Here is my conversation with Groomer Dave of the Sir John A. Macdonald Multi Use Urban Winter Pathway. The SJAM is a trail for cross country skiers, walkers, fat bikes, snowshoers. Everybody is welcome.
Q: Walk me through how you got the idea for the SJAM and how it came to be.
A: I’m a professional snow groomer by trade. I would get in a car everyday to travel out of the city to groom cross country ski trails and I would drive past all this amazing, virgin snow along the Ottawa river parkway and I went “what the hell am I doing? Why am I leaving behind perfectly good snow?” So I put it upon myself to make [the SJAM] happen. I got the support of the Nakkertok ski club. They’re all about promoting cross country skiing, and they loved the idea and wanted to support me. They lent me some equipment that I used for the proof of concept six years ago. And here we are in our fifth season.
Q: How have you changed the SJAM in response to covid?
A: We are getting ready for covid. This may be our biggest year yet. Bring it on. We want to get people outside, and the way we’re going to do that we’re going to groom our little hearts out. In fact, we’re going to take our entire network and we’re going to double, triple it where we can. But we’re also gifted with a whole bunch of big, wide open green spaces and there we’re going to double or triple the track. We’re going to provide a network that encourages physical distancing and we’re going to be grooming every day to make it encouraging for people to get outside and deal with their cabin fever on the trail.
Q: How does the grooming process work?
A: In the grooming world, the textbook says you should be grooming in the night. So on weekends, we try to have the machinery off the trail by nine am, so I start my shift around three am. However, my staff are volunteers, so I don’t push them. They groom during the day. I train [my volunteers], they’re safe with the machinery. They’re really good ambassadors of the sport, they always say hi to all the users. So it’s not a bad thing to have them grooming during the day. And we keep everybody happy. The main point is we try to be grooming on a daily basis.
Q: This is getting a little technical, but what kind of equipment do you have?
A: I got five implements for processing snow: We have our main groomer that cuts up lumps in the snow and hard packed ice, then corduroys it and sets the classic tracks. Then I have a glorified cheese cutter that drags behind the Skidoo that turns ice into powder snow. I also have these carpet groomer, which is a glorified hunk of rubber that corduroys the snow. I’ve got some simple, crude methods of setting tracks and finally I have the roller, which lets me get out really early in the season with not a lot of snow.
Q: What’s your favourite thing about the SJAM?
A: Oh, the smiles! The smiles! It’s just so nice to see people discovering cross country skiing for the first time. Or I get comments like “Oh I haven’t cross country skied in 30 years, I found my old skis in the basement. I’m just giving it a try and I love this!”. It’s really nice to see how civil people can be, like yeah there are walkers on the trail and the skiers don’t love that, but really, the SJAM is a multi-use winter pathway and I’m out grooming all the time. So I tell them just relax, you’ll have fresh corduroy in no time. I find people are incredibly accepting.
One of the goals of the SJAM is to provide access to our majestic Ottawa River. That’s super important. We want people to appreciate how good we got it here in Ottawa: we have this absolute incredible natural wonder called the Ottawa River and it was inaccessible before the SJAM pathway came along. So one of the goals of the trail is to make that River accessible so that people can experience nature right in downtown Ottawa.
Q: How is the SJAM financed?
A: Right from the beginning, I took the approach that the SJAM is a community trail. What is community? It’s defined as our public agencies, our businesses, and our local citizens. So I have asked all three parties to cooperate and give up a third of the funding required to produce this program. The notable of those three groups have been the private individuals who have donated far and beyond my wildest expectations, which shows how this is a resource that people really cherish and want to keep and want to support.
Q: If people want to support the SJAM, what should they do?
A: Donations are your best bet. But beyond that, we don’t have heavy equipment and so all the underpasses on the trails are always a problem for us. They’re always empty of snow. If anybody wanted to volunteer, we’d love to have them come out, pick up a shovel, throw some snow into the underpasses. That’s awesome.
Of course we need money. I’m trying to replace one of my snowmobiles right now. They’re they’re not cheap. I’m not getting any grants to do this, I’m just counting on those three stakeholders [business, government, and citizens] to help. It costs $50,000/year to run the SJAM. And look what I can do $50,000!
*Note, in 2019 the City of Ottawa’s snow removal budget was $70.8 million.
In the world of public works, doing urban winter pathways is incredibly cheap. Compared to plows, trucks and salters that are really expensive, and that doesn’t even factor in the environmental costs. The damage the salt does to the Ottawa River? It’s immense! What does it do to buildings? It wreaks them! To cars? Wreaks them! The real cost of salt is way more than what you’re loading up into the truck to spread. In a lot of cases, you don’t have to salt and plow. Let’s press that snow instead of plowing. I always say, “lets press the snow and play”.
Q: In your wildest dreams, what does the SJAM look like?
A: I would like to make our city more liveable in the winter and extend the SJAM to other communities. And I know how to do that, I can do that. We’ve created a group called the Urban Winter Trails Alliance with the Kanata Nordic Ski club, Britannia winter trail, the SJAM (that’s me), Rideau Winter Trail, Ski Heritage East, and the Orleans Ski Club. We’re talking to the City and the NCC as a single voice and we’ve succeeded in getting funding from both organizations. So the long term goal is to have ski trails all across the city.
The canal is good, but it can’t handle the fluctuating winter temperatures like we can. We can be out grooming from +5 to -25 and we don’t need much to get going, whereas the canal really does. I hate to say it, but freaky climate change is what we’re counting on right now. I don’t like it, but the good news is that urban winter pathways and snow grooming can deal with it.
Q: As this is a blog about sustainability, I wanted to ask you: What does sustainability look like to you?
A: A sustainable Ottawa to me is a city with lots of options for active transport. We need to get people out of cars. Obviously with covid public transit has some troubles, but we need to get people out on bicycles, have pedestrian friendly streets, and we have to have green spaces that encourage urban winter pathways. We have to get away from the old days when the car was king, and provide more options for active transit.
For updates about trail conditions check the SJAM twitter account (@SJAMwintertrail) or visit their website.