Saturday, February 3, 2018

That time I was on the Skate Patrol for ten years (Part 1)

The 40th edition of Ottawa's Winterlude festival has opened this weekend, and its crown jewel, the Rideau Canal Skateway, is enjoying a good season. This year has had the earliest start in four years, after a record short 18 skating days in 2016 and 25 skating days in 2017.

The official @NCC_Skateway Twitter account often posts tidbits about the skateway, for example, a tweet mentioning that there is a team of 60 skate patrollers on the canal.

As it happens, I served on the Rideau Canal Skate Patrol for ten years, and I've been meaning to write about it. Now that I've been off the patrol for a while, it's time for me to come out of the shadows...

Up until now, I deliberately avoided revealing that I was on the skate patrol, mostly so I wouldn't have to dodge acquaintances' requests for inside info about when the canal would open.

There were a few hints scattered in some of my Canal blog posts.
For example, in my 2009 blog post, The Bridges of Rideau Canal, part 2, I posted a photo of the canal receiving its weekend daytime sweep at Pretoria Bridge, with the caption, "Here the sweeper trucks make their convoy, with a green-jacketed escort."

If you paid close attention to that photo, you'd notice that the patroller whose job it is to keep people out of the way doesn't seem too bothered that I'm standing right in the sweeper's path as I take the photo.

But he wouldn't be bothered, because I was a patroller too! Here I am at Concord, earlier on that same sweeper run, posing for a photo with a conservation officer:

Things have changed a lot over the years I was on the patrol. They don't use patrollers with crowd control (as much) on the daytime sweeping runs (relying more on the cops on ATVs). I actually don't think I could have gotten the gig today. Back then, if you were trained in first aid and CPR, and you could skate, you could join the skate patrol.

My route to joining the Skate Patrol was circuitous. Back in 2003, while working at Citizens for Safe Cycling, I learned about the Pathway Patrol, a volunteer group that rides in pairs on the pathways with first aid kits and bike repair tools. In 2004, I became more involved with the Pathway Patrol, joining its steering committee on behalf of CfSC. Here's a photo of me in my Pathway Patrol outfit taking the O-Train to Carp:

From the Pathway Patrol, I learned about the Rideau Canal Skate Patrol, which was actually a paying job. I attended an info session in December where I gave them copies of my first aid/CPR certificate, and started on the patrol in January 2005. Curiously, the question of my skating abilities never came up in the recruiting process.

My skating abilities did come up on my first shift, though. I remember busing to the Mackenzie-King Bridge and putting on my skates for the first time since high school. I attached my heavy boots to my heavy backpack and skated three kilometres on too-loose skates to the Skate Patrol trailer on the far end of the Fifth Avenue rest area. I arrived at least half an hour late for the start of my five-hour shift, and my back was already in a lot of pain.

As I kitted up for my first patrol, I asked for the radio handle "BIKE". This, I was told, could get misheard and confused for the existing patroller "MIKE." Thus my callsign became "CYCLE", and that got misheard instead. (I became very adept at pronouncing the "L", so that patients overhearing me wouldn't think I was "PSYCHO"!)

When I was ready to go out, I was assigned to work that shift with "TINY", who towered over me. It was rough keeping up with his fast, experienced, skating, particularly with my sore back. I got a bit of a reprieve when we were assigned to stop people from skating in the section between Bank Street and Bronson Avenue, which was closed because the ice was too thin. We were stationed at the gate, so I didn't have to keep up with Tiny's fast skating.

Crowd control was hard. The NCC used short metal gates instead of the 8-foot-tall Moduloc fences now used to block off sections of the canal. Our uniforms consisted of red jackets which didn't look much different from what anyone else was wearing. Moreover, we're a first aid patrol, not a police force, so we could do little more than ask people to obey the rules. With such meagre disincentive, people pushed Tiny and me out of the way to skate through the closed section anyway.

NCC conservation officers eventually took over and strictly enforced the closed section, freeing us up to return to patrolling for injured skaters. Some people insisted they had to skate through the closed section because their boots were on the other side. Of course, those people only got to this side by ignoring the signs and warnings not to skate in the closed section. The officers made them walk up off the canal along the pathway, which they did, with their skates on, in the snowbank. Like, we tried to warn you!

After four or five hours of that first shift, I went home and recall spending an entire week on my back.

To mark us as first aid patrol, we couldn't use a red cross, because, well, we weren't the Red Cross. Instead, the back of the red jackets had a large white first-aid style cross, which led to us being regularly asked if we were Swiss tourists! I don't have any photos of myself as a patroller from that first year, but here's another patroller at Dow's Lake with some sort of mascot during Winterlude 2005.

