PHOTO: Daniel Johnson
March 12, 2019

Sometimes I chuckle when I think about how writers can make things sound so simple, such as when discussing machines and how they perform. I’ve been guilty of it myself—you want to focus on the good points of a topic more than the bad, so you try to emphasize how well something works in most cases and in theory.

Well, theory goes out the window during winters like the one I’m battling up here in northern Wisconsin. Take your typical standalone snowblower. I’ve written about how well they work, and what questions to ask when buying one, and indeed, during normal winters they chug along quite nicely, clearing paths and making life easier. They’re self-powered, remember—you just steer them and let the engine provide the power.

Well, that’s the theory, and it’s perfectly true during normal winters—key word, “normal.” I wouldn’t want to go into winter without a snowblower, but naturally the performance of one changes when the snow is deeper than the machine is tall, and the ground is unsteady and unforgiving. That performance looks something like this: The wheels of the snowblower spin helplessly in mushy snow while I push with all my might against the handles, trying to make the machine clear a few more inches of snow before I get a second wind and have another go.

Speaking of the wind, that’s a big factor in determining how much snow these machines can handle. Two feet of light, fluffy snow is quite different than 3 feet of icy snow that’s been packed into dense drifts by the wind. Case in point—a recent snowstorm up my way brought winds blowing as strong as 50 mph. They packed the snow down so tight that everything has a hard, crusty layer on top, and the snow underneath is dense and rigid.

I don’t care how good your snowblower is, those are challenging circumstances to work with. You could have a tractor with a 7-foot snowblower attachment, and you might still get bogged down (been there, done that … last week). And if you’re using a smaller, standalone snowblower, you can’t expect it to just cruise through those deep, dense, crusty drifts. It can’t, because those are not normal circumstances, and while it makes no sense to blame the machine, it also makes no sense to press on and physically force the snowblower through the drifts.

Instead, you might have to admit that machines can’t do everything and rely on some good old-fashioned physical labor to keep things moving. My brother and I have taken to working as a team with the snowblower; one of us goes ahead and breaks up the hard-packed snow with a shovel, while the other follows behind with the snowblower and clears the path. It’s time-consuming, true, and strenuous, yes, but it’s a whole lot better than shoveling the whole path by hand or digging out a bigger machine when it gets stuck.

I’m trying to look on the bright side. Where I live, we don’t have to face hurricanes or earthquakes, so in the scheme of things, several feet of snow isn’t too bad. We just can’t expect our machines to work as well as they usually do when conditions are this extreme.

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