Meet Yukon’s cold warriors

After over 40 years of working, John L'Henaff has landed what he calls the "most interesting" job of his life. That's saying something: he can list cowboy on his resume. His hours remain constant: Monday to Friday, 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

After over 40 years of working, John L’Henaff has landed what he calls the “most interesting” job of his life.

That’s saying something: he can list cowboy on his resume.

His hours remain constant: Monday to Friday, 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. But he can never be sure how this time will be filled. “As soon as you plan your day and say, ‘This is going to happen … a wind will come up and blow in a door,” he said. “That’s the thing I like about it. It’s interesting work.”

It’s safe to say not everyone would agree.

L’Henaff is a groundskeeper, one of only eight Highways and Public Works employees responsible for clearing snow from Whitehorse’s schools and Yukon government buildings and elementary and high schools.

There are over 50 properties, each with a number of doors and exits. The legislature building alone has 10 entrances, said senior groundskeeper Kevin Poyton.

All need snow removed and ice sanded. Overhangs need to be cleared as well.

This will be L’Henaff’s third winter making sure Whitehorse residents can access buildings in the snow, and it’s been a memorable one.

It was six degrees colder than normal last month in Whitehorse, said Michael Smith, a meteorologist with Community Services. Temperatures in Dawson City were nine degrees lower. And things look to be the same for December, he said.

“This has been an exceptional winter,” said Glenn Lemoine, a foreman with Public Works. And it’s not just the temperature or snowfall that can cause problems. Winds pack in the snow, making it harder to move.

Lemoine has been working in maintenance for 25 years, most of them in the Yukon. It’s his chosen career, but it’s not for everyone. “You know if you like it or you don’t,” he said.

L’Henaff’s job starts the old-fashioned way, with gloved hands grasping shovels. The skid steers come out after, to clear walkways, ramps and fire exits. It’s more comfortable to sit in one of those, said L’Henaff. But there are some places only a shovel can reach.

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“It’s easy to say, ‘You go into the truck and warm up,’ but then you gotta get back out again. So you’re better off to stay out in it and get the job done before you go back in,” he said.

The body’s core temperature changes quickly, said Lemoine. And workers spend most of the time outside.

The secret comes in wearing layers that can be easily removed. “You can’t go out there with a 40-below jacket on and start shovelling, because pretty soon you’re wet from the inside-out and the outside-in, and then you do get cold,” said L’Henaff.

Even when clearing snow from inside machines, workers need to keep their feet moving to keep their blood circulating. Boot warmers also help, said Poyton.

When temperatures fall below -35 C, using the equipment can get risky, said Lemoine. He schedules equipment use around forecasts of low temperatures, he said.

Inside each machine is a worker.

A few years ago, a machine broke down with the driver still inside. The boom was up, and he couldn’t open the door. “There was no way to release the hydraulics,” said Poyton. “We couldn’t get the cab door open, the batteries were located under the seat.” The operator was stuck in the machine for the better part of an hour. They jury-rigged the machine so operators could boost it without having to go outside, he said.

“Just things like that, you don’t think of until it happens,” said Poyton. That worker now carries blankets with him, he said.

Preparation is mental as much as it is physical. Being able to face the cold in the morning means hitting the sack early each night, said Lemoine.

“It’s a challenge,” said Poyton. “It’s a challenge to try to stay motivated out there and do it.”

The job’s easier to do in a team, said L’Henaff. When the wind blows a door in at F.H. Collins so the skid steer couldn’t get in, Poyton was there to help shovel. “And the job’s done,” he said.

Bringing cookies never hurts either, said Poyton.

While groundskeepers do spend much of their time in the dark, they bring get to bring light to the community. A growing part of the job is stringing the Christmas lights on buildings around Whitehorse, said Lemoine.

It’s a fun part of the job, he said. And it’s something people appreciate.

When people do stop and thank them for moving snow, it makes the job that much easier, said L’Henaff.

But even if their work never gets acknowledged, the crew always knows there’s something good waiting for them at home.

“I’ve never heard anybody complain about their bath or shower at the end of their shift, that’s for sure,” said Lemoine.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at

mgillmore@yukon-news.com

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