First the shovel, then the sled

January 24, 2019 GMT

It was all work and all play for many area residents Wednesday, as southern Wisconsin dug out then enjoyed a rare snow day after the region was hit by the second hefty snowfall in less than a week.

As crews worked to clear main arteries and began moving onto side streets, parents adjusted their schedules and many hit the sledding hills and skiing trails after nearly every school in the area closed for the day.

“I haven’t been up this hill in 30 years,” said Sarah Stremlow, a teacher from Verona, who brought her four children — ages 8 to 14 — and five of their friends to the sledding hill at Elver Park on Madison’s West Side. “Well, maybe 20.”

For 6-year-old Nia Kingston, Wednesday was the first time back to the hill since she broke her arm there on an icy day two years ago.

“We’re ready to brave it again,” said her mother, Larisa Kingston. “Since it’s so much snow.”

After trekking to the top, Nia beat her sisters Misha, 7, and Aoiphe, 3, and her father, Matt, to the bottom, declaring the experience “perfect dizzily.”

No more grass

The 7 inches of fresh snow, coming on the heels of last week’s 4.5-inch snowfall, was a welcome sight for many following a bone-dry December. All Dane County snowmobile trails opened at noon, as did the county and city of Madison cross-country ski trails, and the ice rinks at Vilas Park, officials said.

“This is the first time this season we’ve had adequate snow conditions to open the trails,” said Mark Stephens, president of the Dane County Council of Snowmobile Clubs.

Despite the two snowstorms, Madison is 5.5 inches of snow behind the normal amount of snow to fall on the city between Dec. 1 and Jan. 23, according to the National Weather Service.

Just about every school in the area was closed except UW-Madison. Madison Area Technical College campuses had planned to open at 1 p.m., but the school ended up calling off classes until Thursday. Numerous day care centers, senior centers and other organizations also closed.

Slick roads caused crashes and slide-offs across the region, including a Wednesday morning crash involving 10 semi-trucks that blocked both directions of Interstate 90-94 near Mauston for several hours.

Icy road conditions Wednesday morning were blamed for a two-car crash near Edgerton that claimed the life of a 20-year-old Janesville man. The crash happened shortly before 7 a.m. on Highway 51 south of North Kidder Road in the town of Fulton, the Rock County Sheriff’s Office said. Highway 51 was shut down for almost three hours as crews worked at the scene.

Seeking shelter

The day off of school also meant extra families using The Beacon, Madison’s homeless day resource center.

About 50 families used the Madison center’s family area, up from about 30 on a normal day, said Joel Girard, the center’s lead guest services specialist.

With a stretch of frigid temperatures expected over the next week, he said he expects the number to only go up. The Weather Service predicts high temperatures won’t reach into the double digits during the weekend, and the windchill overnight Thursday and Friday could make it feel as cold as minus 30 degrees.

“Obviously we’re going to be very, very busy,” Girard said.

The center, which normally opens at 8 a.m., would likely open earlier to limit exposure to the elements for clients who are coming from overnight shelters.

Many of the area’s overnight shelters, which normally have limits on the number of people they can serve, are also accepting anyone who comes.

“Cold weather is just something extra to worry about” for homeless individuals, Girard said.

‘It’s going slow’

Streets department spokesman Bryan Johnson said 44 plow drivers worked through the night Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, the city had 150 pieces of equipment on the road.

Crews were scheduled to continue plowing Wednesday night. Johnson said the department would assess the results of the plowing operation Thursday to determine if a third night of a snow emergency would be needed.

Rich Bergmann and his city Parks Division construction crew were doing their best to help out Wednesday, putting their dump trucks to work as auxiliary snowplows.

“We’re the B-team,” said playground inspector Andrew Peters.

Bergmann said parks and forestry crews help out in big snowstorms, plowing neighborhood streets during the day before hauling snow off Capitol Square, which he said could take two nights with Wednesday’s snow.

While others had off, it was just another day at work for Eric Olds, a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, famous for not taking snow days.

“It’s going slow,” he said while delivering mail on Madison’s Southwest Side. “Big time.”

Olds figured trudging through the snow would add a couple of hours to his 12-mile route, though he said parking his mail truck was the bigger challenge.

“We get stuck pretty easily,” he said.

Ringing registers

Local hardware stores were doing brisk business. At Quality Hardware, 1201 S. Park St., sidewalk salt was flying out the door, manager Skyler Novotny said. On Tuesday, the store sold two pallets of salt. Each pallet had 49 50-pound bags of salt.

Snow shovels have also been a popular item, with about 15 sold in the last few days, Novotny said.

“It does always seem like it’s a last-minute thing,” he said.

And there was no shortage of work at Badger Spray Repair on Verona Road, where mechanic Jake Loehrer said business picked up after last week’s snowfall, the city’s first big accumulation of the winter.

Loehrer said snowblowers that won’t start are the “A-number-1” problem he sees, followed by broken belts and cables that snap in the process of trying to start a recalcitrant engine.

“People are out there trying to yank on it and yank on it,” he said.

Even those who drain the gas out at the end of the season can have problems. His advice: Start the engine once a month.

“You might seem like a weirdo running it in the summertime,” he said. “But you know it works.”

State Journal reporters Bill Novak and Chris Aadland contributed to this report.