In Town / Local Characters / Off Neck / Seasons

Plowing by Woods on a Snowy Evening

A Nor’easter has us in its talons—finally.

The entire East Coast has been hammered, there is a record twenty-two inches of snow in New York’s Central Park, and this storm might just bury us too.

It has taken until Sunday, February 12th for a proper winter storm to arrive here in Castine, Maine. The kids in town feel gypped with only one snow day from school, and the playground has been devoid of snow for forts and sliding. It just hasn’t been an authentic Maine winter.

“We don’t have storms like we used to,” says Denny Colson, a thirty-year veteran of the town’s public works crew. He is one of the three men charged with keeping 18 miles of roads passable tonight. “I’ve seen snow up over the store windows downtown,” he adds.

A good storm brings out the plowman’s blizzard nostalgia.

“We had to cut through trees with a chainsaw to get down Madockawando and La Tour streets,” says Denny, recalling the ice storm of ’98. “The crew worked 60 hours straight.”

Castine, a tidy little four hundred year old town at the end of a peninsula in Penobscot Bay, is the kind of proverbial Maine village where no one locks their doors or takes the keys out of the car ignition.

Downtown hasn’t changed much since a hundred years ago, when the budget for “snow removal” was $200, mostly to pay laborers who came behind the blizzard and shoveled. One of those men on the payroll in 1906 was Pearl Colson, Denny’s great grandfather. He earned $2.27 for the season. Then came the Model T truck with a plow, changing snow removal.

Back then the whole town budget amounted to about $14,000, whereas today’s budgets are numbers with two commas. This year, the line for winter sand and salt alone is $40,000, plus $20,000 for equipment maintenance, and $120,000 in crew salaries.

No one likes to drive the snowplow down Green Street, the trickiest street in town because of a steep incline that ends abruptly on Water Street. If you don’t make this right hand turn, there’s nowhere to go but over the embankment and into Eaton’s boatyard. The cable barrier could restrain a car. The plow truck, however, will likely take the barrier with it on its way over the embankment and into Kenny Eaton’s second floor office.

Denny knows. He put the plow truck over the guardrail once. It scared Jute Mixer, his wingman at the time, enough that he bailed out, jumping from the truck right over the wing plow. The truck ended up teetering over the embankment. Denny thought it safer to stay with the vehicle.

Plow calamity stories abound. No driver is spared.

Like the time Denny couldn’t see the road and turned into Guild’s field. “Geezum, Jute,” Denny said, “this road’s getting awful rough.” He kept going, plowing up the field, and eventually found his way back to the main road.

Or the “time we hit a car over by the post office,” says Denny. “Larry, or one of us, dropped the wing on it.”

Today the snow is blowing sideways, drifting along the village lanes. At least sixteen hours of plowing lie ahead for the three men who share the duty. Henry Erhard has drawn the first eight-hour shift and will take me along for a ride.

Henry is a Coast Guard veteran whose family has lived in Castine for seven generations. As we bounce along, he eyes the plow’s marker wands, using six control levers beside his seat to adjust the pitch and yaw of the blade. With the sanding control box on the floor, he adjusts the volume and pattern of the sand spraying off the hopper at the back of the truck, amidst constant gear- shifting. The effect is muffled thunder as we push snow to the side of deserted streets.

“You always want to be making right turns,” Henry says, as he heads the blue Chevy down Battle Avenue towards the lighthouse. Clearly, he is working hard to anticipate the potholes, frost heaves, curbs, and manhole covers. There are telephone poles and trees for that wing blade to catch on, as well as parked cars, pedestrians, and street signs. Henry points out myriad deep plow gouges on poles.

We drive a series of concentric circles beginning at the west end of town. From the lighthouse we turn down Perkins Street, pass Fort Madison, then follow Tarratine Street to Main Street, then down the hill past the Post office, bank, and Big Ernie’s Variety. Then Henry does the route in reverse to clear the other side of the streets.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” but the truck is getting lighter and we have miles to go before refilling the sand hopper out at the town dump.

“Truck weight? I don’t know,” says Henry. “I can tell how much sand is left by how it drives.” Weight is crucial: traction is only as good as the amount of sand on board. In seven years of plow driving, he has gone off the road only once. His truck was too light going up Windmill Hill, but Denny managed to back it out of the ditch. A rookie mistake. Henry has not, however, plowed Guild’s field.

Here comes Green Street.

“It doesn’t look too bad today,” says Henry, downshifting urgently. “If it gets too slick, I can always lower the wing blade and hook it on that fire hydrant and pivot around the corner.” That’s the last chance gambit to keep the truck out of Eaton’s office.  As Denny says, “it’s not in the manual, but it works.” I’m ready to bail.

The truck lurches, groans and inches right around the corner and safely onto Water Street. Phew. Time for lap two of the town. Two hours down, another six to go.

As he drops me off, Henry takes a lug wrench to his front left wheel and cranks down hard on the bolts. He had detected a wobble. The ten year old truck is due for replacement—a $65,000 item that is not in this year’s budget.

Snug at home, Larry Redman must be watching Storm Center updates on television, and Denny has probably gone to bed early to be ready for the last shift, the one that will prepare the roads for Monday morning. Meanwhile, many a Castine kid is hoping that the plow will not keep ahead of the snowfall, and they’ll have a day off from school.

Denny, however, may not even need to plow. The snow stops at midnight. We don’t have storms like we used to. “If we had the snow we had back then,” says Denny, “people wouldn’t know what to do with it.” Blizzard nostalgia.

As it turns out, school starts as usual on Monday in Castine. And even in New York schools open the day after their old time, Castine-size snowstorm. They got our snow.

Todd R. Nelson is the elementary school principal in Castine, Maine.

First published in The Christian Science Monitor.

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