SHOVELING OUT AT UNDERHILL HOUSE

Three days ago, Doug and I were coming home from errands in Madison in near white-out conditions.  The flakes were tiny, but so thick they filled the air, and they were being driven almost horizontally through the headlight beams obliterating any sight of the stripes on the road.  The same wind was doing its best to bat us off that road.  Traffic on the Interstate was crawling at 30 and hoping to make it home safe.

This morning I got up to see an incredibly gorgeous snow falling outside Underhill House.  Some of the flakes were the size of dimes.  They wafted toward the ground so gently, they reminded me of a dreamy song by Manhattan Transfer called, not surprisingly, Snowfall.

Those two snows bookend our most recent accumulation of crystalin precipitationdrive

In Wisconsin, you never know what the winter will bring.  In December, one in four years tops 22.5 inches of snow. Another 25 percent of years receive less than 3.4 inches for the month. Similarly in January, fresh snowfall in the heaviest years amounts to over 19 inches, while the lightest years get under 6.5 inches. New snow for February ranges from over 13 inches in heavy snowfall years to 6.5 inches or less in light years. That makes for some very different February’s.   March is a month that can really be all over the map.    Last March had a record high of 82 F – smashing the previous record by 13 degrees.  What should have been the last hoorah blizzard of winter was a pounding deluge of rain.  We are starting March in the upper Midwest with an average of 9.1 inches of snow cover.  Where it will go from there is anyone’s guess.

porchSo far, Doug and I have been able to move enough snow off our drive to keep coming and going.

I’ve been doing a little figuring.

I  estimate that we have about 7,000 square feet of drive.  If the snow is about 6”, which it has been several times recently,  that amounts to 3,500 cubic feet of snow, or a mound  about 10’ x 10’  and 3-1/2 stories tall.

Depending on the nature of the snow – light and fluffy or dense and slushy, it can weigh from 7 pounds a cubic foot to 20 pounds and more.  We’ve had both types this past week, so picking a number in the middle,  would mean 50,000 pounds of snow – that’s 25 tons.  I’ve  just re-checked my math, and I think that’s right.

Yet we did it – twice (about 3-4″ each time) on Wednesday.

doug-distantWe’ve got a system.  We have a DR brush mower that can switch out the mower blade for a snowplow blade, and Doug wrestles it up and down the bulk of the drive, back and forth many times, easing the snow gradually from the center to the outer edges of our gradually-narrowing driving lane.

My job is to do the steps, the spur beside house and the space where we park the cars.   I use an array of shovels and brooms for that task.

I sweep the porch steps and our stone steps.  They are lovely, but not very shovel friendly.  If the snow is deep enough, I must start with a shovel, but I ultimately need to clear out all the little indentations in their irregular surfaces with the broom.

me Then I get to work moving snow away from the house across the drive and dumping it over the rock wall along the edge of the drive.  We have the perfect tool for the job.  It’s a huge push shovel with a rectangular handle like a reel lawn mower.  With it I can move all the snow I can manage, sliding it uphill with ease and gliding it up over the increasing ridge of snow at the edge of the area I’m clearing and dumping my snow load beyond.

What I love about it is that you can really tailor the amount of snow you move each trip.  I prefer to make more trips but carry less than the shovel could absolutely hold each trip.   I can keep myself  in a gently aerobic state, gradually peeling out of my hat, gloves and overcoat, and still feeling plenty warm.

doug-close There are few activities as pleasant as methodically moving snow and clearing a path. I used to like the sound of the city after a big snow.  Noise seemed muffled and the mechanical background noises were minimized.  Sometimes you would hear the answering screech of a neighbor’s shovel cutting down to the concrete sidewalk.  We all had a chance to catch up on each other’s lives in a Currier and Ives setting.

vineyardOut here in the country, it is very quiet as I shovel.  If it’s windy, the spruces are whispering.   Every five or 10 minutes Doug sweeps past with his noisy but effective walk-behind plow, and then the roar fades away, and it’s back to just me and the pure-white snow. As the climate warms, I look on each fresh snowfall as an endangered species that I feel fortunate to experience.

What do you love about shoveling snow?  (I know almost everyone says they hate it — but isn’t there something that’s kind of cool about shoveling that amazing substance, snow?

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8 replies

  1. I love the way you can transform the landscape by shovelling snow. Rediscovering edges, obliterated by windblown snow. I prefer to shovel the lighter snow though, the heavy stuff is just plain hard work. I never realised until I moved away from the UK that snow was different at different temperatures. In the UK it is mainly the wet slushy stuff that is hard work.

    We got a snow blower last week and that helps a lot, It is about the same size as your snow plough, but by redistributing it, it saves on the build up that we’ve had in previous years. Ian had to get the tractor out the other day though, we need to pile the snow away from some areas to encourage to melt down the hill and away from the greenhouse and barn areas.

  2. I miss the snow then sanity returns. Here in the Willamett Valley we get snow on the ground about once every 6 years.

  3. When we moved out to the country, we had a 100-yard lane out to the road. First snowfall I cleared it with a snowblower. But my wife got all over me – since I had had a heart bypass operation many years before followed – 6 years later – by a heart attack. So we hired a chap with a truck and snowplow blade to clear the drive for us. It may not be romantic as you describe your efforts, but it is a lot more effective and a whole lot safer. I recall that Doug had some physical problems a while back? Perhaps you should think about doing likewise….?

    • I agree with you, Dennis. I would be happy to pour my energy into other projects, and it provides employment for fellows with plows in the area. I hope we will find a happy medium.
      We have had a neighbor plow us out when we have gotten too much at a time we just can’t do it all.
      In the meantime, Doug seems to really enjoy moving the snow around with our walkbehind, and I think a certain amount of shoveling is good for me. I do pace myself.

  4. Did you consider the possibility of under sidewalk and driveway heaters to melt off your snow close to your house?

    You would probably have to design for this from the start, but a rocketstove, some pipe, a pump and the right kind of environmentally friendly antifreze, might make this a lot easier.

    You wouldn’t have to run it every day, just after each snow fall. You don’t get snow every day even in a snowy winter.

    How many days each year do you get new snowfall?

    • Thanks for the idea, Brent.
      I think we will stick to shoveling because it’s energy efficient and great exercise.
      I admit there are days when I look out at the fresh-fallen snow and heave a sigh, but once I am out there, I always find I’m enjoying the process.

      • I’m sure that a retrofit of your outside walkways, would be a pain, but I bet that your existing solar hot water collector has enough excess capacity to do all the melting you would need.

        An even better solution would be to figure out some natural passive method of keeping your walk areas free of snow, without pumps and pipe. I’m not sure what this would be but it probably does exist.

  5. Actually, this winter our solar panels seemed to collect just about the right amount to heat the house without a lot left over. We tried to size them for the house and seem to have succeeded.
    The place I would love to have a little heat would be the steps up to the house, but they are made of big chunks of stone. I spend more time per square foot shoveling and then sweeping them, but I don’t see a way around that, and the rest of the year — like now on this sunny, blustery spring day, I love the stone. It’s local and natural and always makes me smile as I climb.
    Thanks for your ideas. This whole project is a big experiment, and we are always open to new ideas.

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