Serious snow, serious tools
Hancock's heavy machinery gets some commercial help clearing snow this year
Snow is a reality everyone living in the Upper Peninsula deals with in some way or another. For public streets and sidewalks, however, city employees have to go well beyond using a “yooper scooper” to keep people safe and traffic moving through the winter.
John Erickson recently became Hancock’s new director of the Department of Public Works. He previously worked for the Houghton County Road Commission for more than 20 years and graduated from Houghton High School. He’s now lived in Hancock for more than 27 years.
“I jumped ship,” he said with a laugh.
During the winter, he manages a team of nine unionized full-time employees and two part-time employees to clear the snow in the city. The crew works regular shifts from 11:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. clearing the snow, longer if the snowfall requires it. During the day, they keep one of the sander trucks on the road until about 9 p.m. The same drivers that work through the night are also on call for weekend sanding shifts.
“So sometimes they could be here for 12, 13, 14 hours before they can go home,” Erickson said.
The drivers are assigned routes in the city, and the schedule stays flexible to make sure plows are on the road when they need to be.
When they use a snowblower attachment on the front end loaders, they blow the snow into a dump truck and haul it to a snow dump near the Houghton County Fairgrounds. Before they can clear the main streets in Hancock—Quincy and Hancock Streets, North Lincoln Drive, and any other stretch of road that is part of US-41—the city has to get permission from the Michigan Department of Transportation.
“It’s one phone call,” Erickson said. “Usually if a snowbank is two feet or higher they’ll let us do it.”
When a storm is expected, like midway through this week, the full-time employees already know they’ll be coming in, but Erickson does have to call in the part-timers, who mainly work when there is extra snow to clear.
This year, the DPW has had some help clearing the city sidewalks, too.
Douglas Kortbein, Senior COE Manager at Ariens, runs the testing program for their snow equipment in the Keweenaw area, and for their lawncare equipment in Sebring, Florida. He said they’ve been expanding their snow-testing program recently to make it more true to what people are using the machines for.
“People tend to use the machines when there’s a big snow,” Kortbein said.
The Keweenaw area is one of the few places in the United States where heavy snow falls consistently, which is why Ariens tests here.
“Plus, it’s just good people,” he said.
Kortbein is originally from Wisconsin and said he didn’t really get the local idea of “sisu” until he moved here.
“When you have this much snow all the time, you have to have that attitude,” he said.
Ariens is testing a power broom, salt and sand spreader, a plow blade, and a brine spray unit for the Mammoth 850, mainly along Quincy and Hancock Streets.
“This is the end of about two years of testing on the tractor,” Kortbein said.
The tractor and power broom have also been tested in Florida to make sure they can withstand warm weather as well as cold. The Mammoth has a 4-wheel hydraulic drive, with skid-style steering controlled with two levers (with heated hand grips).
“They’ll spin right on their own center-point, they’re pretty maneuverable,” Kortbein said. “You get great traction for pushing snow.”
Ariens has a regular line of snowblowers, but the benefit of the Mammoth is its changeable attachments that allow for different applications.
“It’s a four-season, multi-purpose piece of equipment,” Kortbein said.
Kortbein admitted he has hopes the city of Hancock might be a future customer, but the current sidewalk work Ariens is doing comes at no cost or obligation from the city. Ariens pays the drivers and supplements the snow removal the DPW is already doing for the benefit of their product testing program.
“We really appreciate the support of the community, working with the city of Hancock, and people in the area have shown great support,” he said.
Erickson said he thinks the Mammoth 850 machines are doing a good job but doesn’t think his drivers will want to switch from the sidewalk machines they already have until there is an enclosed cab available for the Mammoth.
Kortbein was non-committal about whether an enclosure attachment was in development for the Mammoth.
“That would sure be a nice accessory to have,” he said.
As winter continues, Erickson asked that people have patience with plow drivers and remember that breakdowns, stuck vehicles, and other issues happen to everyone, including them.
Erickson said the 25,000-pound dump trucks get stuck pretty regularly, and they send a front-end loader or a grader to pull them clear. The graders weigh around 45,000 pounds, according to Erickson. The blades on them are 14 feet long, and a wing adds another 12 feet.
During the day, the DPW mechanic maintains the vehicles and keeps them ready for plowing at night, and an assistant mechanic is on call at night if something breaks.
“Have patience with us if we’re not there every day at the same time,” Erickson said.