Like it or not, winter driving is here again

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff
Posted Nov. 15, 2012, at 7:03 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — It is often said that time and tide wait for no man. Well, I’d like to offer an addendum to that platitude: Winter driving conditions wait for no motorist.

Yep, it’s here — that time of year where even a short trip to the grocery store takes on all the logistical preparations and planning of a six-month trek to the Arctic.

See, I was raised and learned how to drive in Portland, Oregon — that other Portland about 3,200-miles west of the one here in Maine.

Sure, there is winter there and from time to time “snowstorms” of 3 to 4 inches shut down the entire city for hours, or even days on end.

But being a Pacific Northwest coast-trained driver really means a person is accomplished at driving in all manner of rain and wind situations.

Snow? Not so much.

Even after more than 30 years in Maine, the first snowflake falling from the sky sends me into a winter driving panic that lasts until the final snowbank melts from the yard sometime in May.

And, sadly, the older I get, the worse it gets.

It’s not that I lack the proper winter driving accoutrements. Front-wheel-drive car with studded tires? Check. Four-wheel-drive pickup truck and ditto on the studded tires? Check. Chains in case of emergency? Check. Local Triple A garage on speed dial? Check. Team of sled dogs and sled? Check.

It’s not like I live miles and miles off the beaten track. My driveway is all of 500 feet long, and the town plows the road right to the end of it.

I would just rather not be on those roads from, say, December to April.

Which leaves me with several options: Make like a bear and hibernate, arrange for a personal driver, or simply suck it up and deal with northern Maine winter road conditions.

Ultimately, I opt for a combination of all three.

Thanks to preplanning, I can arrange to have a goodly amount of winter supplies laid in before the snow flies so I can at least hibernate part of the time.

Which is why at the moment, there are piles of dog food, straw for the dogs’ houses, chicken feed and poultry bedding tucked away and dry, thereby saving me from running around for animal supplies when the cold winds and snow blow.

Whenever possible and practical, I’ll carpool with friends so I can avoid actually driving on snow-covered roads.

But, more often than not, a combination of factors will conspire to force me out and behind the wheel, white knuckles and all.

And it’s not like I’ve not heard and taken to heart all the winter driving tips out there — decreasing my speed to match the conditions, leaving tons of room between me and the next car, making sure the windows are clear and frost-free, and so on.

It’s just that, no matter how cautious one is, things can and do go awry.

Like the time I left work in the middle of a pretty severe snowstorm and stopped in at the grocery store for a few essentials like Oreo cookies and beer.

Leaving the parking lot the wind kicked the falling snow into whiteout conditions, but I was confident my sense of direction would see me through.

Note: it was that same geographic hubris that led Columbus to believe he was in India when he, in fact, had bumped into the Bahamas.

Imagine my shock when, as I crept toward the exit, the ground suddenly fell out from under the truck and I was at the bottom of the very deep ditch that surrounded the parking lot.

Luckily,the town grader was passing by, and the nice driver was willing to toss one end of a chain to me. I hooked it onto my truck’s bumper, and he pulled me out.

Which is simply an example of the only upside of being in a northern Maine snowbank or in a ditch — sooner rather than later someone comes along to extricate you and your vehicle.

Like the time I was heading into work after one of the final little snowfalls of the year.

The road was a bit slick in spots, so I was creeping along but not, obviously, slow enough.

I hit a particularly slippery spot and the truck went into a slow, looping slide with the front and back ends trading places several times before I hit a dry patch of pavement which then propelled the entire vehicle into a full-on rollover. The excitement ended with the vehicle on its roof on some man’s lawn.

Some weeks later, that man saw me in town, dug into his pocket and handed me 27 cents.

“I found this where your truck ended up,” he said with a smile. “I figure it fell from your pockets.”

Not that my getting stuck or finding myself in a snowbank is limited to being on the road.

Many is the time during the winter I’ve found myself bogged down with the snowmobile while trying to groom the Rusty Metal Sled Dog Trails.

But by far my greatest achievement when it comes to snow and getting stuck was with the old IH farm tractor.

We had just gotten a major snowstorm and there was no way anyone was going to be able to plow up my driveway, so I got the bright idea to rev up the tractor and use the snow bucket to dig my way out.

At first, the plan was actually working. Bit by bit, I was able to maneuver the tractor and the large, hydraulically powered bucket to chew my way from the shed toward the road.

At one point, looking over the giant snow drift that had formed at the halfway point down the driveway, I could see my neighbor Shawn doing his best to snowplow his way toward me in his truck.

Thinking two snow-removal operations are surely better than one, I sallied forth working the tractor’s gears, scooping snow and dumping it off the side.

Right up until I hit that giant snow drift and ended up halfway over it, sticking the tractor’s front tires actually off the ground, with the back wheels spinning uselessly.

By then, I’d been moving snow for several hours. I was wet, cold, tired and in no mood to deal with a tractor teetering on a snowdrift.

I leapt off the machine, stomped around the side, spewed language that would make a sailor blush, and ran smack into Shawn walking toward me.

Later, once I had calmed down, he told me, “Wow, I did not know you were capable of swearing that much or that loud.”

At the time, after retreating a step or two and surveying the situation, he looked at me and said calmly, “Dude, we have shovels.”

Ever dig a full-size farm tractor out of a snow drift? Takes a while.

But, in the end we got it out, and, while even more wet, cold and tired, I was really no worse for wear.

At least in Maine, we are somewhat prepared for what winter throws at us.

During a late-winter visit to Texas one year, the state got an unseasonal ice storm and during a fou-hour period, more than 600 accidents were reported between Dallas and San Antonio.

All these snow and ice related incidents are at the front of my mind as we enter the 2012-13 winter driving season.

Already there have been accidents around the state — some quite serious — thanks to road conditions. They serve as stark reminders that winter driving is nothing to take lightly.

Since I can’t hibernate all winter, I will obviously take to the roads as the snow piles up here in the north.

I will study weather maps and computer models, and plan my excursions accordingly.

When I do venture out, the snow shovels, chains and cell phone set to Triple A speed dial will all be within easy reach.

If all else fails, I’ll just hook up the dog sled team.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer, who writes part time for the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by e-mail at jbayly@bangordailynews.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/11/15/living/like-it-or-not-winter-driving-is-here-again/ printed on September 17, 2014