Making life a little easier for city man

Millwright apprentices rig up snowblower for fellow student in wheelchair

Gary Kean
Published on January 16, 2013
Mike Johnson test drives the modified snowblower rigged up for him by millwright apprentice students at the College of the North Atlantic in Corner Brook.
Gary Kean

CORNER BROOK — Mike Johnson may have an ironworker’s union tattoo on his upper right arm, but that won’t stop him from getting a helping hand from the millwright apprentice students at College of the North Atlantic in Corner Brook.

It’s not uncommon to see ironworkers and millwrights arguing about jurisdiction on a job site, so it’s kind of ironic that millwright students came together at the behest of their instructor, Jerry Smith, to help Johnson overcome the particular challenge snowclearing presents to him.

Johnson, a Codroy Valley native who worked as an ironworker in Toronto, was seriously injured in a head-on collision with a transport truck at MacDougall’s in The Wreckhouse area of southwestern Newfoundland on Feb. 18, 2010. The accident left Johnson with a T-6 spinal cord injury.

Paralyzed from his lower ribs down, Johnson requires a wheelchair to get around.

That hasn’t stopped him from clearing the snow that builds up in his driveway. Now studying engineering at the College of the North Atlantic, Johnson lives at the top of Wheeler’s Road, essentially smack dab in the middle of Corner Brook’s proverbial snow belt.

It was nothing for Johnson to head out in his wheelchair and tackle the snow-filled driveway, using a scoop or a shovel.

Smith happens to be Johnson’s neighbour. He would sometimes go clear Johnson’s driveway for him, only to find that Johnson had returned the favour later on by removing snow from the front of Smith’s driveway.

Recently, Johnson’s father delivered an old snowblower to his son. Smith saw Johnson sidling up as close to the machine as he could, then letting it go a short distance before wheeling up to it again to clear a little more snow.

Though easier than shovelling or scooping snow from his chair, the process was still painstakingly slow.

Smith wanted to help Johnson use the blower more efficiently.

“We tried to rig it up with pieces of twine tied to a slide that Mike could put his chair on, but that didn’t work too good,” said Smith. “So, I said let’s bring it down and the millwright apprentices that I teach can rig something up.”

Smith introduced Johnson to his class and presented the problem to them. The end result was a metal-hitch system attached to the wide sleigh Johnson already had.

The hitch allows Johnson to remain close to the snowblower’s controls and also allows him to swing to the left or right if he needs to.

“This was the easiest solution we could come up with,” said millwright student Stephan Caines. “It’s the same kind of hitch you would hook a slide up to your Ski-Doo to tow wood with.”

Johnson has yet to use the new rig on his driveway, but has taken it out for a couple of test runs in the college parking lot.

“This is great and I am thankful for everyone who helped out and had a hand in this,” he said, after managing to get through some heavy, slushy snow in the parking lot.

“I can’t wait to get this home in my driveway.”

He should get a chance to try it out at home soon as the weather forecast was calling for snow squalls into Tuesday night and flurries everyday for the next week or so.

“I’ll be going up and down Wheeler’s Road in this,” joked Johnson.

For Caines and Smith, seeing the smile on Johnson’s face, proved they all got a passing grade on this project.

“It makes us all feel good,” said Caines. “Everyone helped out in some way or another.”

This isn’t the last time the class will do a project for Johnson. They are currently in the process of constructing a bobsled for Johnson and one of the millwright students to enter in the third annual Cook’s Quest homemade bobsled challenge during Corner Brook Winter Carnival in February.