Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Coping with the cold

Outdoor workers share tips on how to stay warm in winter

Express Staff Writer

Shooting for a first of the New Year opening, Recreation Supervisor John Kearney lays down another layer of ice for the Atkinson Park rink. Kearney said he stays warm in his 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. winter shift by hauling hose around. Photo by Willy Cook

To some, it might seem an odd decision to take a month off from your full-time job, in the dead of winter, and spend that time toiling outside for nearly 12 hours a day, seven days a week. But that's exactly what Hailey resident Adam Swain has done for the past three years.

A foreman with Ketchum-based construction company Lee Gilman Builders, Swain takes a month-long sabbatical, starting right after Thanksgiving, to work at Mountain High Christmas Trees, located on the corner of Seventh Street and Warm Springs Road. In the lead-up to the holiday season, that lot is transformed into a festive forest of snow-covered Christmas trees, which warm hearts as they make their way into living rooms throughout the Wood River Valley.

Swain's hands are a different story.

Because the job requires him to frequently tie knots to secure trees to the tops of cars, Swain finds it impossible to wear gloves for large portions of the days, despite freezing temperatures. But the nature of the job, along with insulated Carhartt overalls, long underwear and two hooded sweatshirts, helps keep Swain warm, at least most of the time.

"We're constantly moving, either shoveling, hauling around trees or using a hacksaw to make trees shorter when people misjudge the height of their ceilings, which actually happens a lot," Swain said. "The problem is that when you're wearing 14 layers of clothes and really start sweating, you end up being cold for the rest of the day—especially if you're wearing cotton. That stuff will kill you."


Fortunately, sanctuary is nearby.

On a corner of the tree lot sits a teepee, in which a fire is constantly going, and if that fails there's always Lefty's Bar & Grill next door.

Down the road at Atkinson Park, John "The Iceman" Kearney doesn't have the luxury of heading to a warm pub at 2 a.m. when he's in the midst of spraying water on the field to create the public outdoor ice rink. The process takes up to a week, and has Kearney and fellow Ketchum Parks and Recreation Department staff members Kirk Mason and Jen Smith standing in below-freezing temperatures, fire hose in hand.

"It gets cold if the wind catches the spray and pushes it back towards your face," Kearney said. "The trick is to make sure your iPod is recharged so you don't have to think about it."

In addition to music, Kearney said a Gore-Tex suit, a Nepalese wool hat and waterproof gloves make the cold bearable, as does the 1953 Jeep that's been retrofitted as a Zamboni. Unlike a modern Zamboni, the Jeep, like a regular truck, has an enclosed cab in which the driver is protected from the elements; this is a very good thing, according to Kearney, when he's resurfacing the ice, with the sun long gone and snow blowing sideways.

Of course, few have access to a Zamboni to clear snow and have to rely on shovels.

"How do we stay warm? We just put on our gear and go to it," said Gunnar Whitehead, who founded Whitehead's Landscaping and Snow Removal in 1994. "We're always warm and sweating."

Whitehead said his crew of 32 employees dress similar to the way they would if they were going skiing, with plenty of layers and clothing that keeps the water away from the skin.

But it's the days without snow that Whitehead said are the most dangerous.

"When it's snowing, the temperature is often up around 30 degrees," he said. "But when it's clear and freezing, then you had better make sure to have your hat and gloves."

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