County tells bicyclist thanks, but stop plowing trail
By Garrett Ordower Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted February 21, 2004
By day, Dave Peterson works with diagnostic multiplexers and beam shakers to maintain the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory's antiproton source.
But at dawn and dusk the Geneva resident drags a homemade snowplow behind his daughter's Pacific Electra mountain bike, clearing a 16-inch wide section of the Fox River Trail as he rides to and from work in Batavia.
Because he rides at a time when few are watching, he's become something of a local legend the last two winters, a Bigfoot.
"It's one of those weird things that has touched a nerve with a lot of people," Peterson said.
A whole lot. In fact, many of the path's regulars have come to expect it to be clear - and that has put Peterson's plowing on hiatus.
The county has asked him to stop because if there's an expectation that the trail will be plowed, there's a greater chance for litigation, said Kane County Forest Preserve District operations supervisor Pat McQuilkin.
"If a person falls, you are more liable than if you had never plowed at all. Crazy world," wrote AnnMarie Fauske, the district's community affairs director, in response to a letter to Peterson. "Unfortunately, the times we are in allow for a much more litigious environment than common sense would dictate."
Peterson started commuting to work on the trail nearly 20 years ago from his Geneva home.
His bicycling saves Peterson 3,500 miles of driving a year. But it's more than that. He's seen large wading birds like the Egret and Great blue heron return to the river's edge. He's also come close to getting run over by a deer, had a goose fly into the side of his head and seen the temperatures dip to 12 below.
Still, he hasn't missed a day of biking in 2® years, Peterson said.
"Riding to work is much more enjoyable than (driving) on Kirk Road. It's so much more peaceful to do that," he said.
Peterson got the idea of a bike plow this winter when snow forced him to ride along Route 25 and "scurry like a scared rabbit."
He started with a baby-stroller-like push plow, but that proved too labor intensive so he eventually worked out the riding plow.
Its V-shaped body rolls on three wheels while a scraper gets to the snow below it, clearing most of the path.
Although compelled to work on the bike plow for his own use, Peterson also wanted to find a way he could help the public good.
Peterson regularly sees people using the trail, such as factory workers riding on the path from Aurora to their jobs in the Tri-Cities.
"There are people out there who need to use sidewalks and bike paths, people who have no alternatives," Peterson said.
Peterson recently noticed a strange wheel track in the snow, and finally figured it was made by a homeless person pushing a shopping cart.
"There is something I can do here," Peterson said. "I can use my skills as an engineer to make life easier for the little old ladies who walk on the path."
But the forest preserve worries that if they take a wrong step and fall, those little old ladies might decide to sue.
McQuilkin noticed the path being cleared during his trail inspections and told his workers to look out for whomever was doing it.
When two maintenance workers saw Peterson this week, they told him he needed to stop.
A shocked Peterson wrote a detailed letter to forest preserve president and county board member John Hoscheit, explaining the importance of the trail for commuters and his situation.
The forest preserve quickly replied that, while a "wonderful gesture ... your act of kindness may also be open to legal issues should someone fall after your care."
Lawsuits along trails are not unheard of.
The district was sued by Janet Mull after a September 1999 fall on a rut in the Great Western Trail. Though she won at trial, the verdict was reversed the state's Second District Appellate Court in March 2003, largely because of a state statue that says "neither a local public entity or public employee is liable for an injury caused by a condition of ... any hiking, riding, fishing or hunting trail."
For now, Peterson said he'll have to quit plowing.
"It's disappointing," Peterson said. "I think the county has knocked down the hornet's nest. I'm not sure what's going to happen."
Plow: Man says he'll stop