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It's a 'Winterful' Life

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It's a 'Winterful' Life

But what do you do with all that snow?

In  North Idaho and western Montana, in wintertime and often in the spring and fall as well, you can plan on snow. In a La Nina winter, probably a lot of it, though El Nino doesn’t always give the area a break, as the winter of 2008-2009 showed us so clearly. If you choose to live here, then, at some point, you’re going to have to deal with all that snow, generally by moving it from one place to another. So what are the best tools to have on hand when your vision is full of white? Here’s some favorites from River Journal staff and fans.


When it comes to your roof, the word is: roof rake. Didn’t know they made those? Well, if not, then you’re a candidate for having your roof collapse from either heavy snowfall (see photo above) or from one of those infamous rain-on-snow events, when even a small accumulation of snow on your roof, once saturated with water, can end up weighing more than a team of draft horses.

Bear in mind—it’s only recently that Bonner County building code was upgraded for roof “snow loads.” When we moved from the Pack River to Clark Fork, around 1991, I think, the requirement was for only 30 pounds per square inch. When it comes to snow, that’s not really a lot.

Understandably, most of us do not look forward to crawling up on the roof and shoveling snow off when it starts to pile up. After all, roofs have slope, some steeper than others, and footing can be treacherous. No one wants to go sliding off their roof in hopes of a soft landing.

That’s where roof rakes come in. First, some caveats. Most standard roof rakes extend about 16 feet, and most people standing on the ground are going to be at least eight feet or so from their roof to begin with. So a roof rake, in and of itself, is not going to clear all the snow from your roof.

It will clear some of it, though, and some is better than none. In addition, you can crawl up on a ladder using the rake and thereby reach more of your roof; after all, falling off a ladder generally involves a shorter distance to the ground than falling off your roof.

In addition, removing at least the bottom few feet of snow helps to prevent damage to your eaves from ice dams, and can help the snow higher on the roof to slide off more easily.

Coleman Frank of Ponderay’s Co-Op says the store has two types of ladder in stock. The Avalanche brand, while more expensive, is also sturdier. The two rakes cost $33.99 for the less expensive, and $49.99 for the Avalanche, although if you check the Co-Op ad on the inside of the front cover, you’ll see a sale price for this month. Bear in mind, you might well be able to recover some of your investment in this handy tool by renting it out to less-prepared neighbors.

Avalanche Roof Rake

So when should you shovel snow? That depends on the construction of your roof, and the snow itself. You can accumulate a lot more light, powdery snow than you can wet, heavy snow without danger. Still, most people in the area consider removing snow from their roofs when it reaches a depth of a foot or more.


I don’t like being cold, and my fingers and toes suffer the worst. So I hate to admit how many years I lived in winter weather without knowing about these little chemical miracle packs.

The packaging for my generic product from Wal-Mart says this is a “non-toxic, environmentally friendly, odorless heat source using all natural ingredients that are non-combustible.” And while I tend to take those sorts of claims with a big heaping of salt, I must admit, salt seems to be the smallest ingredient of some pretty natural elements in this package, which includes iron, water, cellulose, vermiculite, activated carbon and, last but not least, salt.

Simply take off the outer packaging and expose the inner package to air... and it rapidly begins to heat. Oh, what a treat inside your coat pockets... your mittens... your boots... even your bra! Okay, you’re warned not to keep the packet directly against your skin, because it can actually get pretty hot. But when you’re cold—cold like me—­­it can be hard to resist!

Hot Hands

The Wal-Mart in Ponderay carries hand warmers at just $1.97 for a six pack (they each last up to 10 hours) or for the same price a 3-pack “body warmer with adhesive” that lasts up to 12 hours.


The Inuit language doesn’t actually have 800 names for snow—that’s an urban legend—but rest assured there’s 800 types of shovel to deal with whatever kind of snow you come across. So if you’re one of those people who believes there’s “the right tool for the job,” and only the right tool, or if you just want a good, all-around shovel that will do whatever job you give it, head on in to Merwin’s True Value in Sandpoint and, if you want some pointers, talk with owner Grant Merwin, who possesses a cornucopia of information on show shovels.

“Well, I use a different shovel depending on the type of snow,” he tells me, and goes on to explain the different types of snow and the type of shovel that should be used.

