Revolving amber lights strobed across my inner eyelids as snowplows, graders and dump trucks clanked noisily beneath my bedroom window. The mechanical cacophony was joined by a comparably relaxing beep-beep-beep-beep. I wasn't dreaming; an ever-so-real slice of life in the Keweenaw was being enacted right outside at 4:30 in the morning.
I don't get up that early to go fishing, but I love it that the valiant Village of Laurium Department of Glacier Control was up and at 'em, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and on the yob at that ungodly hour.
They're the unsung heroes who spoil us rotten with first-class snow removal. These guys start their days a lot earlier than you and I; while we're nukkuma, snug in our beds, they're out there in the cold and dark, doing an awesome job of holding the glacier at bay and hauling it away, cleaning up the streets so we can get in our cars and go about our business no matter what.
Laurium is the epicenter of glacial activity in the Keweenaw. It's where all the local glaciers that amount to anything collide; the confluence of the Raymbaultown Glacier, Calumet, Swedetown, Bumbletown and Florida Glaciers. They've already cut the snowbanks back three times and they're still high enough to hide a logging truck.
The past few days, Heikki Lunta cut us enough slack to give Glacier Control a breather, and a welcome thaw with unseasonably warm temperatures in the 50s and snuggling with 60 left me giddy with pleasurable fantasies of an early Spring.
According to the Michigan Municipal League Review, the cost of snow removal in the U.P. ranges from $13 to $16 per Yooper, but like the Tea Party, they're too conservative for their own good and do not take over-achievers like us into their calculations. Both Laurium and Calumet have a well-earned PhD (Piled higher and deeper) in snow, not purely academic.
"They sure didn't ask us when they came up with those figures," laughed Calumet Village Comptroller Sue Dana. "That's a drop in the bucket compared to our snow removal costs; with 879 residents and 4.5 miles of street to plow, our budget came to about $230 per person in 2009."
"The Village will hold its next millage election in May," she added. "It's just a renewal with no additional taxes or cost to residents. The millage, which generates $26,000 a year, was originally approved in 1976 and has been that way ever since."
"That's about the age of our equipment," she continued. "We have two old Oshkosh Snow-Gos, a 1976 model and an ancient circa 1946 unit that are still on the job; our grader, dump trucks and plows are from the 80s. Our newest piece of equipment is 1995. Be it ever so humble, our five part-time employees do a good job keeping our streets clear with it."
Calumet's twin village of Laurium, population 2226, has 11.89 miles of streets to plow, a rough row to hoe with a budget of $290, 000, eighty percent of which goes to snow removal. Do the per capita math.
"Municipal governments throughout Michigan have seen ever-declining revenues from state gasoline taxes where the money for winter maintenance comes from," stated Village Administrator Ed Vertin, "yet snow removal costs keep going up; diesel fuel doesn't cost a buck a gallon any more, it costs $3. Roads have to be funded somehow," he shrugged.
Laurium Glacier Control's five full-time winter warriors and their well-worn fleet of three Sno-Gos, an old one-way Oshkosh plow, three loaders, six dump trucks, one sand truck and three pickups operate outa the old sandstone Houghton County Airport hangar next to the George Gipp Ice Arena backa Gasoline Alley and Isle Royale Street.
"If there's ever any extra snow money available, it's spread too thin over all communities with more than 80 inches of snow," Dana said. Both she and Vertin agree the state should re-prioritize that deal and create a superfund category for towns like us with more than 200 inches a year, so those who need it most can be first in line.
"Laurium has better snow removal than Lansing," Vertin added. "Two weeks ago a 16-inch blizzard closed Lansing for two days; we get a helluva lot more snow then that and we're open for business the next morning,"
That's what makes their 4:30 a.m. snowplow serenade and wake-up call such music to my ears.
Jim can be reached 24/7/365 at firstname.lastname@example.org.