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Snow Country Driveways

Pisgah Forest, NC
Christopher Breitigan/Unsplash
Pisgah Forest, NC

On a winter day a few years ago, a neighbor called to ask, "Could you find an excuse to send Bill over?" Her husband got stuck trying to get up their icy driveway. Extrication attempts had reached the point where the vehicle was sideways, and the only 4-letter word the guy hadn't applied to the situation was Help. She and I crafted a clever cover story so it wouldn't appear as if she had called in a rescue. Bill ignored it and led with "Your wife called mine. Want to take a ride to get some sand?" 

Our rural township lets residents help themselves to the sand/salt mix used on roads if you bring your own buckets and shovel. That's good to know where winter lasts five months, give or take. Because at some point most of us will find ourselves sideways in the driveway and glad to have a buddy help shovel sand and make rude comments about the weather.

In these parts, driveways can break you or make you into a minor god worshiped by UPS and FedEx drivers, beloved of propane delivery personnel, and heavily recruited by rural volunteer fire departments. Bill and I fall short here. We've hired out snow removal since the days when we needed room for a semi to pull in, offload, and turn around at our place. Nevertheless, we've learned a few things over the years that help minimize marital tension when cabin fever spikes and the lifeline to sanity is a navigable driveway.

Simplify. Maybe you've hankered for a white picket fence that runs up both sides of the driveway. Charming as it would be, it's hard to snowplow if there's no place to push snow. And yes, there are other ways to remove snow besides pushing it with a blade. But working around hardscaping gets old fast, whether you do it yourself or hire someone else. Either way, it doesn't hurt to consider how much fuss is worth it, and how much your fuss threshold may change in the next five or 10 years. And for the short term, snow removal is simpler without the presence of boats, trailers and extra vehicles in the driveway. If access over the winter isn't essential, find spots for them elsewhere.

Plan for Snowmageddon. Wherever snow gets pushed or blown is where it stays. Once a snow berm freezes, it can be like concrete. So over the course of a winter, you end up with less room to pile snow as the berms grow not only in height but also at the base. That's why folks around here start every winter by pushing or blowing snow back far enough to make room not just for a winter's worth of accumulation but for the worst in memory plus 20 inches. And before the ground freezes take time to flag stumps, boulders, well casings, septic fields and other things that might be masked by snow accumulation. Maybe you know where they are but flags are helpful to the unfamiliar snow plow operator you call when your regular guy is in the hospital, and to volunteer fire or EMS personnel who may have to respond to your address. If you hire someone for snow removal, ask them what you can do to make their job easier. I guarantee they have suggestions.

Snow fences. I grew up in Central Indiana and didn't know snow could come straight down until I moved to the Northwoods of northern Wisconsin. But even here, blowing and drifting are problems in open areas. A snow fence can help redirect some of the accumulation to fall short of your driveway. In addition to traditional slat or newer net materials, snow fences can be made of snow itself, plowed in windrows. Or for a quick-growing live snow fence plant willows or dogwood.

Keep up. When Bill and I were younger and invincible, we could get away (mostly) with postholing through drifts and just waiting for the snow to melt eventually. Now we're more careful about trying to keep pathways clear between the house and the driveway. Because members of our aging community (including us) can be one fall or illness away from needing crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair. Sometimes that means using a door no one has opened in years, let alone shoveled up to. And let's not forget last winter when my washing machine died and we had to back the truck close to the porch to unload a replacement. Whatever appliance or orthopedic nonsense this winter has in store, I hope we're keeping ahead of the clearance we'll need.

EMS response. For most of us, this isn't a top-of-mind concern until the ambulance can't get through the snow or up an icy driveway. But when you live where emergency responders are probably volunteers, support them by thinking about what you can do in advance that might make their response safer – not only at your place but also at the homes of elderly or frail neighbors or family members. For example, stash barrels of sand for use in an emergency near where they might be needed. Post (where others can find them) phone numbers of neighbors you can call in a pinch to come help plow snow or shovel sand while EMTs are en route. Advise the 911 operator about safety concerns to relay to responders. If there's no way an ambulance can make it to the door safely, let the dispatcher know. That way EMS can load extra equipment to safely sled the patient to the rig, call for additional manpower, put on ice creepers, call the fire department to light the scene – whatever it takes to meet the needs of the patient without hurting responders. For more advance planning advice, ask the nice volunteers wearing EMT jackets when you see them in your community. 

Fire response. Your rural volunteer fire department needs to be able to navigate your driveway to respond to smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, chimney fires, appliance fires, motor vehicle fires, and, yes, if your house is burning. So in addition to all the concerns related to EMS response, consider how accessible to fire apparatus your driveway is. My husband once had to back a tender (aka tanker) up a quarter-mile dog-leg driveway to drop water at a house fire. He did it twice in the dark. On the third relay (after dawn), the snow was getting icy, he got a little off his line, caught a branch, and bent the hanger for the water basket on the side of the tank. Branches and brush really need to be cleared at least 13 feet wide and 13.5 feet high. And the base of a driveway should be firm enough to support the weight of emergency vehicles even during spring thaw when the ground is soft.

Driveway address. Make sure your address is clearly visible both day and night, not just for the rural mail carrier and other deliveries but also for fire and EMS. A wintry mix can mask a sign, or it can be buried or hidden by drifts or a snowplow berm. If multiple addresses are signed together at the road, make sure where your driveway branches off is clearly signed with your specific address. You might also suggest your local government integrate color-coded markers that are placed just below the address marker. The colors indicate the length of the driveway, helping fire officers quickly assess factors that can influence staging decisions.

The End. Town and county plow drivers work hard to get rural roads open as quickly as possible. While you're waiting for them to plow yours, they may be diverted to spread sand at a fire or the scene of a motor vehicle accident to help protect the volunteer first responders working the incident. And believe it or not, road crews don't drop snow at the end of your driveway just to be contrary. When the approach to your drive is laden with snow, it has to go somewhere as the plow passes. Even if the plow driver knows you're a first responder or their former first-grade teacher, they probably can't go back to clean up the road-to-driveway interface or someone will complain because they didn't get the same treatment. 

Be a good neighbor. When you have a rural driveway in snow country, you probably don't need a gym membership and wouldn't have time to use one anyway. It's work just getting to work many days, and more work on the weekend to stay ahead of the next winter storm. But if you have a few minutes, maybe you can help out the neighbor who's a volunteer first responder, or whose elderly spouse is in the hospital. A quick pass at the end of a driveway to scrape down the bump left by the town or county snowplow can make getting out quickly a lot easier. Or send your teens to shovel for a housebound neighbor who won't ask for help but might appreciate it.

Or just show up with buckets and shovels and take a ride with a neighbor to get some sand.

Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin.

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.