Unsung Heroes

A dedicated Teton County Parks & Rec crew works to clear town’s sidewalks in the early hours of the morning.

Unsung Heroes

A dedicated Teton County Parks & Rec crew works to clear town’s sidewalks in the early hours of the morning.

By maggie theodora

Parks and Rec employees Logan Henrickson and Cody Daigle work to clear snow and heavy ice from a stretch of pathway along Highway 22 between Jackson and Wilson. Photo by Ryan Dorgan

“We’re not only dealing with the snow falling onto the sidewalk from the sky, but also snow plowed onto sidewalks from roads and parking lots and contractors doing private driveways,” says Cody Daigle. “It gets interesting.” 

Daigle is one of 15 full-time staffers at Teton County Parks & Recreation responsible for plowing 25 miles of pathways and sidewalks in Jackson and maintaining three outdoor public ice rinks. “Most people are super appreciative,” he says. “I’ve been cheered on and people sometimes offer us coffee and cookies—but one of my co-workers, a supervisor, tells a story to the crew at the beginning of every winter: he had a property manager yell at him because he was plowing snow somewhere they didn’t want him to. The property manager threw a shovel at the back of the machine. It can get a little hairy.”

And then there are the machines themselves, which can fall off the edge of a sidewalk and need towing out. Also, there are hard-packed wind drifts that can be several feet high to contend with, and downtown’s wooden sidewalks. The latter are as full of seams as they are of character. (Seams are every six inches.) “If you catch a seam, well, we’ve broken a lot of boardwalk,” Daigle says. There are also months like last February, when the Town of Jackson got 55 inches of snow, 41 inches more than the historic average, making it the second snowiest month on record. 

“It was four to six inches every day,” Daigle says. “It got to the point where we didn’t even have the time to be concerned about trying to keep the ice rinks open. Usually we do rinks once a day, but in February we only had time to do them once a week.”

Still, Daigle, who grew up in the valley, loves his job. “I live every five-year-old’s dream of playing with Tonka trucks for a living,” he says. “This job is like two seasonal jobs rolled into one. In the summer, the maintenance department has turf care, pathways, parks, and athletic fields to take care of. But in the wintertime we all conglomerate into one crew and work on snow removal, ice rinks, and grooming.” 

In winter the crew has a seven-day schedule and each member works five days a week. “We stagger our shifts so that there is coverage for each of the plow routes every day,” says Daigle, who, this past May, graduated with a Master of Science degree in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management from a two-year, online program offered by Clemson University. “My emphasis was on community recreation and sports management,” he says.

In addition to Daigle’s Bobcat Toolcat, Parks & Rec has a cat loader and several Ventrac machines. Daigle says the Ventrac, used on downtown’s wooden sidewalks because it is substantially lighter in weight than the Bobcats, has a top speed of six miles an hour. “It takes a solid 20 minutes just to drive from the shop to the Town Square,” he says.

A TYPICAL WINTER day for Teton County Parks & Recreation’s maintenance department starts at 5 a.m., with everyone meeting at the Park Shop on West Snow King Avenue. Seven crew members are sidewalk plowers—each is responsible for a different route and that route is theirs for the winter. The rest of the crew, usually between three and six people, is dedicated to shoveling the entrances of government buildings and clearing stairways on streets like Pearl Avenue and Center Street. 

Daigle started at Parks & Rec full-time in 2015 and for his first three years he plowed the “safe routes to school” route. This includes about seven miles of pathways and sidewalks kids use to walk or bike to school. Last year he did that route three days a week and the other two days plowed out the START bus stops and surrounding sidewalks. In the summer his job title is senior maintenance technician for pathways. “I’m sweeping gravel and debris off the bike paths, mowing the shoulders, replacing signs, and trimming trees for cycling—anything to make a safe, connected bike route through the valley,” he says. It is because of the extensive knowledge his summer work gives him that pathways fall under Daigle’s winter purview. 

