There’s freedom during a city blizzard. If you have skis, that is.
During Monday’s snowstorm I slogged my way home like every other straphanger in this city, first jammed on transit followed by a slow and plodding walk, climbing over snow drifts and windrows.
However, once home I took out my cross-country skies and those barriers were transformed into opportunity. While my initial thought was to head to High Park, so much snow had fallen that I realized I could slide anywhere so I clipped into my skis and set off from the west side towards the centre of Toronto.
I skied the Dundas St. sidewalks and through the deep snow of Trinity Bellwoods Park, where some snowboarders were using the mostly buried Garrison Creek ravine remnants for short runs. Continuing to Queen St., previously shovelled sidewalks had been covered with a layer of new snow and were fast, like the groomed trails found at ski resorts. At Bathurst they had been salted so I took to the near-empty street and then the alleyways, skiing all the way to Osgoode and city hall, with a quick diversion up to Grange Park.
From there I skied down Yonge St., then west along King St. where the streetcar pilot project also made for an excellent, if inadvertent, skiway. Zigzagging through skyscraper plazas to the Gardiner, I followed it to Fort York then on to home. Over the course of three hours I travelled 15.5 kilometres and didn’t once have to take off my skies and “portage,” as I call it, across salted or cleared areas.
What’s most remarkable about a snowstorm in the city is how quiet it is. The snow sucks up all the sound like an acoustically engineered recording studio. One musician friend told me he, too, loves the snow as it is “so unnatural sounding, even more dry than a studio.” The word he used to describe it is “anechoic,” meaning free from echo. Go out in the next thick snowfall and listen for yourself: it’s a uniquely muffled sensation.
A big snowstorm is a wonderful time in the city because of the way it brings people together. As snow is unpleasant for many, it’s a funny thing to happily ski through it and the reactions from people are telling. There’s surprise, sometimes a “yeah!” or “you’ve got the right idea, buddy!” and lots of picture taking. The attention is curious because if I was doing this an hour north of the city, somewhere in the Greenbelt, it would be absolutely unremarkable. It’s as if we’re not supposed to ski in the city. Yet we can.
Urban skiing and snowshoeing has liberated winter for me. It’s a time to go out rather than stay in, and has me wishing for more snow. During more modest snowfalls, the kind we usually get in Toronto, I’ll head to a ravine, park or the waterfront to ski, but the challenge of skiing the more urban parts of the city, finding just enough snow to pass through, patch by patch, is fun, too. Sometimes just a dozen centimetres of snow along a sidewalk are enough to get by and, in the older city, the salt-free and unplowed alleyways are the skier’s secret friend.
High Park is a favourite destination as it’s easily accessible, with its own subway stop at the top, the 501 streetcar at the bottom and the end of the 506 College streetcar just about depositing riders directly into it at the High Park loop.
Carrying skies on the subway, especially at rush hour, gets some funny looks but I hope it’ll give more people “permission” to ski their city. The only reason to leave the city to ski is if there’s no snow here. Wherever the TTC or GO networks intersect with a ravine, park or lakeshore, there’s opportunity to ski. If you’re not comfortable doing it alone, try to find some friends who want to join you.
I’ve got a very simple pair of basic all-around waxless skies. Relatively affordable, they aren’t precious, as they will get scratched up during urban skiing. You can always rent skies, but owning them means being able to get out right when the snow falls.
While I felt total freedom during Monday’s blizzard, the flip side is wherever I could ski anybody with a mobility issue would either have a very hard time or total inability to getting through. Certainly during a blizzard it’s impossible for snow-clearing crews to keep up with the snow, but even a day or two after the big storm there were blocked sidewalks, especially at crosswalks.
The roads, of course, had long been passable to cars, but if you’re on foot or if you need other kinds of wheels, “good luck to you” says this city with its obsession keeping taxes low.
You might almost think facilitating urban skiing adventures is official city policy, but no: Toronto is just cheap.
Shawn Micallef is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @shawnmicallef