That first year of mine was the last year that there were any ice sculptures on Dow's Lake (inside an "Ice Café" tent), and the majority of the action had already moved to Confederation Park.

In those days, Winterlude meant that two extra patrollers were scheduled on weekends to walk around Confederation Park to tend to any injuries there, in addition to two MedVent people stationed inside their own trailer. These patrollers were referred to as "Boot Patrol". One of my Boot Patrol shifts was on a day that was so warm, at the start of my shift the artists were just finishing their ice sculptures, and by the end of my shift they'd all melted! So here, take in a rare photo of one of the 2005 ice sculptures:

The Boot Patrol thing was really peculiar, because on a five-hour shift, we'd get at most one injury at Confederation Park, or possibly on the skateway nearby. The rest of the time we sauntered idly around Confederation Park as we listened over the walkie talkie to our ice-bound colleagues working their butts off from one injury to the next.

In 2007, the stage (which had at one point been at Dow's Lake) was built over the Plaza Bridge/Union Station end of the Canal so that shows could continue even when the skateway was closed (performances are now at Confederation Park). I got a gig through a temp agency that year, working all three Winterlude weekends at the American Express tent next to the stage. People could come in to get free hot chocolate and we'd approach them with tablet computers to collect their email addresses for some sort of mailing list. My supervisor was a man from the Montreal-based marketing company that had set up the arrangement, who learned that in my spare time I do a lot of volunteering.

It was the closest I've come to working either sales or retail, and I can't say I envy anyone who does it for a living. When I wasn't signing anyone up to receive spam, I listened to the 30-minute loop of obscure Canadian folk music that repeated between performances the whole three weekends. The supervisor would sometimes occupy his lulls chatting with me and tell me about how volunteers are stupid because there's always someone who's willing to pay them for the same work.

And I got to see the performances:

The weather that Winterlude was perfect: the weeknights were very cold, which made my evening Skate Patrol shifts into a good long skate mostly free of first aid requests, and the weekends were just above freezing, making my daytime standing-around temping shifts more comfortable.

From the AmEx tent, I kept an eye on the impromptu stroller parking area by the stage:

In 2008, the Skate Patrol got bright new neon green jackets, which had very few pockets, so people were less likely to forget things in them at the end of their shift. Because they were just a shell, it was easier to adjust our layering to the weather. Compared to the old red and white jackets, the new jackets looked much more official, and exerted an authority that Swiss tourists could only dream of. Here's a patroller (not me) visible all the way from Echo Drive as he pushes a toboggan past Pig Island:

Skate patroller pushing a toboggan on the canal with Lansdowne Park/Frank Clair Stadium's south side stands in the background, 2009.

Speaking of which, why is it called Pig Island? The story I recall (as told to me I think by Mark Rehder) is that farmers heading into town would leave their pigs there overnight the night before making their way up the final stretch to the ByWard Market. I never tried to verify this story until now, and I see that a more prominent narrative says that pigs got stranded there when the gully was flooded.

If you're not aware of Pig Island, it could be because they stopped using it as a Winterlude rest area with big flags that said "Pig Island" after 2010, and now you'd only see the name if you use the canal access along Colonel By Drive there.

Here it is from another angle in 2009, with the big "Pig Island/Île Pig" banners. You'll notice that the patroller in this photo is wearing his waist pack over his shoulder, foreshadowing today's backpacks, which seem to now be standard equipment.

So there's the story of how I got my start on the Rideau Canal Skate Patrol. Stay tuned for the next post (tomorrow at 9am) where I talk about more changes as I began to establish myself on the Patrol, in Part 2, and some of my special duties as a veteran patroller in Part 3.

I actually started preparing this blog post last February, but the 2017 skating season was so short, the canal closed before I could finish it!

You may have noticed that I haven't posted regularly to this blog since 2014, with my previous posts being in 2015 and 2016, respectively. I've been trying to get back into it, but I'm only starting to catch up on a two-year backlog of photo sorting after having a busy couple of years, and my workflow tends to depend on sorting and tagging my photos before I post any of them to the blog. Just in case you didn't notice (which you might not if you're reading this months or years later, or because you get your fix of my content on Twitter), I'm putting this note at the end of the post, so this bit doesn't distract from the opening. I have another longform blog post in the works that I want to publish before winter ends, but I don't know when or if I'll get back into posting regularly.

[You can read previous Canal related blog posts with the Canal label, or see a 2010 blog post with a list of prior Rideau Canal Skateway-related posts]

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