My area of research for Assignment 3 is snow and ice removal. This involves any part of the snow/ice removal process. The tools involved, the physical labor, the time it takes, the reasons for doing it, the aftermath, etc. Since winter is a bit late this year, I could not observe anybody performing snow/ice removal activities in person, but I had some great interviews from people with a wide range of experiences.
INTERVIEW 1: MIKE AND MARCIE O'CONNOR
My first interview was with Mike and Marcie O'Connor, a couple who live here the twin cities, but have a farm out in rural Wisconsin. They run a blog about their farm life. Their farm is over a mile and a half long and nearly 3/4 of a mile wide, and with their house sitting directly in the middle of their property, their road is half a mile long. Being in Wisconsin, they get just as harsh winters as we do. Sometimes even harsher. Their farm house is located in the middle of a valley, which makes matters even worse in the winter as the snow tends to pile up in large drifts upwards of 3 feet deep in the winter. Their SUV can handle snow of 1 foot deep at most, so they need a good means of clearing out the snow.
I spoke with Mike over the phone for an hour as he told very long and very interesting stories of snow clearing from winters past. Mike and Marcie don't mess around when it comes to snow removal. They have not one, but two tractors which are almost completely dedicated to snow. Their largest tractor is a massive beast with an enclosed cab and a twin-bladed snow-blower that can turn any drift they come across into fine powder with ease.
As impressive as it may be, the snow-blower has one fatal flaw: its blade rests a full foot off the ground, meaning that any snow shallower than a foot will not be cleared. In his interview, Mike laments the fact that he can only really use his favorite toy once or twice a year. For the shallower snow, they stick to their smaller tractor, equipped with a simple snowplow.
Between these two snow clearing beasts, Mike says they have all the snow gear they could ever need, provided they are at the farm when the snow starts to fall. As previously mentioned, their SUV can conquer snow up to a foot deep, but Mike recalls several times when they have driven to the farm to find the whole place buried under feet of snow. In situations like this, they have to snowshoe through half a mile of blowing drifts to get to their tractors, then spend several hours plowing the driveway before they can finally relax in the farm house.
In the spring, melting snow can have terrible consequences for Mike and Marcie's all-gravel driveway. Rivers of melt-water wash the gravel down the road and can leave terrible ruts. Fortunately, his large tractor serves more than one purpose. By swapping the snow-blower attachment out for a low-hanging wide blade, he turns his tractor into a grader, with which he lovingly restores his driveway to pristine condition every spring. The only problem is, swapping the blower for the blade is a lot of work, and can often consume an entire day. It's up to Mike to time the weather right for the perfect opportunity to make the switch. Should he get it wrong, he may be stuck bolting the heavy blower attachment back on in freezing weather. Mike recounts last spring, when it snowed heavily in mid-may. Melting snow had already badly damaged his road, so he came up with a clever solution to solve the problem without having to swap out his tractor accessories again. He drove in zig-zagging patterns up and down the driveway, creating channels in the snow. These channels slowed and directed the flow of water, greatly reducing the amount of erosion. All and all, Mike describes his winter chores as "Kinda fun, sometimes annoying, but just sorta part of the deal."
INTERVIEW 2: JUDY, MARK, VALERIE, AND JIM
Sunday evening I got the chance to host a group interview, thanks to a very well timed dinner party my family happened to be throwing. Mark and Juxy Cox, and Valerie and Jim Green had a great time reminiscing about past experiences with snow and ice.
A common theme that was discussed multiple times was the fact that if you are unlucky enough to have an plowed driveway at the end of a plowed street, the compacted snow from the plow hardens and becomes "like steel" as one person put it. It can take hours for even the toughest snow-blowers to churn through it.
One of the more interesting solutions I heard was from Jim Green, who described the courtyard at his apartment complex. "The architect must have been from California, he didn't account for the snow!" he says. However, they were able to implement a last-minute solution which is really quite clever. Heated pipes running just below the surface of the courtyard pump hot liquid through the entire area whenever a combination temperature and moisture sensor is triggered. This melts the snow very quickly and efficiently, and the runoff water drains into the heated parking garage below, and into the sewer system. "There can be a horrible blizzard, and the very next day the courtyard is dry as a bone!" says Jim. The downside? He points out the cost of operation, between $300 and $500 for a single winter, which is shared between the residents. He says it is well worth it, however.
Later on, the discussion shifted towards an almost boastful comparison of Minnesota to some of the southern states. Mark recalls a business trip to Atlanta, which was cancelled after a "blizzard" deposited a meager half inch of snow on the poor, unsuspecting inhabitants. The snow melted later that day. Another recalls calmly bicycling through the streets of London while the city's natives scrambled for their cars as a few flakes of snow began to fall. If the Twin Cities' snow equipment leaves us able to laugh at storms that leave other regions utterly disabled, surely there must be equipment out there that can cut through even our most damaging snow emergencies?
One interesting bit of old technology which Mark recalled from his youth was a hand snowplow, basically a shovel with a curved conical blade which he recalls nostalgically as being able to clear an entire sidewalk in a single run. He says he has looked over and over for anything similar with no luck, and In my ethnography research I hit similar barriers. There are plenty of angled snow shovels, but nothing with the distinctive conical shape which he describes. A quick sketch of the device is included in my notes below.
INTERVIEW 3: ALEX AND KARA
For my final interview, I spoke with Alex and Kara, an very do-it-yourself Alaskan couple who take a more low-tech approach to snow removal. Alex cites his tools of the trade for clearing their 4+ feet of snow as being simply: "BIG ASS SHOVELS", to which Kara added "Anything big and flat". They recounted many instances in which they have become hopelessly stuck in deep snow in their cars, and they have found some very clever solutions that they absolutely swear by. "Instead of sand", suggests Kara, "Throw kitty litter under your wheels. Every car in Alaska has a box of kitty litter in the trunk." Alex had more suggestions, such as using floor mats or roof shingles placed under the wheels for increased traction. However, they both agreed on what is truly the best winter snow removal tool at their disposal: "The very best thing that I've found is neighbors". They went on to describe many instances when they have been stuck in horrible snow drifts when complete strangers who just happen to have powerful winches on their trucks (this must be a very common issue up there) stop to tow them free, or hand shovel them out. It seems that snow really has a way of bringing people closer together.
One thing seemed to stick out at me during these interviews, and that is that many common snow tools have very specific purposes and cannot be used for much else. Mike's tractors only get used a few times a year, and he has to have two of them because they are so highly specialized. Jim's heated courtyard works wonders, when it works. If the power is out, there is absolutely no way to remove the snow. Snow-blowers work great, but only on level terrain, and only within a set range of snow depths and densities. Shovels seem to be the most all-purpose tool, but one could easily break back and blade trying to dig out of a snow drift for which all other tools have failed. Alex and Kara seem to be fighting this over-specialization with their clever life-hacks, but even they get buried over their heads sometimes.
The problem statement which seemed to emerge from these interviews was that people need an easy way to clear all types of snow without needing a dozen different tools in their garage and gambling that they predicted the weather correctly.