Clearing the way
Think about this: a lot of people put in a lot of grueling hours to make those roads passable.
"My wife Shannon works at region headquarters," said Bill Ficken, an Oregon Department of Transportation highway worker based in Elgin. "A lot of times, she and I just pass each other on the way into and out of the house. We say, ‘Hope to see you in the spring."
Statewide, summer and winter, the department looks after about 20,000 lane miles of state and federal highways, about a quarter of them in Eastern Oregon's Region 5.
That's the largest region in the state, taking in Morrow, Umatilla, Union, Wallowa, Baker, Grant, Harney and Malheur counties.
The district employs about 38 maintenance workers taking care of about 1,200 miles of highway. Those workers have the undying respect of District Manager Mike Buchanan.
As far as he's concerned, his crews go above and beyond the call of duty during severe Northeast Oregon weather.
"They're dedicated folks who take their jobs seriously," he said. "They're definitely working hard this time of year. Holidays, weekends, night time, they're out there to make the roads safe."
During winter, Ficken spends most of his time on Highway 204, otherwise known as the Tollgate Highway. The road winds and climbs through tall alpine forests, connecting Elgin at one end and Weston at the other.
Elgin's elevation, in Union County, is 2,670 feet. Weston's, in Umatilla County, is 1,796. In between, there's a very tall mountain. Elevation at the little community of Tollgate near the top is about 5,000 feet.
Snow falls plenty along the steep and curvy two-lane road. On a recent day when Ficken took a newspaper reporter on a snowblower ride, roadside accumulation totaled 100 inches.
"This has got the makings of the winter of '88-'89," Ficken said. "That year, we ran 24 hours for 32 days. We were sleeping in catnaps."
An auger at the front of the blower and a horizontal blade to the right side bring snow into a chute. The chute spews the snow over the towering roadside bank in huge billowing plumes.
Sometimes the wind favors the driver, sometimes not.
"You get whiteouts. When it's happening a lot, it can make you kind of weary," Ficken said.
Ficken travels about six miles an hour, cleaning the road and blading a neat wall of snow perpendicular to the surface. Despite the slow pace, he says he is rarely bored.
"Some guys say it's monotonous, but I don't feel that way. No two days are the same," he said.
A former logger with a lifelong love of the outdoors, Ficken said he feels completely at home in Tollgate's wintry forests.
"I'd rather run the equipment out here than be back at the office doing paperwork," he said.
There's plenty of trouble to dodge, and it has a way of keeping a man alert and interested. Along the side of the road, there are holes and dips and pits and cracks just waiting to suck a machine in.
And always, traffic comes and goes. There's something a little heart-stopping about a log truck appearing suddenly around an icy hairpin curve, or a car passing suddenly from behind, going too fast on packed snow.
"It can be a dangerous job. Guys do get hit and rear-ended, but it's not as bad here as it is out on the freeway," Ficken said.
Early in the day, she had teamed with a fellow driver to do some tandem plowing. It's a technique in which a lead vehicle pulls a snow drift in, and a vehicle following plows the snow out.
After tandem plowing, she drove up and down the road, plowing and sanding as a storm moved in and snow continued to fall.
Risseeuw handled her machine as if she'd been doing it a long time. But in truth, she's a rookie in the midst of her first winter as a highway maintenance worker.
The reporter asked her why she decided to become a snow plow driver. The question made her laugh.
"I needed a job," she said. Then she explained she is one of several district employees taking part in Oregon's "Fire and Ice" program.
"I fight fire for the Department of Forestry in the summer, and then plow snow in the winter," she said.
Under normal conditions, highway maintenance personnel work four 10-hour shifts in a week. But Risseeuw has learned that normal rules don't apply along the Tollgate road in winter.
"It's hard to say how long a shift's going to be. There's been a couple of times I've been out 16-17 hours," she said.
Like Ficken, she knows the importance of staying alert. She said drivers coming from behind are a particular danger. Even though motorists aren't supposed to pass plows on the right, they sometimes do.
"You've really got to be watching, especially when you've got the wing plow down," she said.
She said that for the most part, highway workers enjoy good relations with the motorists they serve.
One reason is that the workers stand ready to help in case of an emergency.
"Usually, people are glad to see me. I plow them out, sand them out, call a wrecker for them, or an ambulance," she said. "A lot of times, I'm the first person they see when they're stuck in the snow."
All the highway workers have first aid training, and their vehicles are equipped with aid kits.
Ficken said he has put the training to use more than once.
He said that under ODOT rules, each worker is free to choose whether to give first aid, or wait for emergency personnel to arrive.
"We're trained in it, but we're not required to use it. It's up to the individual," he said.
Ficken said an important part of a highway worker's job is to help police secure an accident scene.
"Traffic control is our main thing," he said.
District Manager Buchanan said ODOT's winter mission is to keep the roads open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and to make them as safe as they can be.
After that, responsibility for safety passes on to individual drivers.
Folks around Tollgate appreciate the work that's done, day in and day out. They couldn't live, work or play here if it weren't for the road crews.
"The snow really drifts around here. I've seen drifts 20 feet high," said resident Gordon Clayton. "There's times we couldn't make it if we couldn't get behind a plow.
"The ODOT people are very efficient. They keep the road sanded and they do a good job."
Clearing The Way from Bryan Pearson on Vimeo.