a number of enquiries over Christmas, I thought I might just bring you up to date with the most recent development.

A few weeks ago, I went out and bought a snowblower. Now, you may be wondering exactly what a snowblower is, and why I might need one. Those of you with long memories might remember me referring to one in passing during our first winter. Essentially, it’s a large gas-powered (for the Brits among you, I mean petrol-engined) beast, not unlike an oversized lawnmower which chomps its way through any snow you happen to have lying around.

Why do I need one? The answer to that question became clear to me one morning in December, when, suffering from a particularly nasty cold, I opened my garage door to discover a layer of snow which came up to my knees. I did eventually mange to clear it by hand, but I had to lie down for a week afterwards, and I decided that enough was enough – mechanical assistance was required.

So, as I said, I went out and bought one. Transporting it from store to home is a short story all in itself, but once I had it here, I filled it with gas, and waited for it to snow.

Now, I don't imagine that many of you have had the particular pleasure of driving one of these things, so I'll give you a little road test, shall I?

First off, it's huge. Heavier than a small car, it is also more powerful than some cars I’ve owned, but I was told that anything smaller wouldn't be able to deal with the heavy snow we sometimes get.

In order to get it going, you have to do several fiddly things to the back of it - I'm pretty certain that starting light aircraft is quicker and easier than this. You also have to, if it's a cold day, plug it in to the wall. Now this is not entirely alien to us now - we routinely plug our cars in on cold nights - but it does have its potential little pitfalls.

Once you get it started, and replace the glass in the front windows which has been shaken loose, you then have to close the choke, and retard the throttle. This last is important, because the idle speed of this thing is only just below that of a fully-laden Vietnam-era Phantom jet, and if you don't, one squeeze of the power handle will have it halfway down the drive, dragging behind it a plaintively wailing Scotsman, and a chunk of the garage wall with the power cable still attached to it.

Once it's running, though, it's a sleek, powerful beast.

Oh, who am I trying to kid? Once it's running, it sets up sympathetic resonances in every joint in your body and sets to work scrambling your brain stem. One squeeze on the power handle, and my earwax is gone for ever. The other handle operates the actual thrower bit - the auger, it's officially known as - which chomps the snow in front of you and belches it out the little chute at the top. This chute, which is technically known as the 'chute', can be pivoted about its vertical axis and also can be angled to aim at passing small dogs. Or large dogs. Or moose.

We don't often get much in the way of wind, but the exception to this rule is whenever I take the snowblower out. Then, we get the whippy, swirly kind which changes direction every thirty seconds and blows whatever I've just sucked off the driveway back into my face.

I say 'into my face'; the effect is a little more dramatic than that. It's like having your own private blizzard - I am transformed instantly from easygoing, well-dressed man-about-town into an overweight, lumpy Yeti which swears a lot.

Once on the open driveway, however, the whole operation is smooth and straightforward. Well, that's a lie, too. The whole operation is like trying to stop a greased runaway mechanical bull with your teeth while someone throws freezing water over your head every fifteen seconds. While strapped to one of those vibrating slimming machines which were all the rage thirty years ago.

Essentially, the sequence is this: engage the chute. Disengage the chute, turn the chute so it isn't actually blowing in your face. Engage the chute. Engage the power. Disengage the power. Manhandle the thing so it's actually pointing at a piece of open ground. Retard the throttle a little more, but not so much that it – too late; it's stalled. Start again. When you get to the 'retard the throttle' bit, DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING. Engage power. Run behind the thing while it careers off trees and small cars. Eventually remember that the way to stop it is to just let go. Let go. Survey the damage. Try again., this time selecting a lower gear (it has more gears than my car, too). Proceed in a slightly more dignified manner to the end of the driveway. Turn round. Repeat.

If only it were that simple. To turn round, you use a steering system derived from World War 1 tanks - you apply the brakes to one wheel, and let it pivot gracefully over your foot. Once you have finished cursing, you eventually figure out that you are now blowing the snow not only over yourself, but also over the bit of driveway you just cleared. You stop everything, turn the chute to face the other way, engage one of the reverse gears, and run over both your feet.

Eventually, however, you do have what approximates to a cleared driveway. Apart, that is from the bits which were rutted and packed with uneven ice to begin with, and over which your expensive new toy has just kangarooed wildly - they pretty much look like they did before you started, except covered in a fine layer of newly-powdered snow.

And then you do it all again in a couple of hours, because it won't stop snowing.