Saturday, January 22, 2011

Covered Stretch Driving Hazards

I don't want to worry you, but I do want to tell you about the unique experiences I have on my commute from Copper Harbor to Lac La Belle for work. All the possibilities listed below may not happen on the same trip, but they have all happened at some point.

This commute is on the "Covered Stretch" of Hwy. 41. Covered because the tree branches touch each other from above on opposite side of the road, creating a tunnel effect. If you've ever driven this stretch in the winter, you know it can be treacherous.

Two areas of this 17 mile drive are on the lake shore. The first (on the way south) is at the lighthouse overlook spot, where the north winds rip off Lake Superior and into the Harbor. The second is at Lake Medora, which is frozen, creating snowy plains for the wind to whip over.

Before I go into more detail, I would like to add that I have been driving this route with extreme caution lately. I won't even shift the vehicle past forth gear.

Here are some examples of what I (or anyone) encounters on the Covered Stretch:

Widowmakers. These are limbs that hang above the driven part of the road. They get extremely heavy with snow. Often the snow is four times as thick as the branch! And since the old limb isn't used to bearing so much weight as it sinks lower and lower in the air, it can snap off at any time either landing on a passing vehicle or on the road for someone to run into with their car.
Unplowed roads. I admit Keweenaw County usually does a great job keeping the roads clear. But on weeknights when the snow is pummeling the earth, they may not always think the tip is a priority. So, one might expect to barrel down the curvy roads with 5-7 inches of snow under their tires. This is a great time to follow someone else's tracks.

Whiteout. "Oh, my God, I can't see a thing!" And it's even worse at night time. Sometimes 15-25 miles an hour will be the top speed when visibility is nilch. This is when you take your time, and definitely keep your lights on during the day.

Tire whiteouts. This occurs when the person ahead of you is driving just fast enough where you can't pass them, but slow enough for you to be somewhat on their tail. (NEVER drive too close to the car in front of you, by the way.) The snow from their tires creates a mini-blizzard for you to drive through, and you can't see anything... sometimes not even their tail lights. This also happens when larger vehicles pass you from the other direction and kick up a cloud of snow, and it lasts a few scary seconds.

Ice. Cripes. Luckily it usually snows enough to keep this category at bay. But when it thaws, and the sun melts the snow, ice is the product. I would go even slower on this around those curves than I would in the snow... snow at least has traction.

Drifts. Oh, this is the most oxymoronic item to tackle. So you're driving past the lighthouse lookout shore or Lake Medora. The wind is picking up every flake of snow and setting it in neat piles intersecting your lane. That blowing snow is also impeding your vision. You have to go fast enough to bust through the drift, but you have to go slow enough, so you can see where you're going. This is where I always white-knuckle it and pray that I will make it through without being stopped cold by one of these sleeping polar bears or miss a curve because I'm pushing the limit. I tell you, after I make it through these sections, I thank my lucky stars.

So, who wants to come visit me?

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