Dordt’s snow removal team: the winter warriors

Sam Landstra—Staff Writer

Winter Warriors 2 PC Sam Landstra

Photos by Sam Landstra

4:30 a.m. A frozen northwest wind blows across Dordt’s campus in the 20-degree weather. Snow quietly drifts over sidewalks and roads as students sleep in the warmth of their beds.

Sixty-one-year-old maintenance worker Vern Eekhoff walks in the dark towards the maintenance building, fresh snow crunching beneath his work boots. Recovering from the flu, Eekhoff meets with other members of Dordt’s snow removal team to designate routes and machines to available workers.

Today, Eekhoff operates the sole payloader. Beginning at the road in front of the Commons, Eekhoff pushes away the wind-blown snow to allow commons workers to begin preparing breakfast. The goal of the snow removal team is to clear all sidewalks and streets on campus by 7:30 a.m. to allow pedestrian and vehicular traffic to travel freely.

Once finished, Eekhoff heads towards the science building parking lot, which has already been cleared by senior work study Tristan Vos. Driving a skid loader with a snowblower attachment, Vos has worked with the snow removal team for four years.

“I really enjoy my job,” Vos said. “I put my time in doing the less glamorous job of shoveling as an underclassman and now I get to run equipment and have more responsibility.” Before joining the team, the California native had never touched a snow shovel in his life.

7:30 a.m. Eekhoff and Vos continue to clear snow from Dordt’s parking lots and streets. Meanwhile, Dordt Director of Facilities Nate van Niejenhuis shovels entryways to the various buildings on campus. The sun peeks over the horizon, illuminating the campus with cold light.

“That’s one of those things that the Lord gives us every day,” Van Niejenhuis said. “Unless you’re up early you don’t get to enjoy that present.” Now in his second year at Dordt, Van Niejenhuis has ushered in changes to the way snow removal is conducted at Dordt.

In the past, the maintenance department took an “all hands on deck” approach to snow removal, according to van Niejenhuis. Starting every day at 4:30 a.m., four to six scoopers at entryways, two people on skid loaders, and one to three people on snowblowers with broom attachments joined Eekhoff manning the payloader. Each member of crew worked their set route for two to three hours before returning to their normal jobs.

Van Niejenhuis has transitioned away from this approach in favor of a “read and react” style of management that adjusts based on weather conditions. Putting the task of snow removal in the hands of the grounds department, van Niejenhuis hopes to accomplish the same amount of work with less dollars and personnel.

“We’re going to do a better job of taking care of our people and we’re going to do just as good of a job taking care of the snow,” van Niejenhuis said. To account for the smaller crew, Van Holland Lawn Service clears lots one, two and four at 2:00 a.m.

“Am I kicking my heels up in glee? No,” Eekhoff said about the changes he and his team have had to adapt to this year. “Is there a different way of doing it? Yes, there is. We just haven’t got all the bugs out yet.”

Echoing Eekhoff’s sentiment, Vos describes the new system as “different.”

Winter Warriors PC Sam Landstra.jpg9:00 a.m. Dordt’s campus bustles with activity as students bundled up in winter gear hurry from building to building. Eekhoff changes the attachment on the payloader from a blade to a snowblower and clears the piles of snow made earlier that morning. Part of the snow removal process includes strategically placing piles of snow in places that prevent them from melting and freezing on areas with foot traffic.

12:00 p.m. Wind gusts of 35 miles per hour create drifts across sidewalks, undoing earlier work done by the snow removal team. Eekhoff skips his lunch break and reallocates duties to fellow crewmembers.

Wind conditions such as these make the snow removal process a much more tedious job.
“You don’t get done the next day,” Eekhoff said. A typical snowfall takes the crew three days to completely clear from Dordt’s nearly four miles of sidewalk, not including the greenway that spans from Covenant Hall to the Campus Center.

In total, Dordt’s roads and sidewalks add up to 25 acres of land, estimates van Niejenhuis. One inch of snowfall costs the college a bare minimum of $3,500 to remove. Costs such as these are part of the reason the new system has been introduced.

“We’ve got to try and be a little judicious,” van Nijenhuis said. A whiteboard overlaid with a map of campus hangs in van Niejenhuis’ office where he maps out the snow removal team’s attack plan.

On days with minimal snowfall, broom and snowblower attachments are favored due to the minimal damage they inflict on grass. However, when snowfall accumulates to over three inches, a blade must be used. The decision whether to use brine, a highly concentrated solution of salt, or a granular application also depends on weather conditions. When temperatures fall below 10 to 12 degrees, brine freezes and a less effective granular application is spread to provide traction.

Despite precise preparation, members of the snow removal team know that Iowa weather can be difficult to predict.

“Sometimes the good Lord will throw you a curveball that you can’t prepare for,” van Niejenhuis said. “Each time we do snow we’re going to learn something.”

5:30 p.m. Eekhoff finishes moving snow piles after 13 hours of work and heads home. Long days such as these spent in heavy machinery have led the longtime maintenance worker to undergo two spinal fusion surgeries, caused by the repetitive back-and-forth motions experienced while operating.

“I love my job as a maintenance worker,” Eekhoff said, “but it’s a blessing and a curse.”
Tomorrow’s forecast projects a much milder day for Eekhoff, van Niejenhuis, Vos and the rest of the snow removal team.

4:30 a.m. Vern Eekhoff walks towards the maintenance building in the cold, dark elements. While the rest of Dordt’s campus sleeps, he begins his work.

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