Thursday, January 22, 2015

Adventures in Snow Shoveling

BuscoPlowAdkAlmAbout a year ago on these pages, I shared a secret “illness”—snow shoveling—that has been with me since childhood. Besides the interesting and very funny comments that followed on Adirondack Almanack, personal emails arrived from those similarly afflicted. I did mention that more would come in the future, so here goes. Shoveling and keeping a 1500-foot path open for a decade of winters was the highlight of last year’s piece. That probably can’t be topped, but there is more insanity to report.

When buying homes, I prefer remote locations, which helps explain the house with a 1500-foot-long driveway. Prior to purchasing that place, I lived a few miles away on a nearly dead-straight back road 2.4 miles long. Our house was 0.4 miles north of the intersection with the “main” road in that area. The only other homes nearby were at the far northern end, two miles away from us. In effect, ours was the only home on the road. Farmers cautioned that my new homestead was sometimes snowed in for days at a time because clearing more-populated roads was a higher priority. Boy, they weren’t kidding!

The first time it happened, I was at home with the family. A wood furnace guaranteed that we’d at least have some heat even when the power was out. But after two days of no phone, no electricity, and melting snow for our water needs, I donned my snowshoes and headed for civilization. A little over a mile away, at a country store, I received good news, sort of.

“Rumor has it,” said an old-timer, “they’ll be clearing your road in a day or two.” He explained further that local equipment couldn’t move the snow because of the huge, hard-packed drifts that routinely plugged the road each winter. (It runs north-south, so the unceasing west wind had a wicked effect.) After most of the other town roads were cleared, he said, a team of local and county machines would come my way and get the job done.

Two days later, seeing was believing: a full-size grader broke trail, alternating with two snowplows to open a path. Later came a huge snowblower, completing a square-sided tunnel to civilization. We were free! And as you may have noticed, I hadn’t shoveled a bit … yet.

The potential for a closed road forced me to wonder: what if it happened during the daily 20-mile trip home from work at 1 am? What would I do? Well, it didn’t take long to find out.

From years of driving in terrible conditions, I had developed great skills for handling slush, ice, and snow. But there was nothing in my repertoire for plugged. And there I was at 1:30 am, just under a half mile from home, and with the road plugged solid. Walking the first 700 feet of an elevated road (with open fields on either side, so nothing to break the wind) would be brutal but doable, I figured, even in near-zero visibility conditions. But what to do with my car? If left by the roadside, it would surely be struck by a snowplow. So I waited, staying there to protect it.

At about 3 am a plow came into view. I flagged it down and spoke with the driver about my options. The raised road had narrow shoulders, so there were few solutions. Since the actual turn was the widest part of the road, I offered a suggestion: could I conspicuously bury the car near the ditch drop-off at the turn? That way they could continue to plow, but with one special request: don’t wing the banks until I had removed the car. “No problem” was all I needed to hear.

I lived there for a decade, and the system worked just fine … but what a job! During bad weather, I parked near the intersection and shoveled huge amounts of snow away in order to create a parking place. After driving into that opening, I began shoveling snow onto the car until it was completely buried. Piling it extra high exaggerated the car’s location so the plow drivers knew it was there. Perfect!

Strapping on the snowshoes, I then headed uphill for home. The wind-driven snow stung so bad I could only look down and plod forward, making it hard to keep going straight—which I didn’t. Tripping on the top strand of a barb-wire fence that first night was something I’ll never forget. It also taught me that on the first open stretch, staying on the highest snow would keep me on the road. Problem solved.

When the stormy weather waned, I snowshoed back to the car, dug it out, and waited for the plow to open the road. That plan came into play a few times each winter. It worked well back then, but sure sounds a little nuts (a little?!!) in retrospect.

But for a guy who loves nature, seclusion, and wildlife, what a great place it was to live. I routinely saw coyotes, foxes, fishers, and just about any creature that roamed the woods. Best of all, though, was the immediate presence of a deer yard. Upwards of 300 deer wintered in the surrounding woods, where they developed a series of packed trails through very deep snow.

I snowshoed there often to take photographs and observe their behavior, but my easy visibility to them was a hindrance. That’s where the shoveling illness came in handy. Clearing a footpath allowed for virtually silent travel, and by ducking below the banks at certain locations, I could nestle myself within the herd. It worked so well that I made a game of it: with strategically placed trails, could I actually get close enough to touch one of them?

The answer was no, but on a few occasions I was just three feet from deer that seemed oblivious to my presence. For a young guy exploring nature on his own, that was a major thrill. For the most part, though, I worked at leaving the herd undisturbed, taking photographs and watching them interact with each other. More than two miles of my own trails meant lots of shoveling, but it bore long-term results. Sharing it all back then with my young son is now a lasting, pleasant memory.

Among the commenters on last year’s story was Charlie S., who mentioned pushing snow, clearing the wet stuff after every few inches accumulates, and his snow towers. Everything he described exactly matches my process except for the towers. On a similar vein, though, I had fantastic toboggan runs at two of my previous homes, even though the surrounding land was flat. Shoveling enough snow to create a 15-foot-high ramp, climbable from behind and wide enough for a toboggan, is no small order. That’s what it took, but the payoff was spectacular fun. Getting to the top could be dicey at times, but the fast and long slide that followed was more than worth it.

While writing this for public consumption, I cringed a little, imagining what others might think of such convoluted, unlikely arrangements like intentionally burying a car in a snowbank or shoveling two miles through a deer yard. It sure sounds crazy to me now.

But maybe not as crazy as a few dirt-shoveling jobs I once did, including a hand-dug hole so massive it would boggle your mind. It still boggles what’s left of mine, so perhaps it’s best to save a little crazy for a future piece.

Besides, dinner’s ready, so it’s time to … what else? … dig in!

Photo: From Churubusco in northwestern Clinton County, a scene similar to where I once lived … a shoveling crew helps clear a path for the plow

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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