From dog booties to road salt, harsh winter is leaving its mark

by Joni Astrup

Associate Editor

Space heaters, snow shovels, jumper cables, lock de-icers and even things like puzzles have been big sellers at Johnson’s Hardware Hank in Zimmerman, as people deal with a cold and snowy winter.

Man’s best friend is being taken care of as well.

“We’re almost all sold out on doggie boots, which is unusual,” said Maggie Johnson, who owns the store with her husband, Kevin.

Across the region, the harsh winter is leaving its mark.

A total of 35 inches of snow has fallen in Elk River so far this winter (as of Jan. 31), according to Elk River Municipal Utilities and the National Climatic Data Center. That compares to 73.5 inches for the winter of 2012-2013 and 21.5 inches for the winter before that.

Elk River Street Superintendent Mark Thompson said since the first snow event of the season on Nov. 6, his department has responded to 18 different snowfalls. That is about what a typical full season has on average.

“What has made this season much more difficult is the severe cold weather. This past January has been the coldest January in 30 years,” he said.

The cold takes a toll on people and equipment alike.

Two of the city’s plow trucks have had damage to the wing blade while pushing back frozen snow banks. These banks are being pushed back in an attempt to create snow storage room for the snowfalls yet to come, Thompson said. In a more moderate winter, warmer days between snowfalls help reduce the piles of snow, but those days have been scarce this year.

During the month of January, which had 21 working days, city plow crews worked 19 days either plowing snow, winging back snow banks, or hauling snow from priority streets, he said. As the month ended and a cold February began, city plow crews were hauling snow from intersections, creating better sight lines for smaller vehicles that cannot see over the large banks of snow.

“If a normal February and March snowfall happens to occur, this will undoubtedly be one of the toughest years for all snowplow operators,” Thompson said.

Sherburne County Public Works Director John Menter is facing similar challenges.

“We’ve had a lot of overtime and we’ve used a lot of fuel and a lot of chemicals,” he said.

The department’s budget is in good shape, but there’s still at least two months of winter left, he said.

While the snow is one issue they face, cold weather brings its own set of challenges, particularly when it comes to treating roads to keep them safe for the motoring public.

Road salt works until temperatures drop to about 15 degrees. Then they use a more expensive treated salt, which is salt mixed with magnesium chloride, Menter said. That mixture is effective until temperatures drop to minus 10 or minus 15.

So in the bitter cold, sand is their only weapon in the battle against icy roads, he said.

Of course, a snowy winter is welcome news for some people.

Bruce Eilers of the River City Snow Riders said snowmobiling has been excellent this year. The Elk River man said having snow all over the state makes for very good snowmobiling because it keeps riders from concentrating in areas with snow and creating crowded conditions. Plus, this year’s snowfall has meant Eilers can snowmobile at home, rather than having to travel.

He said the cold hasn’t bothered him because it has tended to be warmer on the weekends.

The River City Snow Riders is open to anyone interested in snowmobiling. There’s a club meeting at 7 p.m. every third Wednesday of the month at Broadway Pizza in Elk River.

Meanwhile, despite the hard winter, there are some subtle stirrings of spring at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge near Zimmerman.

Betsy Beneke, refuge visitor services manager, said great horned owls are sitting on eggs now.

“They are one of the earliest birds to begin nesting,” she said.

The black-capped chickadee is further evidence that winter won’t last forever. Beneke said chickadees are singing their spring song, in response to the longer days. The song is a two-toned “here petey” or “fee-bee” that’s easily heard in yards or woodlands this time of year, she said.

Let it snow: Twin Cities snowfall records and trivia

Five snowiest winters in the Twin Cities

1983-84……….98.6 inches

1981-82……….95.0 inches

1950-51……….88.9 inches

2010-11……….86.6 inches

1916-17……….84.9 inches

Five least snowy winters in the Twin Cities

1930-31……….14.2 inches

1894-95……….16.2 inches

1986-87……….17.4 inches

1967-68……….17.5 inches

1958-59……….19.1 inches

Notable dates 

•Average date of the first inch snowfall: Nov. 18

•Average date of the first inch of snow cover: Nov. 22

•Average date of the last inch of snow cover: April 2

Average number of days each season with a snow depth of …

•1 inch: 100 days

•6 inches: 54 days

•12 inches: 24 days

Source: National Weather Service