Photo by Marcy Stamper
The Methow’s six snowplow operators all have an intimate knowledge of the contours of the roads, since each one covers hundreds of miles a day clearing snow.

County’s snow plow operators get up early, work hard

By Marcy Stamper

Josh Morgan was at work by 5 a.m., waiting his turn in the garage to thaw out his plow truck so he could load it with sand and, still long before first light, head out to plow Twisp River Road.

Morgan and his five fellow plow operators were summoned to work an hour earlier than usual last Thursday (Feb. 9) as Dallas Darwood, supervisor of the Okanogan County Public Works’ Methow road shop, prepped for a forecast of a foot of snow and freezing rain.

Darwood’s daily winter routine involves getting up a 3 a.m. to check the weather, out the window and on radar. Depending on conditions, he may drive to Mazama or McFarland Creek to check out the roads and snow accumulation.

Darwood has a crew of six snowplow operators, all ready to start their shifts by 6 a.m. Their top priority is to clear roads in time for school buses. Needless to say, the crew all have to get to the county shop at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base before any roads have been plowed. “It’s hard on family life,” said Darwood.

Morgan, who’s in his first year plowing for the county road crew, takes pride in his work, but admits it can be stressful. “The drone of the engine, the slapping of the plow the whole time … You’re always paying attention, I can tell you that much. Sometimes there’s nowhere to put the snow,” he said.

Indeed, riding along with Morgan as he plowed Twisp River Road was a glimpse of a job that demands resourcefulness, lightning-quick responses, and a tolerance for getting cold and wet.

A plow usually travels about 20 miles per hour (mph), but in heavy snow, they go only 8 to 10 mph, said Morgan. Still, perched high above the road as the plow sends up a towering white arc, it can be deceptive. “You’re throwing a big old wake of snow, so it seems like you’re really moving along,” said Morgan.

On some stretches of road, the plow operator needs to go fast enough so the snow will clear a guardrail. The operators also need to know how much snow to pick up at a time so the snow doesn’t spill out the other side and leave a “wrinkle” on the pavement, said Morgan.

Operating a plow requires an intimate knowledge of the road and the truck. “It’s harder than you think — you need to know where the edge is,” said Morgan. “You get to know the road inside and out. There are times, when it’s snowing real hard, that it’s almost like driving in a glass of milk.”

The job has some unexpected rewards. Morgan gets to see wildlife along his route and occasionally gets a photo of an animal or its tracks.

Six local routes

The Methow road shop has five plows — dump trucks with a blade and a sander attached — and three graders. Each truck gets loaded with 6 to 8 cubic yards of sand, which is necessary not only to sand the road but also to provide enough weight for traction. The Mazama route is plowed by a grader because of the volume of snow there, said Darwood.

Photo by Marcy Stamper
Josh Morgan chipped ice off the windshield wipers to get them moving again, as he does many times a day.

While the plows leave a surface with good traction, the cycle of thawing and refreezing can create deep, icy ruts on the road. When that happens, the operators bring out the graders, which have a serrated blade that can chew up the ice, said Darwood. They also use the graders to “wing back” the sides of the plowed road.

Because only two trucks can fit in the garage at a time, each morning the drivers take turns warming up their trucks before they load sand. The sanders are temperamental and, if the trucks are filled with sand and parked outside overnight, the sand becomes a solid block of ice and won’t even thaw out by the end of the day, said Darwood.

The Methow has six plow routes to clear 62 roads, split up among Mazama; the Chewuch and Rendezvous; Twin Lakes and Wolf Creek; and Twisp River. Another route covers 25 short roads that intersect with state highways, and the last route takes care of Bear Creek, Balky Hill and drainages in the lower valley such as Texas, Libby and Gold creeks.

Plowing each road requires at least four passes — two in each direction — to clear the full width of the roadway, which amounts to 200 to 300 miles a day per truck. Morgan, who drives the longest route, clocks 300 miles in an eight-hour day, including at least two trips to reload sand.