Want just an all-around good shovel? He recommends a plastic grain scoop. The snow slides off easily and it can grab a good, hefty scoop if you have light snow to deal with. Just make sure you buy one that’s heavy-duty plastic, not that light stuff that will break the first time it hits an obstruction.

grain scoop shovel

If bending over is a problem, grab a snow shovel with a bent handle. It allows you to grab snow without bending but beware: those bent-handled shovels make it hard to throw snow at any height. If you’ve built up some berms, this is not a good choice.

Got to clean off a sidewalk? Merwin’s sells a snow-pusher that will go up against the side of a building and let you push snow to an edge. These are also good for cleaning off decks.

If you’re dealing with a little bit of ice in your snow, you might trade that plastic shovel for an aluminum one—this is [River Journal columnist] Ernie’s favorite.

Need to dig out a car that’s high-centered in the snow? Now’s the time for a traditional, flat, square steel shovel. Try not to jam it into your car tires.

Merwin’s also has some big, round, snow pushers, generally used for moving large amounts of snow (like off a roof). “People get ‘em because you can move twice as much snow,” Grant said. When this shovel is filled with snow, you can’t lift it, but it’s perfect for cutting ‘blocks’ of snow and then pushing them where you want them to go.

Shovels at Merwin’s range from $15 to $55.

By the way... I’m not the only one who believes that if you need to move very much snow, a snowblower is a must.


Yes, I know, you thought sleds were for going out and having fun careening down hills of snow. But not always. The savvy winter survivor will always have a sled near at hand.

Let me tell you how I learned this lesson. One winter, when the snow was deep, Jinx and I ventured out into the woods. At this particular time, Jinx was participating in a chemotherapy regimen that had left her with less-than-optimal health and stamina. I would like to interject that before we headed into the woods, I questioned her abilities and the wisdom in this undertaking, and she assured me she was up to this adventure. Which makes everything that follows ­not my fault.

About a mile away from the car, it became very clear that she was not only not up to this adventure, but she was not going to be able to get back to the car on her own. Oh, what I would have given for a sled at that point!

Let me point out to you that sled substitutes simply do not match up to the real thing. In this case, my sled substitutes were a blanket (didn’t work) and a 4’ x 4’ plastic pallet (didn’t work at all).


But dragging someone you think may be in danger of imminent death back to the car so you can get them to medical care is not the only reason you might find a sled handy. Can’t get down the driveway with all the groceries? You need a sled. Tired of hauling little kids on your back? You need a sled. Tired of trudging through snow and there’s a downhill handy? You need a sled.

The winter-savvy Northwesterner keeps an extra sled not just by the house, but in the car as well.


Mama isn’t too steady on her pins anymore, which might not be surprising given that she’ll be 83 years old this coming July. But winter in North Idaho and western Montana gives us plenty of opportunity to understand my mama’s dilemna; just picture this: 7 to 12 inches of snow, which you have laboriously snowblowed, shoveled or snowplowed as close to the ground as you can get it, followed by three days of rain, topped by a day or two of below freezing temps. Now, walk out to your car. You should understand exactly what my mother faces ‘most every day.

It’s YakTrax to the rescue! 

I’m not totally sure how to describe this, so bear with me. This is a product that attaches to the bottom of your shoe or boot. It’s a rubber web, and the webbing is wrapped with coils of [wire?] to provide traction on the snow and ice. It’s like football cleats without the cleats or the football.


Does it make a difference? Hell, yes! “I wouldn’t even try to walk out in the snow without them,” my mother says.

Again at the Co-Op in Ponderay, Coleman Frank tells us a pair of YakTrax runs just $22.99 and they come in small, medium and large. (Because they’re rubber, and therefore stretchable, each size will fit a large range of regular shoe sizes.) “It’s like putting snow chains on your feet,” Frank says.


A Christmas Eve discussion had my daughters, Amy and Misty, discussing the addictive qualities of the lip balm, Softlips®. Now I haven’t found anything that suggests Softlips® is addictive in the clinical sense of that term, although it does contain menthol (as does most lip balms), and some studies have shown that menthol cigarettes are more addictive than non-menthol cigarettes. The current scientific belief, however, is that this is due to the cooling sensation of menthol allowing more nicotine (the truly addictive ingredient) being ingested by the lungs.

Nonetheless, Softlips® does an outstanding job of controlling the dry, chapped lips that go hand-in-hand with winter.

