Frost Bites

So winter makes you think of mulled cider, snow angels, and Jack Frost nipping at your nose? Well, then, shut up and go away.

We know you macho, just-gotta-learn-not-to-fight-it types are out there. We know you call toll-free snow-report lines to find out which slopes have the deepest base. We know you not only have a Ziploc full of Swix, you have all the colors. You own gaiters. In fact, you could host a Patagonia trunk show. You've shelled out for a phat Palmer board and some step-in Vans. Some of you have brains so warped by early exposure to subzero wind-chills that you actually count the days until you can pack your overswaddled, sniffling kids off on a sleigh ride like the one you think you remember fondly from childhood. We've seen you jogging around the lakes in tissue-thin reflective gear, sweat frozen in your nostril hairs.

And you know what else? We hate you. You can turn right now to page 23, where there are reams of listings devoted to events and activities that should keep you busy until tax day 2001, or whenever it is that the ice on the St. Croix finally breaks up.

The stories that follow, you see, are for the rest of us; glimpses into the lives of nine Twin Citians (two of them not even human) whose lives and livelihoods prove that winter is the cruelest season. Of course, there are other things normal folks can do to break up the monotony, like go to the theater. For that information, turn to page 36, where you'll find the most comprehensive preview of the season's plays, shows, concerts, readings, and arts events.

Steven Lenhart, Lockmaster

 

Stephen Lenhart's office is a small, spare room, furnished only with a metal desk, a few chairs, and some file cabinets. The walls are covered with aquamarine tile--the type you might find in a locker room from a 1960s YMCA. All in all, Lenhart admits, it is unremarkable. "But I do have a pretty good view," he says, as he steps out onto the concrete observation deck at the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam. It is mid-November now; ice has yet to form on the Mississippi. But it feels like winter--raw and gusty. The sounds of traffic from nearby downtown Minneapolis are barely audible above a flock of squawking seagulls and the steady roar of the water rushing over the concrete-capped spillway of the falls.

Lenhart has spent 23 years working on the river, the last three as the lockmaster at Upper St. Anthony, the northernmost of the 29 locks the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains along the Mississippi. Although it is near the end of the shipping season, a few stragglers are still wending their way to the river's commercial terminus, the Port of Minneapolis. "We'll stay open until December 2, but then we gotta close down and do maintenance," Lenhart explains, as a northbound tug, pushing two barges laden with scrap steel, sounds its horn. The three vessels squeeze into the 400-foot-long concrete lock chamber, the enormous, fortresslike gates on the downstream side swing shut, and then the water begins to rise. The ascent--at 50 feet, the steepest on the river--seems impossibly smooth and quiet, a marvel of industrial-age engineering that, Lenhart says with a note of pride, seldom breaks down and doesn't require a single computer to operate.

Most of the year, Lenhart can gloat about the virtues of his job. As a matter of course, he spends much of his workday both outdoors and near water. "Now and then I go over to the district offices in St. Paul, and everybody is stuck in their little cubicles, shuffling paper, and I think, 'How do these people live like this?'" he says, smiling amiably. During the height of shipping season, Lenhart and his 12-man crew fill and drain the lock up to 20 times a shift--barges, pleasure boats, even canoes pass through. Come winter, though, about half the staff is laid off. The rest, including Lenhart, carry out the routine maintenance on the subterranean network of hydraulic valves and tunnels that fill and empty the lock. "It can get pretty harsh," he says of the work. "We go down in these pits, and it's cold and dark, and sometimes you're working with electricity and standing in a puddle of water. You've got to be careful."

Like most of the other employees at the Upper St. Anthony Falls, Lenhart, 52, is a veteran of the armed forces, having served four years on a navy aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War. That experience, however, hasn't hardened him to one of the few unpleasant realities of his job. "A lot of debris comes through the locks, especially after summer storms," he explains, and then points to a pool 50 or so feet straight down, a frothing area of backwash between the dam and the lock. That, he says, is where stuff usually winds up. "We usually get three or four bodies a year--murder victims, people who drown, jumpers, whatever. We've had three this year. Last year we had five," he says. "You never get used to it." In the winter, he says, the river seldom surrenders any dead. Maybe fewer people choose to end their lives by leaping from bridges in the winter. Maybe evildoers dump their victims in different locales. Or maybe the cold water just keeps the corpses from surfacing. Whatever the reason, Lenhart says, winter is not without its advantages. (Mike Mosedale)

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