Let It Snow, Let It Snow
In 1996, we had a blizzard here in Annapolis, the likes of which I had never seen in my lifetime. Reports of up to 33 inches of snowfall filled the news, and there were drifts of at least two feet around my tiny Toyota Tercel. I was trapped at home for over a week, not only because my car was buried in snow at the bottom of a steep, unplowed hill, but also because, despite all my preventative measures, I blew out a disk in my lower back trying to shovel out my vehicle.
All the news reports during and after that storm had at least one reminder to observe certain safety precautions while shoveling snow, particularly the amounts of snow we all had to deal with that year. Shoveling snow is an activity almost unlike any other. It will increase your heart rate to above recommended levels faster than almost any gym exercise you can think of. For that reason, snow shoveling is a factor in many heart attacks each winter. Also, because of the bending and heavy lifting, it is remarkably easy to injure one’s back, as I sadly discovered.
I had only been shoveling for fifteen minutes or so, being careful to use my legs to lift, and to rest if I felt out of breath. I decided that my little knit gloves just weren’t enough to keep my fingers from getting frost bitten and had decided to go back into the house to warm up. I felt fine until I reached the front door and lifted up my foot to knock off the accumulated snow. Then, something in my lower spine snapped like a rubber band and I was instantly down on the ground, unable to stand under my own power. I crawled into the house and called to my husband from inside the doorway. Once he got me upright and in a chair, supported by a complicated arrangement of pillows, all I could do was laugh as I endured the most pain I have ever felt in my life (and I include childbirth in that comparison).
Is there anything I could have done to prevent this injury? Yes. Not shoveling the snow. The fact is, I lead what is known as a sedentary lifestyle, and despite precautions, my rapidly-approaching-middle-age body just isn’t physically prepared for the rigors of shoveling. Of course, one solution to that would be to start exercising, but tell that to my already full dayplanner.
So, I thought that this year I would prepare for the blasts of heavy snow by shopping for a snowblower (also known as a snow thrower, which to me sounds like a machine that lobs your unwanted snow at neighborhood enemies in the form of well-packed snowballs). But buying a snowblower, as I have come to realize, is no easy task in itself.
There are essentially two types of snow removal machines: single-stage and two-stage. Single-stage blowers use an auger assembly which spins to chop up the ice and snow, collect it and then blow it out a chute. The auger itself acts as kind of a self-propelling mechanism, but by no means can you just pop open a beer and let it go by itself down the driveway. They still require a good push and some steering.
A two-stage thrower, on the other hand, has an impeller mechanism behind the auger, which acts like a pump. It allows the machine to handle more snow and throw it a longer distance, which makes it better for deeper snow and larger areas to clear. Two-stage blowers also tend to be wider, so you don’t have to go up and down your driveway as many times. They will of course have larger engines, which will require more gas, are heavier, and much more expensive.
While it may be tempting to go for the most power, the fact is that, despite two snowstorms in recent years that dumped over a foot of snow on us, the average snowfall in any given year in Annapolis is only 14.4 inches. Even lightweight, one-stage snowblowers are probably more appropriate for regions which see around 80 to 90 inches per year, and then only if the snow tends to be heavy. And, it turns out, maneuvering a snowblower is a lot of work, and I would probably still end up hiring somebody to run it for me.
And then there is price. There are tiny one-stage blowers that are essentially nothing more than souped up shovels, which retail for $199 or less. But most serious machines can run from $600 to well over $1000. This can be quite an investment for a machine I may not really be able to use unless we get another massive storm, and that is never a sure thing. In fact, dropping a cool grand on a snow blower might just be the way to ensure that we never see more than a light dusting in these parts ever again.
There may be a compromise solution in the Toro Electric 1800 Power Curve Snowthrower. It weighs about 32 pounds and is no larger than a small lawnmower. Since it’s electric, rather than gas-powered, it means a lot less hassle on cold, snowy mornings. According to the product literature, it can hurl 700 lbs of snow per minute and throw it 30 feet away. And, at only $299, it may still allow for a decent snowfall or two once you spend the money.
But for me, I think that this year I will head down to the hardware store early and invest in a couple of those ergonomic shovels and a few bags of ice melt for good measure. Then, when I hire a nice, strapping young college boy to come dig out my car, I will give him the following tips to help save him from the injury I sustained at the hands of Old Man Winter:
• If you are inactive and have a history of heart trouble, talk to your doctor before you take on the task of shoveling snow.
• Avoid caffeine or nicotine before beginning. These are stimulants, which may increase your heart rate and cause your blood vessels to constrict. This places extra stress on the heart.
• Drink plenty of water. Dehydration is just as big an issue in cold weather months as it is in the summer.
• Dress in several layers so you can remove a layer as needed.
• Warm up your muscles before shoveling, by walking for a few minutes or marching in place. Warm muscles will work more efficiently and be less likely to be injured.
• Pick the right shovel for you. A smaller blade will require you to lift less snow, putting less strain on your body.
• Begin shoveling slowly to avoid placing a sudden demand on your heart. Pace yourself and take breaks as needed.
• Stand with your feet about hip width for balance and keep the shovel close to your body. Bend from the knees (not the back) and tighten your stomach muscles as you lift the snow. Avoid twisting movements. If you need to move the snow to one side, reposition your feet to face the direction the snow will be going.
• Most importantly—listen to your body. Stop if you feel pain!*
*Shoveling tips courtesy of the North Dakota State University Extension service.