Softlips®, however, is marketed to females, and most men are uncomfortable using it (despite the choice of that delicious, cherry flavor!). So for men: Carmex®. Familiar for its small white jar with the bright yellow top, Carmex® answers the question “is Carmex addictive?” with its own question: “Are sunshine, kisses and puppies addictive?”

If so, then when it comes to Softlips® and Carmex® it must be asked: “So what’s so bad about addiction?”

You can find both Softlips® and Carmex® at just about any retail outlet around.


When it comes to wintertime, traction is the name of the game. And I can’t imagine any product that gives more traction than wood ash.

Seriously, it’s the rare person that will make it through a few winter seasons without finding their car tires spinning, and when you want to allow those tires to grip, wood ash is a tip top solution. One hint here: make sure the wood ash does not contain any hot coals. Yes, I learned this by experience.

As an added benefit, wood ash is also handy when you have children or grandchildren who write on your wood furniture with permanent markers. Permanent simply cannot stand up to the test of wood ash (or cigarette ash) rubbed patiently into the stain. It comes right out. Seriously. Try it.

Of course, not everyone has wood ash handy, and even if they do, it’s not the optimal choice for giving traction on icy walkways that lead into your house. (Unless, of course, you don’t mind washing wood ash off your floors.)

Kathy at Lignetics in Ponderay pointed out a great traction alternative—bird seed. It not only provides some traction, it’s completely biodegradable and will undoubtedly be appreciated by your feathered friends.

In my own book, the second-best bet is sawdust. Although this is completely anecdotal evidence, sawdust provides about 95 percent of the traction that wood ash does.

Sadly, not everyone has access to sawdust either. Those bereft of wood ash or sawdust can also rely on kitty litter, salt or beet juice. Be aware that chemical salts are poisonous to your pets. If you have little critters that might get salt on the pads of their feet, then lick their feet, be sure to purchase a chemical salt rated as safe for pets. Merwin’s True Value in downtown Sandpoint carries it, as does The Co-Op in Ponderay.


A word here about beet juice. It’s not available for residential purchase to spray on your sidewalk, and I don’t know that boiling up a bunch of sugar beets on your stove would give the same result. But Coeur d’Alene has been using beet juice as a de-icer on its roads going on three years now. So what’s behind it?

Beet juice was an early front-runner in the effort to find a more environmentally friendly product than salt for providing traction on the roadways. Salt, you know, is what your enemies sowed in your fields after conquering you, as it has a great ability to kill, preventing fields from growing things for years.

Of course, everything used to add traction and melt ice has its drawbacks—gravel destroys expensive headlights and windshields, chemical de-icer does who knows what to our roadsides and lakes, plain salt will eat up the metal underside of a car—and beet juice is no different. Beet juice de-icer, you see, is jam-packed full of phosphorous, a chemical many in the area have been working hard to keep out of the lake. In addition, most users combine beet juice with sodium chloride for de-icing roadways.

A benefit to beet juice over rock salt, however, is that rock salt is not particularly effective under 25 degrees. Beet juice is effective to 25 below, which is more in keeping with the majority of our icy, wintertime weather.


Ask people the best boot to wear in wintertime and you’ll get as many types of boot as there are people, it seems. “Kamiks from Larsons—best value for my dollar for work pacs I have found in 36 years of Heron snows,” said Judy Hutchins. “Uggs! I have worn UGGs since I got my first pair direct from UGG back in 1986 when I worked for Sun Ice USA,” said Gina Emory. “Can’t imagine a winter without them. They are THE BEST.” For Wendy DeChambeau, “I had a pair of Columbia’s I really liked. I now have North Face which are great too.” And Mel Davis swears by her Sorels.

Yes, a good winter boot is a wonderful thing (I’m an UGG fan, myself) but the true secret to winter comfort is keeping your feet dry. Your winter boot is only as good as your waterproofing... and even the best boots need a touch-up now and then.

The solution? Be it boots, gloves, coats... Outdoor Experience in downtown Sandpoint carries a full like of NikWax products to ensure that whatever you’re wearing is not letting in the wet. Be it a simple NikWax paste at $9.95 or a wash-in/spray on product at $12.95, it’s money well worth spending.


For all-around cold, by the way, honorable mention goes to: puppies! Or any other type of critter you can get to snuggle up close to you at bedtime. When the wind howls out of the north, you truly understand what makes a three-dog night.


