County plow operators mop up after latest snowfall
In the early morning hours after a winter storm, when most people are still sleeping, snowplow operators have fueled up their trucks, downed some coffee and are clearing their routes for motorists.
"I kind of enjoy it," said Larry Henjum, Monday morning while making a swipe through the northwestern corner of Kandiyohi County with his tandem truck loaded with sand and equipped with a front plow and side wing.
Henjum, who has worked for the county highway department for 25 years, was in his truck and on the road by 5 a.m., clearing a thick blanket of snow from county roads.
He expected to put in eight to 10 hours Monday -- a routine he'll repeat today. It's a routine the good-natured man looks forward to. "I just enjoy the challenge."
Cruising along at about 30 mph, with his right hand resting on controls that lift and lower the wing, Henjum is jostled about in the cab of the truck as it plows through thick drifts.
In open areas where the wind has whipped snow to the top of ditches, it's nearly impossible to tell where the road ends and the ditch begins.
A steady drizzle of snow and gray sky makes it even more difficult to discern the road's boundaries.
Henjum looks for road signs and utility poles to help guide him.
"You can get snow blind pretty easy," he said. "It's hard to tell where the shoulder is."
Stretches along the Glacial Ridge Scenic Trail that host snow-laden cedar and hardwood trees on both sides of the road are gorgeous. They're also the roads with the heaviest snow.
When it "pushes so heavy" the truck burns fuel quickly, said Henjum, eyeing the fuel gauge. "There's a lot of snow here."
Thankfully there are few vehicles on the road, which makes plowing easier.
An approaching pickup pulls to the side of the road to let Henjum pass. "I like it when they do that," Henjum said, giving the man a grateful wave.
Earlier in the morning Henjum came across a woman who was stuck on County Road 1.
He took little sand from the back of the truck and shoveled it under her tires and then gave the car a push by hand to dislodge it.
Henjum's route is about 50 miles, but all of those miles are covered at least twice and some of the high-traffic county roads are plowed three or four times.
The tar roads are plowed first and then the gravel roads. That arrangement "might not seem fair" to the people who live on the gravel roads, he said sympathetically.
He said he wished people could understand that snow plow operators "can't be on all the roads at one time."
Having driven the same route for so many years has taught him to watch for certain things.
There's a spot where he sees coyotes on a regular basis and the rural home where a long-haired dog that looks like Lassie runs to the end of the driveway every time he drives by.
He points out the unique mailbox post made of cedar branches that he always swings out to avoid.
"I'd hate to knock that one down," Henjum said, adding that occasionally plows do hit mail boxes. "But we don't try to," he said earnestly.
The part of the job that really makes him nervous is stopping on the road and backing up at a corner to wing the snow out of an intersection. He worries that vehicles following him won't realize he's backing up.
And don't even talk to him about vehicles that pass snow plows on a two-lane road.
When it comes to ranking this week's snowfall, Henjum called it average.
The topper in his book will always be the Halloween storm of 1991.
"That was quite a storm," he said. "That was a mess."