Because it’s so important to know the road well — where the road edges and ditches are — all the operators drive a regular route. During the first few snows, they create a berm that they use as a marker for the rest of the season.

The drivers develop a keen sense for the contours of the road. “There’s a ditch along this stretch that’s already sucked me in twice this year,” said Morgan as he headed up Twisp River Road. “You sort of drive by Braille.”

The plows are mounted on ordinary dump trucks that Public Works uses year-round. “They’re big, clumsy trucks pushing snow,” said Darwood. While four-wheel drive might seem more practical, Darwood said those trucks are not versatile for the rest of the year and have extra working parts that are prone to malfunction.

The five people on the plow crew work year-round on chip-sealing, brushwork, guardrails and culverts. They add a seasonal worker for plowing. Some of the staff have been with the Methow road crew for 18 years. “I’ve got a great crew — they really work well together,” said Darwood.

The drivers also master the quirks of their trucks. Morgan knows to just where to whack the dashboard to get his ditch light to come on. He also deals with frozen wipers as the blade flings snow against the windshield, and pulls over repeatedly to chip off ice and get the wipers moving again.

In heavy, wet snow or on big hills, the drivers chain up. Since the chains are suspended above the wheels, they’re usually caked with snow and ice, so the drivers often have to wrestle with them, said Darwood.

It’s not uncommon for the driver who plows the lower valley route to put on and remove chains — each weighing about 200 pounds — four times a day as he alternates between the highway and the steep roads that go up Libby, Texas and McFarland creeks, said Darwood.

Earlier start

Last year, Public Works changed the schedule for all plows countywide to begin at 6 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m. Area supervisors are responsible for evaluating road conditions and for calling out crews when there are at least 4 inches of snow, extremely icy conditions, or in conjunction with law enforcement because of accidents, according to the county’s snow and ice control policy.

A partial crew may be mobilized to clear primary roads during evening or weekend storms, but supervisors have to justify overtime for anything outside of regular hours, said Darwood.

It usually takes three days for the plows to catch up and get ready for the next snow. Main roads and routes used by school buses and mail carriers are plowed the first day. Many secondary and gravel roads don’t get plowed until the second day. On the third day, the drivers plow unimproved roads, widen plowed roads, and sand and de-ice trouble spots. They also plow Sno-Parks if resources permit, according to the policy.

Plowing is hard on the trucks, and it’s rare to go a week without a problem, said Morgan. Last week the Methow shop dealt with three breakdowns — a starter, a driveline, and power steering.

A plow gets stuck in a ditch about once a week, said Darwood. Often they can get themselves out by pushing against the snow with the blade, which can lift the wheels. But sometimes it’s necessary to switch another rig off its route to pull a truck out, which can delay the plowing overall, said Darwood. Otherwise, it would cost thousands of dollars to bring in a tow truck, he said.

Last Thursday, conditions were tough enough that, by mid-morning, Morgan had to divert from his plow route to pull two different trucks out of a ditch.

Complaints — and cookies

The most common complaints Darwood gets from the public are about blocking driveways with a berm of snow. “We don’t have a lot of choice,” said Morgan. “We’re definitely not doing it to be malicious.”

They try to be sensitive to local conditions. “We try to slow down on garbage day.” said Morgan.

“We can’t stop and clear every driveway,” said Darwood. “We do lots of explaining. We try not to trap people in their driveways”

As the county policy puts it, “During plowing operations it is impossible to prevent plowed snow from entering driveways. Okanogan County acknowledges and regrets this inevitable consequence of our plowing operation but it would be impossible for us to complete our scheduled plow routes if we stopped to clean every driveway.”

Motorists can help the plow operators by pulling over when passing a plow. Parking along the road makes their job more difficult, said Morgan.

“Once in a while we hear compliments,” said Darwood. “We usually get a few goodie baskets at Christmas time.”