Plowing McKenzie Pass: 'You can probably walk faster'

MCKENZIE PASS, Ore. - The Old McKenzie Highway is one of the state's most beautiful and popular roads.

Winding through three counties, the 30-mile scenic byway passes majestic waterfalls, lava fields and old growth forests.

Unfortunately, much of the road on either side of 5,335-foot McKenzie Pass is closed by snow for seven months out of the year.

That's where Oregon DOT's Tom Dayton and his crew from the Santiam Pass Office comes in.

Transportation Maintenance Specialist Tom Dayton has been blowing snow off the highway for six years.

"If you let this melt out naturally it'd probably be August before it melted out," he says. "A soon as you get it opened up, the sun comes out and it hits that black asphalt. It creates more heat, and it actually melts it out a lot faster."

Then ODOT comes through and plows the remaining snow off the road.

This year snow levels were below average, although snow continued to fall through this week.

Eating snow, the machine spits snow out more than 100 feet in the air.

"It's just a process of learning the machine and learning the road."

Dayton says as it turns, the reel pulls the snow towards the center, before blowing it out.

"The speedometer says one mile per hour, but it's a constant, slow speed."

Dayton says he clears about one mile of road per 8-hour day.

"You can probably walk faster than it blows, but you get through it you look for progress."

Depending on snow levels, Dayton says it takes around 30 days to clear the pass.

Two teams, one from the Santiam Pass Office and one from Sisters start on each end and work their way towards the middle, meeting somewhere near Dee Wright Observatory.

"We're working on the west side, so naturally you get more snow," he says. "It just takes longer. The deeper the snow, the longer it takes."

Tom Dayton says he needs to sometimes make several cuts into the drifts before he can move forward.

"I go forward one, then I'll back up," he says as he cuts into the snow. "I'll move over, then make a second cut over. Then just back up and start over."

Currently, the highway is opened to the second gate, or at the trailhead of Linton Lake, 11 miles east of Highway 126.

Even though snow levels are low this year, there's still plenty at the top.

"They question us at the gate why aren't we opening the gate?" Dayton says. "Well you'll see down there the flowers are out, the trees are blooming, but you get up here and you still have five or ten feet of snow."

And hidden beneath the blanket of snow are plenty of hazards.

"Watching for trees, wildlife and rocks. Sometimes the snow will hit the trees. It'll push it over and then as you come off of it, it'll fall over the machine."

Above all, Dayton acknowledges a lot people would like to have his job.

"It's one of the few jobs in the world you get to enjoy mother-nature. You have a job where you can work in it, but you can enjoy the scenery."

Dayton says don't go head over heels yet. The burnout rate is every two years.

ODOT Spokesman Lou Torres says the cost of clearing the Old McKenzie Highway or Oregon Route 242 is built into the budget each year.

He says it's far cheaper than trying to clear the road year round.

Oregon Route 242 is expected to open on June 16., depending on weather and conditions.

Torres says bicycles and pedestrians may use the road before it officially opens, but he warns it's at your own risk.