Plowing the Kanc

This article was first published Nov. 27, 2006 in the New Hampshire Union Leader.


Spencer Tewksbury

SUGAR HILL – Snow was no where in the forecast the other morning when Spencer Tewksbury was waiting while the fellows at the garage were putting snow tires on his pickup truck.


At 77, the Bath native has known his share of winters and he concedes that it’s been some time since he passed one like those he recalls from  20, 30, 40 years ago.

Those were the days of real New Hampshire winters, when blizzards roared in and snow was measured in feet, not inches. He’s from an era when this frosty season was typically well underway by Thanksgiving and for the next five or six months, no one had to go looking for it.

These are times he knew quite well.

Tewksbury went to work for the Department of Transportation in 1953 and plowed his way through the next 33 winters, mostly in Franconia Notch, where he can remember storms and blizzards that took on a life of their own once they blew into that narrow mountain pass.

“One year, they sent me over to the Kanc,” Tewksbury said, referring to the ribbon of road through the White Mountains that connects the Pemigewasset Valley in Lincoln to the Mount Washington Valley in Conway over the White Mountains.

It opened in 1959, cutting off miles of travel between the two communities, according to historical information from White Mountains Attractions in North Woodstock. For nearly 10 years, it was closed in the winter because of the difficulty in maintaining it and the fear that travelers would get stranded along the lonely and unpopulated route.

In 1967, a year after former Gov. Sherman Adams opened the fledgling Loon Mountain ski area, the Kanc was opened for year-round travel, but only during daylight hours. For three years, a gate was placed across both ends of the road, but that was removed in 1970 and for the past 36 years, travelers have been able to drive over it at all hours, year-round.

But in those early years, winter needed some help in leaving the area and in April 1961, Tewksbury joined the crew tasked with clearing the road.

It was dispatched from Lincoln to clear the mostly-unpaved road, with a plan to meet the crew working from the Conway end about 15 miles later, somewhere around the Kancamagus Pass in Livermore, the height of land at 2,885 feet.


Height of Land

By then, according to weather data from the state’s Office of Emergency Management, the Granite State had had three significant storms – the Dec. 10-13, 1960 blizzard that dropped up to 17 inches in some places; the Kennedy Inaugural storm of Jan. 18 -20, 1961, depositing up to 25 inches in places during the day of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and two weeks later, the Feb. 2-5 storm, leaving behind 18 inches was the last of the three that accompanied what OEM described as “one of the more prolonged cold spells experienced across the northeastern United States.”

A lesser person might have been cowed by such snow, but Tewksbury took in stride.

“I never paid attention to plowing snow,” he said. “I’d see people all shook up about it – you could pretty near see sweat rolling off them.”

When Tewksbury pulled Kanc duty that year, he was at the wheel of a 1960 Oshkosh truck, color DOT orange. He had with him his wing man and his trusty Kodak Retina camera.

“I always had that with me,” he said.
Each day, they’d set out from Lincoln, pushing drifts aside.

“We’d plow as far as we could go and then stopped and come back a week or two later,” he said, after spring sunshine worked away some of the heft and heights of those drifts.

“I’d put the truck in first gear and put the pedal to floor,” he recalled. “When it died, I’d back it up and give it to her again.”

He has a pile of wonderful pictures from one day, labeled neatly on the back as April 16, 1961, showing an enormous pile of snow pushed up by the plow against a backdrop of snow covered trees and mountains, the truck barely showing above the depth of the snow.

On a break, he jumped down from the driver’s side and snapped pictures, wading through the deep snow, before resuming the task.

He never got stuck, the trick, he explains, is taking off the outer wheel of the dual wheel set-up at the back of the truck.

“You take the outside wheel off, so there was just a single wheel,” he said. “Otherwise, the truck would jump and get you stuck in the snow. We carried a spare on the top of the truck in case one went flat.”

His memories may reach back more than 45 years, but they are clear and he remembers them fondly. Mostly there were days of white and gray with no other people or even wildlife around, except for the time he saw a bobcat jumping over the banks.

The lifelong bachelor, who now makes his home in Sugar Hill, retired from the DOT about 20 years ago, but he’s never given up on plowing.

“I’ve plowed every year since I was 18,” he said, and even though winters may not be what they used to be, “I haven’t missed a year, whether it was in a state truck or one of my homemade tractors.”

These days he plows for a handful of his neighbors on Streeter Pond Road. They try to pay him, but he won’t have any of that.

“I guess its in my blood,” he said.

Lorna Colquhoun

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