December 29, 2008

Thin Ice

There comes a point, at least once in every Minnesota winter, when the worst thing that someone can do is try to keep the sidewalks free of snow. Most of the time, we want clean sidewalks but not always. With months to go yet before we see warm, dry ground, we've already had a few of these days here.

They come in two flavors. The first kind of day when benign neglect is helpful is the melty day. This is when the ground is still rock hard, but the sun comes out and a warm breeze blows in. Piles of snow shrink and flow away--toward the frozen-over storm sewers. Then the sun sets.

Two things can happen at this point. The water can mix with the packed snow still on the sidewalk and turn into a slushy mess that eventually freezes with boot- and bikeprints all over the surface. It sounds ugly, but the alternative is for the water to flow in thin, smooth sheets over a clean sidewalk. The result is an patchy skating rink, tilted slightly toward the street and traffic. I'll take the rough ice.

The second kind of day when maintenance is unhelpful is the very cold day--with snow. By very cold, I mean right around 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Snow at these temperatures is pretty rare, since air that cold is very dry. It generally requires warmer air up where the clouds are. But it does happen.

When it does, all the businesses downtown get out their power brooms to keep the snow from building up on the sidewalks. This is what they do for any snowfall, and I'm usually happy to see the brooms. Usually, they make my walk much easier. Not on the cold days, though. When slightly damp snow hits a 0-degree sidewalk, it sticks, and no broom is going to get it back up. All the broom can do is knock the snowflake flat.

Power broom, aka sidewalk polisher.
Usually seen with a weather enclosure.

Once again, the safest place to be in on a sidewalk that no one cares for too zealously. It won't be clean, dry pavement, but it won't be a highly polished surface either.

So what do you do when you're stuck walking on the shiniest of ice? Again, two scenarios (aside from getting down on your ass and scooting along the ground). The first, and most popular, is the penguin shuffle. This involves tiny little steps to keep your feet under you and hands held somewhat stiffly by your sides, ready to be thrown in whatever direction is needed for balance. It also involves small cheeps as the inevitable slips and slides still occur.

The other option is much faster. It will get you plenty of strange looks, though, as it will be less familiar looking to most people, even if no dorkier than pretending you're a penguin. If you do tai chi or bellydance or practice any number of other forms of exercise that place a high value on strong, smooth movement, this will be easy. It'll still feel funny, but you'll get the hang of it.

Bend your knees.

Really, that's it. That's the best advice for walking on ice. Bend your knees as much as is comfortable and keep them bent as you walk along. You'll find you don't lift your feet as much, so they're always near the ground. When you do start to slide a little, your legs be in a position to deliver maximum power, flexing or extending, whichever way you need to go. But you won't need it as much, because your center of gravity will already be lower.

Thus ends today's lesson on ice. I didn't really have a point in writing this much about it, but it seemed, somehow, that if I was going to deal with as much of it as I already have this winter, I ought to get something out of it.

A blog post will have to do.


Glendon Mellow said...

I totally get what you mean.

(Except for the "Fahrenheit" that cold?)

We see something similar here in Toronto. For years, we were bombarded by local cartoonist Ben Wicks' commercials on television urging us to "be nice - clear your ice". The result is often the deadly ice rink you speak of.

Today I went to step on an exhaust-blackened plow-borne snowbank to cross the street. It looked sturdy and frozen I sunk in up to my shin.

Stephanie Zvan said...

It's about 18 below. Slightly chilly. It's the point where salt stops melting anything and where exhaust freezes to the road and produces black ice. (See, the 0 is a meaningful number. Nyah.)

I was crunching through snowbanks yesterday. It was right at that point where you can shift your weight onto one foot without going through, but stepping away again plunges you in.

Dr. J said...

I've had just this experience in Vancouver! And...I'd just read this so the advice to keep the knees bent was very useful indeed! Thanks!

The sidewalks that were not cleared were far easier to navigate than the ones that had been cleared today but not gritted. We don't get this so often here, but we've had so much snow over the last week and a half it has totally changed the face of the place.

ScientistMother said...

What is up with all the snow!! Its crazy how much snow there has been so early in the season.

Dr. J said...

I've been loving the was my first white Christmas and it was nearly perfect.

Now it is less fun...especially after it freezes over again in the evening as the stuff that looks like water on the sidewalks is pure slippery ice. At least the mountains have tons of snow for skiing and snow shoeing :).

Stephanie Zvan said...

Dr. J, I'm glad the advice was useful. I finished writing this and immediately saw a friend talking about being down one knee and one elbow due to the ice. Glad you're enjoying the snow, too.

ScientistMother, we're not getting stunning amounts of snow around here, just very frequent snowfalls and unseasonable cold. Of course, this is the land of the 30" Halloween blizzard, so our metric is screwy. As for all the snow and ice elsewhere, well, it's probably not unreasonable to lay some of the blame on global warming and the unusual amounts of energy in the system. I hope you're at least sledding or something to take advantage of it.

muse142 said...

I spent a week in Chicago - let me tell you, I wish I'd known about the bending-the-knees thing! I penguin-shuffled (LOL love the description!) my way to several falls, and it was most unpleasant.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Hmm, maybe I should have included a section on how to fall too? Glad you're home safe and (mostly) sound.

Frustrated Farmer Rick said...

Steph one thing to remember is that the operators of the brooms and their masters have no interest whatsoever in helping you navigate the sidewalk. It is all a liability game. Your actually safety is less important the legally defensible position that "everything possible was done".

Stephanie Zvan said...

Yeah, Rick. I know. I just think that's one more reason to say loudly and often that it doesn't help.