One day my grandson, Tyler and his godmomma, Susan, were drawing rainbows. “Trish,” Susan asked, “do you remember the order of colors for a rainbow?” Of course, I didn’t... Roy G Biv was floating just at the edge of my attempts to grasp it. “No,” I confessed, “but I’m heading up to the office, and I’ll ask Brian.” 

Brian, AKA “the mad scientist,” was not quite the perfect person to ask about how to accurately color a rainbow. When asked about the order of colors in one he responded, “Do you want to start with the infrared, or the ultraviolet?”

Last time I looked, the crayon box did not feature colors in either the infrared or the ultraviolet spectrum.

Nonetheless, these invisible ‘colors’ are important for mammals, thought to effect the cicadian rhythm and to have an impact on mood and behavior; “Seasonal Affective Disorder” is believed to be a type of depression brought on by a lack of sunlight which, up above the 48th parallel as we are, is a situation we live with throughout a large part of the year.

To be honest, Seasonal Affective Disorder only impacts 4 to 6 percent of the population, so is sunlight (or natural light) important for the rest of us? Well, sunlight on our skin stimulates the production of Vitamin D, which we know is important, and has at least some impact on the production of seratonin and melatonin, which we also know are important, but how that impacts the body and mind is something less well known. 

In fact, if lack of sunlight is detrimental to a person’s well-being, then one could expect that living in areas where there’s less sunshine would cause people to feel less happiness. Yet in studies, that’s not the case. As freelance journalist and science blogger Orli Van Mourik writes, “After totaling up 80,000 responses from people across the globe, they found that the four happiest places on earth are: Denmark, Switzerland, Austria and—wait for it—Iceland. Viewed through this lens, it appears that happiness has far less to do with sun than it does with beer consumption and good healthcare.”

So now we have four solutions to the issue of a lack of natural light through the winter months.

A person can take supplements if they think the natural environment is lacking, though my personal preference is to get what the body needs in as natural a way as possible. If supplements are the answer for you, consider Thorne products (a local business and available at local pharmacies).  A bottle of Vitamin D-5000, “for individuals desiring higher amounts of Vitamin D supplementation,” retails on their website at $13.90 for 60 vegetarian capsules. And Shannon McGlashan of White Cross Pharmacy on the Dover Highway pointed out, “For snow-pression, Thorne Deproloft.” 

If beer is your answer, you might consider the local Laughing Dog brand. A six-pack of India Pale Ale IPA is just (at this writing) $8.69 at Yokes Fresh Market in Ponderay.

If you’re looking for ‘free’ health care, leave the U.S for just about any other industrialized nation in the world.

If you’re looking for sunlight when the sun is hidden, well then, enter full spectrum lighting. Again, this is an issue where the jury is still out: because there are no standard measurements for this type of lighting, products can vary and there’s really no way to know whether they provide a benefit or not. And honestly, there’s not one scientific study that shows they do.

That said, there’s also no evidence they produce any harm. So for those of you who feel the lack of sunlight is detrimental to, at the least, your mental health, and want to give ‘alternative’ lighting a try: Home Depot carries full spectrum light bulbs. 

A lighting representative for the Home Depot in Ponderay indicated they carry a wide variety of GE light bulbs—carried under the name Reveal®—labeled as full spectrum lighting, from clear and frosted bulbs (40, 60, 75 and 100 watts) at around $5 for a six-pack, to fluorescent, energy-efficient lighting, at $8 for a 4-pack of 60 watt bulbs.



These are not the only tools you need to get you through the winter, especially on those occasions when winter decides to stick around for eight months of the year. But the number one favorite way for many to cope with the snow: visualization! This, too, shall pass, and summer will return!


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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

sunlight, Mel Davis, winter, snow, Susan dAoust, Coleman Frank, The Co-Op Country Store, roof rake, cold hands, Wal-Mart, Grant Merwin, sleds, Jinx, traction, YakTracks, Lignetics, Outdoor Experience, Judy Hutchins, Gina Emory, Wendy DeChambeau, Tyler, godmomma, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Vitamin D, Thorne Vitamins, Shannon McGlashan, White Cross Pharmacy, Home Depot, full spectrum lighting, Laughing Dog, Yokes Fresh Market, Larsons, Brian dAoust, Merwins True Value

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