From his perch high above the street, a snowplow driver has a different view of winter.
Cars driving below seem small, and people shoveling their walks are seen for just a moment before disappearing in the rearview mirror. The cabin jolts in every direction as the truck lumbers through ruts and across slick intersections, churning snow onto drifts lining the road.
Doug Gaasvig, 61, became a Hennepin County snowplow driver in 1991, just two months after the infamous Halloween blizzard.
By 8 a.m. Friday, he’d already been working for seven hours. His days are dictated by the weather. When the forecast says a storm is coming, he knows to expect a late-night call telling him to come in. Drivers typically work five-day weeks, but if it snows on their day off, they come in.
Usually, plowing begins about 2 a.m. and continues into the afternoon. After a storm like Thursday night’s, though, work begins earlier — in this case, at 1 a.m.
7:50 a.m. Outside the Bloomington garage housing the plows, there’s a parking lot with a fuel pump and a shed housing a mountain of salt. Gaasvig, in worn jeans, a jacket, a reflective vest and a camouflage baseball cap, stopped to fuel up his truck. He’d already driven more than 100 miles that morning.
8:11 a.m. After meeting up with another driver, his working partner who follows the same route, Gaasvig left the lot. His regular route, which he’d already run twice today, follows Portland and Nicollet avenues, running past the Mall of America and extending to Fort Snelling.
He soon lost track of his partner. On a clear day like Friday, they don’t need to talk much. “Then you can crank the radio,” he said.
8:21 a.m. The truck followed Portland Avenue, passing driveways where homeowners with snowblowers stopped to watch it go by. Morning commuters filled the streets, and a tow truck passed in the opposite direction. Gaasvig said other drivers don’t always understand that snowplows don’t drive in a straight line — they meander down the road based on factors like the direction of the wind and where traffic is headed.
8:32 a.m. Two teenagers walked down the street holding hands, and leapt into the snowbank when they saw the plow. Sometimes pedestrians move out of the way, Gaasvig said, but sometimes they don’t: “Sometimes we’re driving at 25 miles an hour and it’s wet slushy stuff; sometimes they get a bath because we don’t see them.”
8:44 a.m. In such deep snow, it takes an experienced driver to navigate the street. When turning the back of the truck upward to shift the load of salt inside, drivers have to be careful not to hit power lines. As they plow, curbs and boulevards hidden beneath snowdrifts can catch the truck’s rear blade, which extends about 7 feet. “You learn how to judge a little bit better [over time],” he said. “But everybody makes mistakes.”
8:56 a.m. Of about 80 Hennepin County snowplow drivers, just four are women. When asked why, Gaasvig paused. “I don’t think very many women want to be truck drivers,” he said. “I think there’s better occupations than driving a truck.”
9:05 a.m. The route ends just across the Interstate 494 entrance ramp leading to the Mall of America. But Gaasvig and his partner aren’t done — they’ll keep driving this stretch of road until the pavement shows through the snow.
10:09 a.m. Gaasvig couldn’t see his partner’s tracks anymore, and figured he’d gone back to the garage. As Gaasvig headed back, a woman’s voice came on the radio and said drivers would work until 2 p.m. “That means it’ll be a 14-hour day,” he said.
When he gets home, he usually takes a bath. He sometimes goes to bed as early as 8 p.m., especially when he knows the phone will ring about 1 a.m. “Some days when they predict snow,” he said, “I’m up a few times looking out the window, praying they’re wrong.”
Emma Nelson is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.