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Nelson: North Dakota is no country for old men

Nelson writes, "Dakota winters are by far the longest and worst seasons of all. Sometime in January I stopped counting the wind storms at eight. Ground blizzards from late December to early February typically roared through every two to three days, with perhaps one four-day break somewhere in there."

Ross Nelson.jpg
Ross Nelson is a resident of Casselton, N.D. and InForum opinion columnist.
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After this winter my head is “bloody but unbowed.” (Apology to William Ernest Henley.) This winter, which isn't quite over, holds pride of place as the second worst of the 25 winters we've spent here on our rural patch. Of course nothing matches the winter of 1996-97, our first winter here, with its 113 inches of snow and 13 major storms.

Dakota winters are by far the longest and worst seasons of all. Sometime in January I stopped counting the wind storms at eight. Ground blizzards from late December to early February typically roared through every two to three days, with perhaps one four-day break somewhere in there. We're told La Nina is partly to blame for the accursed winds. If so, I'm thinking that La Nina merits un Spankito.

The winds weren't accompanied by much snow, but days of 40-60 mph winds from the south and then often from the north the same day (and vice versa) repeatedly laid down drifts some four feet deep and 20 feet wide on our 180 foot-long driveway. They were invariably hard as macadam, not just the crust but all the way to the ground. Igloo blocks, anyone?

After a late December storm I recruited my son, here for Christmas vacation, to help open our driveway. The walk-behind snowblowers could barely scratch those hardpan drifts, so with mattocks we busted them up to make a single narrow path, then shoving and cajoling our blowers we took six-inch cuts back and forth. It took us five and a half hours to do the job.

Mattocks, by the way, are excellent for busting snow banks to allow snowblowing. They're much heavier than axes and their broad heads ideal for chopping. On one occasion I used one and a shovel for nearly an hour just to reach our old shed where we kept our snowblowers. I did so several times until I abandoned the shed to the gods of winter storms. The blowers and the rototiller I moved to the garage after removing a car.

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Did I say rototiller? Our front-tine machine was ideal for busting drifts up to 18 inches deep that were as hard as speed bumps. I replaced the honey-thick summer weight oil with winter weight, gave it a whiff of ether, and away we went.

There are few winter things more disheartening than waking again and again to the driveway smothered in compacted snow. Fortunately several times we had crews out here to clear the driveway, but most of the time we were on our own.

Because of the weather I spent one night sleeping on a chair at work, two with friends, and two in my truck when 60 mph winds caught me half-way home and I parked in a rural lane for the night. It was cold.

North Dakota is no country for old men. There were two major blizzards in November 1996 and we had to send to Minneapolis to get a decent-sized snowblower. The trucker backed his semi and trailer to our garage to unload, took a look around and asked: “Did you shovel this driveway yourself?” Yep, twice. But I wore a younger man's shoes then.

Nelson lives in Casselton, N.D., and is a regular contributor to The Forum’s opinion page. Email him at dualquad413@gmail.com .

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

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