Steve Reed may be the most popular guy in the Montana Department of Transportation who also remains largely anonymous.
Reed is so famous, yet obscure, because he shoots videos every spring of the snowplowing operations on the Montana side of the Beartooth Scenic Byway. Viewers of the videos never see his face, they just hear his voice as he talks about the snowplowing crew’s progress.
“The people who know that it’s me, I get a little grief about that,” said Reed, the section supervisor for MDOT in Red Lodge, after hopping down from a road grader equipped for plowing.
Reed will be unmasked soon. His supervisors ganged up on him Tuesday and shot a video with him in front of the camera to introduce him to viewers so they can put a face to the familiar voice.
“We got an email from a couple in Pennsylvania who watch those videos religiously,” said Tom Tilzey, MDOT maintenance superintendent. “It’s probably one of the most popular sites on our page.”
Reed’s crew started plowing the 11-mile stretch of Highway 212 south of Red Lodge in mid-April. There wasn’t much to plow on the lower reaches. Instead, the men were delayed by plowing duties in Red Lodge, which sits at a lower altitude.
“We lost four days just plowing snow down in Red Lodge,” Reed said. “It got 1 foot of snow that one Sunday night. But it snows a foot there, and you come up here and there was only 3 inches.”
“It’s scary,” Tilzey said. “I keep reading where the snowpack’s not that bad, but I don’t know where they’re at. Everywhere I’ve been it’s pretty sad.”
Last year was a low snow season on the Beartooth Pass, as well, whereas the two years before that drifts were high and deep.
No matter how much snow, the crew of seven to 12 men has plenty to do. If the snowpack is low, they spend more time cleaning rockfall out of ditches and from behind rock-catching screens.
MDOT director Mike Tooley stopped by on Tuesday for a tour of the operations. He was appointed to the position by Gov. Steve Bullock last November. Before that, Tooley was the chief of the Montana Highway Patrol.
“I think it’s important to come up and see what people do,” Tooley said.
“It’s just a lot of fun learning about a new side of transportation,” he added. “And these guys are stars.”
Although the snowpack is minimal on the pass this spring, the snow that was there was “bulletproof,” Reed said. Steady winds had deposited layers of dust in the snow, and combined with early thawing and then freezing, the snow’s crust was thick and hard.
By Tuesday, however, the temperature was up to 56 degrees and water was running down the road. It was the warmest day on the mountain so far this spring.
The plows and snowblower had worked their way to within about a mile of the state line. From there on into Wyoming, Cooke City and Yellowstone National Park’s Northeast Entrance, Park Service plow crews are responsible for clearing the road.
That will be delayed this year following budget cuts that prompted Yellowstone National Park to postpone the plowing to let Mother Nature melt some of the snow. Depending on the NPS plow crew’s progress, the entire route may not open until June 14, two weeks later than usual. The Montana side always opens the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, but progress past the state line won't come until the Park Service crews punch through.
Yellowstone crews began plowing the section of Highway 212 between Cooke City and the Highway 296 junction on Tuesday and expect to have that cleared before the Memorial Day weekend.
Tooley said his department had been contacted by some Cooke City residents to open the route sooner, but he said it’s not practical for Montana to haul equipment there, would be expensive and the townsfolk are divided over whether it’s a good idea since some like the road to be seasonally open to snowmobiles only. What’s more, Tooley said the stretch of road isn’t Montana’s responsibility.
Although Montana’s plowing crew was nearing their destination, they never rest easy as spring and even summer storms have been known to drop up to 3 feet of snow and winds can cause whiteout conditions or blow in deep snowdrifts.
“More than likely, we’ll be back up here again after we finish,” Reed said. “It’s inevitable.”
“About the time you think you’ve got it figured out around here, something else happens,” he said.
Yet crew members like Shawn Mains, who was running the PistenBully snowcat, don’t mind pushing snow at a time when people in the valleys thousands of feet below are mowing their lawns and planting gardens.
“I never get tired of the snow,” he said.
And probably nowhere else at this time of year will you hear people utter, “We’re lucky it’s been cold up here.”
That’s because dry, cold snow is lighter and easier to blow and push than when the snow gets wet and heavy. Wet snow also can plug up the rotary blower, which takes some strenuous shovel work to unplug.
Plus, working so close to thousands of acres of wilderness not far from Yellowstone, the crews get to see such unusual occurrences as a black wolf trailing a band of mountain goats, grizzly bear tracks in the snow, a black bear hopping over a guardrail and a fox that shadowed the crew's plow as if playing. Their “office” is like no other.