NORTH FORK OUTDOORS/Martin Garrell: In the war against snow, allies are helpful

The winter of 2010-11 looks like one of the snowiest in memory. Everywhere you go across the state, 60 or more inches (by early February) looks like the norm. In the northernmost reaches, until a couple of weeks ago, snow kept coming in small “clipper” storms, and the area actually fell behind Gotham and Long Island. Then it caught up.

Fresh (?) from an afternoon of snow removal, we joined some friends up north for a Saturday night dinner. Scarcely had we settled down for dessert, an exquisite red velvet cake “imported” from Nassau County, when we heard the rumble of distant thunder, followed by flashes of lightning, then the crack of bolts close by — a winter thunderstorm. Now, thunderstorms up in that neck of the woods generally bring about a half-inch of precipitation, but this was, after all, winter, and forecasts had called for only a few inches of snow in “showers.” An hour or so later, after saying good-byes, we headed for the cars. There was a good half-foot on the ground, and it was still snowing — hard.

Our host did what good North Country hosts do, grabbing a crooked-handled ergonomic shovel (well worth the extra cost!) to shovel out a track to the parking area. We slipped and slid our four-wheel drive vehicle out to the unplowed main highway, but it took the other guests almost a half-hour to get under way. Needless to say, the 35 miles home took well over an hour, but it was the finale of the trip that was most memorable. In front of our driveway sat a four-foot wall; the town plow had beaten us to our destination. Forty minutes later, with the car finally parked in the driveway and shovels planted outside the back door, we climbed into bed.

All wise snow crews know how important it is to use the right tools for each job. Here on Long Island, small snow blowers can handle most driveways. Upstate natives use bigger machines, cranky beasts with electric starters that cut swaths two feet wide. Even these machines are challenged by heavy snow more than 10 inches deep. All blowers, large and small, have problems if there is any coarse gravel or stone along the tracks, and no snow thrower can do the ugliest job, blasting through barriers that plug driveways. Rocks or icy chunks bind the blades, shearing the bolts on the shafts, rendering the blades helpless, and requiring tedious shear bolt replacement with wet, cold, bare fingers! No, when it comes to walls, like the four-footer we found Saturday night or the eight-footer that greeted us the next morning, only brute force can get the job done.

The tool of choice here is bigger. We keep a tractor with a front-end loader upstate for this purpose, and even our landlord on Long Island rings up his father-in-law who has a plow blade mounted on an old pickup truck with four-wheel drive. However, this winter we parked our tractor in a place where it got snowed in months ago. Every time we had it nearly dug out, it snowed some more!

Faced with a plow wall and no vehicle, only shovels lie between homeowner and isolation from the outside world! Now, snow walls have their weak spots, and you can get through even the monsters, if you’re patient and resist the temptation to shovel frantically and angrily. First, you figure out where you’re going to put the stuff, usually off to the side, but sometimes, over the top. Then you start breaking pieces off the walls, using a really long-handled spade to penetrate the icy layers of snow and grit at the very bottom. You’ve got to resist the urge to put the big, dense blocks on the shovel from time to time. Even if you are wearing a lumbar support and bending your knees, this is a probably a bad idea! Best keep the load well under 10 pounds for each throw.

Anyhow, by late morning Sunday, I was making slow but steady progress on my third wall in two days, when I heard a heavenly sound. Coming down the road was a huge Case bulldozer with a gigantic front-end loader; the town had finally geared up for snow removal. With a big smile on his face, the operator asked me for details about where I wanted the snow deposited, then settled in. It took less than 10 minutes to take out all the walls around the driveway and barn and to open up the landscape for the first time in two weeks. As the operator turned the machine around to head up the road for the next job, I went around to the open cab window and thanked him profusely.

“Thanks pal! I think you’ve just saved tonight’s Super Bowl party,” I said. He waved and gave me a big grin. For some folks, snow removal can be rewarding, I guess.