Deachman: Ottawa's 'Snow Moles' ferret out winter hazards

“Our goal, really, is to get the city to clear sidewalks to the bare pavement.”

Published Jan 21, 2023  •  3 minute read

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Mary Gick is one of the neighbourhood leaders for a group called the Snow Moles, an initiative of the Council on Aging of Ottawa that encourages people to
Mary Gick is one of the neighbourhood leaders for a group called the Snow Moles, an initiative of the Council on Aging of Ottawa that encourages people to “audit” their neighbourhoods when they’re out on walks, looking for the good and bad things that affect pedestrians trying to navigate their neighbourhoods. Photo by Ashley Fraser /POSTMeDIA

The Snow Moles are back again this year, patrolling the avenues and sidewalks of our fair but foul-weather metropolis, fighting the blocked sewer drains, the snow-drifted staircases, the half-buried benches and the inaccessible crosswalk buttons that can make being a pedestrian in Ottawa such a perilous undertaking.

These are not the latest Marvel or DC superheroes, but rather simply our unsung neighbours; champions of walkers, strollers and passersby who simply want to get from their homes to the grocery store, say, without displacing a hip, filling their boots with slush or errantly slipping and meeting their maker under the wheels of the No. 7 bus.

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It’s difficult to say precisely how many Snow Moles there are in Ottawa. It’s an open club, created by the Council on Aging of Ottawa, a non-profit charitable organization with a mission to advance the well-being of older adults in Ottawa. Snow Moles “audit” their foot journeys throughout the city, reporting on any winter-related hazards or shortcomings which, with some planning or forethought, might be eliminated.

According to Mary Gick, a former Carleton University psychology professor and current Snow Mole community leader in the Glebe — WHO HAS ACTUALLY WRITTEN A SNOW MOLES SONG, I KID YOU NOT, TO THE TUNE OF THE BALLAD OF JED CLAMPETT — one of the aims of the campaign is to elevate the concerns and plight of pedestrians so that they receive the same consideration and service accorded to motorists and, of late at least, cyclists. This inequity is particularly evident by the frequent sightings of pedestrians walking on streets because they feel they are safer there than on sidewalks.

“It’s about putting pedestrians first, instead of cars,” says Gick. “Our goal, really, is to get the city to clear sidewalks to the bare pavement.”

“It’s about putting pedestrians first, instead of cars,” says Mary Gick.
“It’s about putting pedestrians first, instead of cars,” says Mary Gick. Photo by Ashley Fraser /POSTMEDIA

According to the Council on Aging’s Bonnie Schroeder, herself an Alta Vista Snow Mole, the program began when a former COA co-chair noticed that walkability studies of neighbourhoods focused on fair-weather months, not winter ones. “Yet we’re a winter city,” says Schroeder.

“So six years ago we turned out attention to winter walking, because the winter maintenance standards were not necessarily putting pedestrians, including people with disabilities, young families trying to push strollers, and older adults, with or without mobility issues, first.

“We want to make sure that older adults are able to go out in the wintertime to get their physical activity and not be seasonally isolated. So this is a wonderful way to get our community leaders and concerned citizens engaged in a winter walking activity.”

The “audits” that the moles provide — there were 270 of them last year, covering conditions from Cumberland to Kinburn, and about 40 completed so far this winter — are distilled into an annual report of observations and recommendations to the city. It’s hoped that some of the recommendations will ultimately be part of the city’s new Winter Maintenance Quality Standards, which were last updated in 2003, with a subsequent update scheduled for this year.

Meanwhile, on Feb. 2 — Groundhog Day — the council is inviting city councillors to join their moles for an awareness-raising walk in their wards.

Last winter, the group added stairs and ramps to their list of concerns, including them in their audit questionnaire. This year’s campaign, the moles’ sixth, includes an “adopt-a-bench” program, which encourages residents to volunteer to keep a public bench near them accessible and cleared of snow and ice.

“People out walking might want to have a little rest,” says Gick, “but that’s difficult if you can’t get to it or if it’s covered in snow.”

Gick got involved during the moles’ second winter. She and her husband had given up their car in 2015, instead relying more on public transit and walking. When she retired in 2018, she decided to get involved in the program.

“I was noticing how tough it was getting around,” she recalls. “I used to often walk to Carleton when I worked there and I noticed the state of the sidewalks, that it was often very difficult to walk around safely if it was icy, or worse if there was snow on top of ice. So I bought ice grippers and that kind of thing, but I kept thinking about people who were older.

”And as I age, I would like to stay in Ottawa if I can, but I don’t want to become a prisoner in my house.”

Visit to join the snow moles or simply get more information.

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