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CLEARING THE WAY: Driving a snowplow draining, unpredictable job

The Eau Claire County snow plow driver David Gotlibson gets behind the wheel before heading out to plow in Eau Claire on January 22. Gotlibson is one of a few dozen county workers charged with the sometimes draining, often unpredictable job of salting and plowing state and county roads during the winter. (Dan Reiland/The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram via AP)

The Eau Claire County snow plow driver David Gotlibson gets behind the wheel before heading out to plow in Eau Claire on January 22. Gotlibson is one of a few dozen county workers charged with the sometimes draining, often unpredictable job of salting and plowing state and county roads during the winter. (Dan Reiland/The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram via AP)

Ryan Patterson
Leader-Telegram

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (AP) — David Gotlibson remembers his first day plowing snow for Eau Claire County. A winter storm had dumped 14 inches of fresh powder, and the newcomer had his hands full.

“I learned what to do and what not to do,” Gotlibson said.

Despite that rude welcome from Mother Nature, Gotlibson stuck with it and is now in his eighth consecutive snowplowing season. He is one of a few dozen county workers charged with carrying out the sometimes draining, often unpredictable work of salting and plowing state and county roads during the winter, the Leader-Telegram reported.

Gotlibson’s main responsibility is to plow a six-mile stretch of Clairemont Avenue that forms part of U.S. Highway 12. He has worked the same section every year and knows the location of nearly every curb, median, bridge and gutter.

County Highway Operations Manager Chris Dahlby said the county assigns drivers to plow the same routes as often as possible so they become experts. Drivers often work 14 hours or more during snowstorms. With fresh snow having fallen on a recent Wednesday, Gotlibson worked from about 3:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Since drivers are required to have at least six hours of rest between shifts, he wasn’t scheduled to be back on the road again until 6 a.m. the next day.

There are no scheduled breaks, but drivers usually stop every two to three hours to eat, use the restroom, refuel, replenish their salt supply or check their plow and truck. Operators must have a commercial driver’s license to run a snowplow, and they usually have a couple weeks of training before being sent off on their own. The preparation usually involves riding with an experienced driver and operating a plow under his supervision.

Sipping on a Diet Coke and listening to bands like Aerosmith and Blue Oyster Cult, Gotlibson plowed the far right lanes of Clairemont Avenue. He said tries to remain steadily aware of his surroundings, regularly checking his mirrors to see how traffic is moving.

“Your head is basically on a swivel,” Gotlibson said.

During a 45-minute trip down his assigned section and back, Gotlibson found himself making various small adjustments to avoid trouble. He lifted his truck’s front plow so snow wouldn’t spray a person walking on the sidewalk; turned the plow to avoid a vehicle about to make a right turn onto Clairemont Avenue; and lifted the plow through cross streets to prevent snow from dousing cars.

To keep snow from sticking to a patch he’s about to plow, Gotlibson usually lays down salt. Gotlibson said it took him several shifts to learn how much salt to use.

David Gotlibson plows a street in Eau Claire on January 22. (Dan Reiland/The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram via AP)

David Gotlibson plows a street in Eau Claire on January 22. (Dan Reiland/The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram via AP)

Other drivers are not always appreciative of Gotlibson’s work. One did give him a thumbs-up on Wednesday. More common, though, are complaints about roads not being plowed quickly enough.

Gotlibson said he gets just as frustrated as anyone by being stuck in traffic and, for that reason, prefers to drive at night, when there are few vehicles on the road.

Most shifts go smoothly, but there have been accidents. Several years ago, a car suffered severe damage after its driver tried to pass Gotlibson’s truck on the right and hit its plow.

Every snowstorm is different, but they generally fall into two categories: those with high moisture and those with low moisture. High moisture storms produce heavy, wet snow; low moisture light snow.

Gotlibson said the worst storms are those that are accompanied by low temperatures and high winds. Subzero temperatures prevent salt from working properly, and winds cause drifts.

“You’ll get the road cleared and a couple hours later it’s drifted right back in,” Gotlibson said.

Gotlibson plows once or twice a week on average. Gotlibson said the hardest time he has had on the job was last February, when more than 53 inches of snow fell on Eau Claire.

Before he started, Gotlibson underestimated how much time snowplowing can consume. Once snow has stopped falling, it usually takes at least four hours to have the roads cleared.

Dahlby agreed and praised drivers for their diligence. In really big storms, he said, employees will often find themselves working long hours over the course of several days. They’ll be yearning to go home but still won’t know exactly when their shifts will be over.

Dahlby and County Highway Commissioner Jon Johnson both said drivers must show considerable dedication and fortitude to do their jobs wells. The hours are long and often at unusual times of the day. Johnson said about 85% of the Highway Department’s overtime pay occurs in winter.

Also essential, Gotlibson said, is patience. Progress often comes slowly, especially during rush hour. The reward is the sight of freshly plowed roads.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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