Cold and Duluth are so synonymous, Mark Twain is reported to have quipped, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in Duluth." This notoriety keeps many away, people who prefer climate control and underground garages. But those who can, throw on an extra layer, brace themselves, and head to school. Those who can are UMD Bulldogs.
This winter has given Bulldogs extra big bragging rights. In a word, it's been brutal. 3.8 degrees: that’s the average daily temperature the last three months, making it the coldest winter in more than a century. Add the surplus of snow, and getting to campus becomes an A+ worthy feat. But upon arrival, it gets easier. “When people come in the morning, they’re kind of awestruck that campus is clear and the rest of the city is shutdown,” says landscape maintenance supervisor Shane Peterson.
Peterson leads the crucial crew that makes it possible to get around campus. “Our service level standards are very high. We just want to get people here safely so that they can achieve their academic goals and missions,” says Peterson.
It's a massive assignment. When this facilities management crew gets to work, it’s usually in the elements and sometimes in the middle of the night. They’ll start working at 2 a.m. after a major snowfall. If the snow tally is less than six inches, they get to sleep in until 5 a.m.
Chris Untiedt is in the middle of his thirteenth year on this crew, which is made up of six gardeners, one heavy equipment operator, and about 10 student employees. He estimates that he’s had a dozen middle-of -the night starts this winter, but he can’t think of one coworker who hasn’t heeded the pre-dawn call. “They know that this is their job and take pride in their work. They care about UMD and want to keep everybody safe.”
Thirty inches of snow in December and 30 inches of snow in February sandwiched an epic polar vortex, so snow business as usual hasn't cut it this year. The crew has had to to tweak their usual removal methods, using less deicer and more elbow grease. "It's just too cold for the product to be effective," explains Peterson. "We use a lot of mechanical means, we put a plow blade to the pavement to scrape as much as possible."
The blizzard, deep freeze, blizzard pattern also means that Mother Nature's not doing her part to help with the removal. Most years, the weather warms up enough for melting between snow events. Not this year. Look towards UMD's Lund Building and you'll see a snow mountain. With no natural melting and hauling off site deemed too costly, this is where most of the plowed powder ends up.
All this work isn't going unnoticed. Crew members say that Duluthians outside of the UMD community flock to the campus' cleared sidewalks, appreciative of a safe place to walk their dog. Untiedt has had students thank him while he's out shoveling sidewalks, and after a recent meeting, he was somewhat overwhelmed with gratitude, "I had about half a dozen people come up to me and say thank you. I feel appreciated and it makes up for the time that I'm here and not with my family."
Steve Schilling is approaching his snow-removal finish line. This winter will be his last on campus, the grounds maintenance supervisor is retiring after a 28-year career at UMD. He's seen a lot of changes throughout the years, new methods and new expectations as to how fast removal should happen. But one thing that's stayed consistent is his admiration for those who are clearing UMD's five miles of roadways and ten miles of sidewalks. "When the campus is closed, my crew is here taking care of the snow. These are very dedicated individuals. You can have all the equipment in the world, but in order to run that equipment, you need to have dedicated people to take care of the snow."
Story by Lori C. Melton