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Plow drivers keep roads safe for motorists during storms

Maintenance Supervisor Gary Kennedy keeps his eyes peeled to high tech gadgets as he dispatches plows in the region. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 2
John Adam has been with the Minnesoa Department of Transportation 32 years. He started as a mechanic, then began plowing highways in 2004. He's never had a crash with his plow. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)2 / 2

The sky is darker than a pocket when John Adam reports to work at 3 a.m.

His supervisor, Gary Kennedy, has likely been at work since 1, driving the district roads before he sends plows out.

Six inches of new snow greet Adam; four more will have arrived by the time he's made his first run north to Itasca State Park, plowing U.S. Highways 71 and 200 to the north side of the park and back.

He reaches one particularly nasty uphill curve on 200 and marvels that he sees no cars in the ditch.

It's the first test of his 2010 International tandem-axle truck. Adam already had 10 inches of new snow at his Island Lake home before he drove into town.

Kennedy is predicting 8-10 inches total as he sends a team of four out across the district.

Make that three.

One Department of Transportation truck decides to lodge a protest.

Russ Hennen finally gets it started.

By then Adam is northbound in heavy snow up Highway 71. He turns to make a sweep east, then circles back around to plow 34 west of Park Rapids.

"I'm having trouble finding the centerline," Adam admits. "Russ usually leads."

By then Hennen has caught up to him and taken the lead. Adam has sized up his work and is critical of his first pass.

"I see I got a little too far over," he says, eyeing his work. "Just one of those things."

Four trucks move in a formation, plowing the center, sides and shoulders of the state highways.

They pull it off with military precision. They've done this before. With the four trucks it takes one pass to clear the highway.

"It gets tough to follow those strobe lights after a couple hours," Adam says of Hennen's truck in front of him blinking away. And as the second truck, Adam is driving in zero visibility sometimes as the spray from Hennen's truck flies into his path.

A virtual army of trucks is out at that time of day, plowing parking lots, side roads, county and township roads.

Adam carries a load of salt. He doesn't use it. There's just too much snow and he doesn't want it to go to waste.

He loves the new truck. The one he retired was a stick shift without all the high-tech gadgets on the dash.

"It has a pretty good turning radius," Adam said. "It's got rubber cutting edges on the front and underbody which is why it's so quiet."

Kennedy stays behind to dispatch a fleet of trucks in Walker, Bagley and Park Rapids to cover his district.

"The winds are picking up," he radios his crews. There's eight inches of snow in Bagley.

The drivers stay in touch via radio. Each carries his own cell phone.

"This layer could be slick," Hennen radios Adam.

Adam eventually leaves the group and heads north to Itasca.

He's heard the complaints about filling up residents' driveways. He has a driveway, too.

The visibility is a bit tough Tuesday morning in the dark. Adam laughed when asked if he feels like a bat during the depths of night.

"I've been out when I can barely see the headlight on the hood," he admits. "It's pretty scary."

He drives 30 to 35 mph. Otherwise his plow skips along the pavement. The ride is bumpy.

"This is a Cadillac compared to the old one," he says proudly.

Occasionally his sciatica acts up from a career bouncing along in a truck.

Monday he worked a 12-hour day in ice and rain.

The ice storm two weeks ago was stressful, he said. By the time he'd gotten up to the park, the slush mix was refreezing and it looked like he hadn't done anything.

"People don't understand if we get an inch or six it's the same amount of work," Kennedy explained.

Kennedy, with 32 years in, moved here from the metro area, as did Adam. Neither misses the traffic, the hassle of going around parked or stalled vehicles, the stressful conditions. Adam has been plowing since 2004 and previously served as a truck mechanic.

He, too, has 32 years in.

"Too many people in one spot," Kennedy remarks of the conditions in the Twin Cities.

Adam's head is constantly moving, checking his mirrors, adjusting his windshield wipers, which he's not happy with. His heated windshield is barely staying ahead of the spray from the truck's front blade.

His right hand is on his constant velocity spinner, which fans salt in all directions.

He said he never gets sleepy even though the temperature in the cab is warm enough for T-shirts.

"Once I worked 20 hours straight," he said. "I had to pull over for a ten-minute nap."

Because of budget constraints, the plow drivers try to stick to a 40-hour week.

"If it keeps snowing, that won't happen," Adam says.

He's confident Tuesday's snow can be cleaned up in an eight-hour day.

"It's pretty tense stuff especially when it's raining," Adam said, "It'll wear you out."

He doesn't stop for lunch. He stops for an occasional coffee refill and a pit stop. But mostly he keeps the plow moving. Time is money. He has burned 50 gallons of gas by the time he returns from Itasca.

Motorists present their own special set of problems, Adam said.

A truck in Walker has just stopped to check on a motorist in the ditch.

"I knew he was a goner when he went around me," the plow driver radioed.

"Fortunately I've never had someone spin out in front of me," a relieved Adam says. He saw when a fellow driver did to a car in the same circumstance. It wasn't pretty.

Oncoming cars don't bother to dim their headlights. The glare can be blinding, Adam says.

And many motorists tailgate his truck with their brights on.

"They're too afraid to dim them," he said. Lights behind him blind his mirror vision.

"They like to try to pass you," he said. "I'm out here for a reason. The road's slippery ahead of me. I pull over to let them go by but I don't like to do that when it's icy."

About the worst stretch is in the residential section of Park Rapids, where he must plow around cars. The drivers are no doubt cursing him when they get curbside.

He's meticulous and a perfectionist. Leaving snow on the shoulder is problematic. A semi or line of traffic "can suck it back onto the road" and make salting useless.

The plow just beneath his seat is only inches off the ground, so "you drag everything with you," he says. He turns around to clean up a stripe of snow he left on the highway.

He says he never has nightmares over a missed spot.

And cleaning that driveway? By the time he gets home, wife Colleen has used a four-wheeler to remove the snow a fellow driver has deposited in his yard.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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