Monday, March 16, 2009

Sunburned & Smilin'

Phew, just got back from assignments shooting historic downtowns, posh bed & breakfasts (yum!) and hi-octane outdoor recreation for Travel Michigan again. Gorgeous weather with fresh snow and blue skies helped create a nice batch of images for Michigan's official tourism campaign.

But it also meant I got a jump start on my summer tan after a thorough baking (more like burning!) at Indianhead Mountain. A summer sunburn is painful and annoying, but in March in the Upper Peninsula, it's a more like a promise of good things to come.

Oh yeah, and Elvis was out on the slopes too!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Tao of Snow Removal

Here's an essay running in the March issue of Traverse magazine.

Technically, it is spring. It has been for several weeks. But what I’m watching from the living room window at 5 a.m. is not spring. It’s a montage of all-out weather warfare choreographed in cinematic fashion by the flashing of the motion lights on the garage.

Darkness: Growling wind and the house creaks.
Floodlight: Lilacs doubled over, writhing.
Darkness: The staccato spit of sleet on the windows.
Floodlight: The propane tank has vanished under a drift. The picnic table too. Casualties.

My wife is still upstairs, dreaming of warm, exotic places to the south—like Escanaba. But I’m thinking ahead to daylight and what in this white world I’m going to do with over a foot of sloppy slush.

The garage is 150 feet south of the house. The house is 300 feet south of our gravel township road. It’s all quite private, and a major reason we were drawn to this old farmstead. But after a spring blizzard, that distance feels more like a privation than privacy.

Many old homesteads nearby are built close to the road. Some have buildings only a few feet off the pavement, too close for today’s codes. When we were house hunting, we’d frowned on those places, waving to the folks in the yard, but thinking how tiring it must get to have to wave to everyone, everyday. What if you didn’t feel like waving one day? Would your neighbors talk?

We now realize that those goofy outbuildings so close to the road weren’t built there by accident. They were the garages and carriage houses of yesteryear, allowing our snow-savvy neighbors easy access to the plowed or packed roads. On a day like today, they look like a nice option, waving or no waving.

Two snow blowers are in the garage. One is old, normally quite reliable and a rider, but completely dead after narrowly defeating what we thought was the last storm of the season, last week. The other is even older, and is only still around because it is so useless it rarely sees any action. It’s what I like to a call a push-blower, and little more than a very heavy, gas (and oil) burning shovel. In spring I’ve been tempted to fire it up just to smother swarms of mosquitoes and black flies with its blue cloud. Today, it’s my only weapon.

I ease it out into the white wasteland. It hiccups, bogs, comes back up to speed and begins to puke a stream of slush to the side. About a foot to the side. I look across the expanse of yard that needs clearing and try and calculate how long it would take to move the snow one foot per pass. I’m already sweating under the ski goggles, and I can’t tell if it’s from crunching exponential math or pushing a snow blower through a foot of slush.

The machine is too light. It climbs up the slush, compacting it, then spins helplessly. Gelded. I lift the handles up and angle the whirling auger back down towards the ground, pushing it into the mess. Then push down on the handles, see-sawing the wheezing geezer into the compacted slop below.

That’s when the shear pins break. They are the sacrificial bolts that give out first before real drivetrain damage is done. I can measure winter by my reserve of shear pins in an old pickle jar in the garage. There are no more shear pins, and thus winter should be done. It’s not, but this snow blower is.

A lady who was raised on this farm told me that when she was a child the township contracted with residents to clear their driveways. Before that, it seems folks resigned themselves to the snow and parked their cars in favor of sleds, sleighs and real horsepower. There’s a monument to those days on the highway at the edge of town. A giant snow-roller, a tube six feet high and ten feet wide pulled by horses to pack the snow rather than push it.

That’s it! Why didn’t I think of it before? Don’t fight the snow with shovels, plows and throwers; simply pack it down. It’s the Tao of snow removal: use your enemy’s wet, sloppy strength against it.

The old 4x4 rumbles to life even though it’s been drifted in for nearly six months. I drop it into four-low and it crawls out from behind the garage, dragging its belly over drifts in streaks of rust red and grease gray. I drive back and forth, north and south, for the next hour, squishing every last rut down into a brown mush—not the packed white sheet I’d envisioned. My wife nicknames it Lake Snow-Be-Gone. For the next week I wade to the garage every morning in rubber boots to bring her car to the house door.

Would I do it again? Probably not. But it was the last snow, the last straw and the last shear pin.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Personal Grooming

Since we're talking ski trail grooming, I thought I'd share a bit about how I pack and level our massive depths of snow for our own personal loops at the farm.

This is a little embarrassing since my last post featured what has to be the coolest ski groomer ever. Ours is decidedly non-cool.

We drag a bed spring behind an old Polaris snowmobile. Round and round we drive the sled, packing the powder, and then round and round again with the bed spring to level it all out. Simple, practical, and even effective sometimes. It's an okay way to groom trails, and a really good way to mess up a bed spring.

It has been a long winter.