After checking the oil and other fluids in his Bobcat Toolcat, which Daigle describes as “like a side-by-side” with an articulated V-blade plow mounted on its front and a sander attached to the rear, he heads out at around 5:20 a.m., when it is still dark. “I’ll hop out and start plowing the sidewalks on Snow King [Avenue] and work my way to the schools,” he says. “[The safe-routes-to-schools] route, because kids use it to get to school, is a high priority and we want to have things open by 8:00 or 8:30 a.m.” Daigle will do “one straight shot through to get everything up, and then, on my way back to the shop, I’ll try to widen the plowed path and clean up corners and intersections.” He’s usually back at the shop by 10 a.m. 

The second half of Daigle’s day depends on the weather. If it’s snowing, he will go back out with the Bobcat to hit high traffic areas. If it’s not snowing, “we’ll get a hold of the shovel crews and see who needs what kind of help on the ice rinks,” he says. 

In addition to clearing sidewalks and 25 miles of pathways, the Parks & Rec maintenance department is responsible for three public outdoor ice rinks: one at the rodeo grounds, one in Wilson, and one in Powderhorn Park. “The first concern is to get snow off the rinks,” Daigle says. Once the rinks are snow free, the crew members turn their attention to smoothing the ice, a task Daigle says was much more difficult before the department obtained Zamboni ice resurfacers. Pre-ice resurfacer, the crew used fire hoses hooked up to fire hydrants to fill in cracks in the ice and to build up layers. “You really had to pay attention to how much water you were throwing down,” Daigle says. “We still use fire hoses and hydrants, but ripples are less of an issue now that we can get rid of them with the Zamboni.” However, don’t expect the type of Zamboni you’d see at a hockey game. “Ours are attachments that go on the back of a John Deere tractor,” Daigle says.

THE WINTER SEASON for Daigle and the rest of the maintenance department crew starts before the snow flies. Every fall they inspect the curbs and intersections and walk every inch of the walkways they’ll be responsible for plowing on their routes. “We usually do our inspections at the same time we’re staking the edges of the sidewalk, so we know not to push too far into someone’s lawn,” Daigle says. “In between staking, we’re studying the sidewalks for broken curbs, raised concrete seams—anything that could be a hazard or cause discomfort in the machine. It is much different looking at a sidewalk in the daytime than at five in the morning when it is dark and the snow is blowing sideways. We mark as much as we can so we’re not surprised when we can’t see it.” 

In the fall there’s also an orientation session for new operators, of which Daigle says there are usually one or two. “We get all of the machines out and send them across the street to the rodeo grounds [parking lot], where they can run [the machines] with as few obstacles as possible,” he says. “They can get a feel for the controls and how quickly a machine accelerates. But it’s the sidewalks and not the machines that are the real challenge. After you run a machine three or four times, you have a feel for it, but it takes longer to learn the nuances of your route. Falling off the sidewalk is definitely an initiation process for the crew. You almost sit and wait for the new guy to call in—‘I fell off the curb and now I’m high centered.’ Depending on what route they’re on, you can almost guess exactly where they’re stuck.”

Daigle’s biggest “oh sh&$ moment” happened last spring when he got the cat loader, the largest of the department’s snow removal machines, stuck. “I was going through scraping the South Park Loop pathway and the left-side tires fell off the edge of the pathway,” he says. “The ground had thawed and melted, and the machine almost rolled into a very nice gentleman’s driveway. It ended up being an easy tow out, but it was the sketchiest moment I’ve had in the job. 

“I’m fine with wildlife encounters—a moose has charged my machine—and seeing weird things like people passed out in snow banks and sleeping on benches. But I really don’t want to test out how [well] the rollover protection system on any machine works.” JH

Daigle finishes his day of sidewalk and pathway plowing back at the Parks and Rec lot on Snow King Avenue. Photo by Ryan Dorgan

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