BAYPORT, Minn. -- Dave “Swanee” Swanson was a godsend for Andersen Corp. workers who live in Wisconsin.
As soon as the ice on the St. Croix River was thick enough, Swanson would fire up his white 1986 Chevy half-ton pickup truck and start plowing the popular “Ice Road,” a route commuters used to save time.
The crossing from Ferry Landing in North Hudson to Hubs Landing near the Bayport Marina in Minnesota cuts a 25-minute drive - across the Stillwater Lift Bridge or the Interstate 94 span - to about seven miles.
“It wasn’t uncommon for me to do seven or eight trips to Bayport and back in a day,” said Swanson, who retired in 1999 as security guard for Andersen. “I’d just go back and forth and back and forth. I had to go back and forth anyway. Even after I retired, I would still touch it up. It was just neat. It gave me a sense of accomplishment, and people liked it. It was just nice to see it all plowed really nice - nice and flat.”
After 24 years of plowing, Swanson is done. He sold his beloved pickup truck and plow attachment in November.
“I just don’t need to go back and forth any longer,” said Swanson, 71, of North Hudson. “The bank I use in Bayport has a branch in downtown Hudson now. And the truck was getting pretty rusty. It was just time for a change, but it was hard to get rid of. But it was time.”
Swanson sold the truck to a Stillwater man with the promise that he would never have to see it on his side of the river.
“I told him I would cut $400 off as long as I never see it again,” Swanson said. “I didn’t want to have to see it on a daily basis. I didn’t want to see somebody local buy it. Too painful, it is. I’ve had it for a long time.”
Never a seat belt
Even after Swanson’s retirement, people will still be driving across the frozen river this winter - possibly as soon as next week.
Law-enforcement officials caution drivers to be careful. There is open water just north and south of the crossing - the water discharge area at Xcel’s King Plant just upriver and the open channel to the south at the Hudson railroad and freeway bridges.
River ice can be unpredictable and treacherous, said St. Croix County Sheriff John Shilts. “I’ll be honest with you, I did just ice fish last year, but I would not drive all the way across on the main channel,” he said. “I just would not trust that ice enough.”
Swanson, who usually plowed from the beginning of January to mid-March, never wore a seat belt while plowing. If his truck plunged through the ice, he wanted to be able to get out quickly, he said.
He said he had a couple of close calls. He once had a front tire go into the water near the Wisconsin shoreline. “I couldn’t back off, and I couldn’t pull ahead,” he said. “I had to have someone pull me out.”
Stop and chat
Jim Lorenz, 66, of Hudson, a retired Andersen Corp. mechanic, said he once crossed the ice road “where I was actually pushing water with my truck … where you couldn’t see the ice.
“Everybody would say ‘I think it’s time to quit coming across,’ but that’s just the way it was,” Lorenz said. “It was the thing everybody did.”
Swanson said he crossed at times when he probably shouldn’t have. “I came home sometimes when I could have pulled a water-skier,” he said.
But he has good memories of his time maintaining the Ice Road, which he plowed at his own expense all those years.
“When you take the shortcut across the river to get to work, and you get to this side of the river, you don’t have the stress, for one thing,” Swanson said. “There’s no stoplights. There’s no speed limits. You don’t have any road rage. It’s just fun.”
Swanson always plowed the roadway wide enough to accommodate three vehicles so if friends met coming across the river and stopped to chat, another driver could get around them.
His plowing prowess was always appreciated, Lorenz said.
“If you had to work 3 to midnight, and it would be snowing and it would be so dark, you’d head across and if the trail wasn’t broke, if Swanee hadn’t plowed it or something, you might end up downriver or upriver a little farther than you wanted to be,” he said. “It was nice when it was plowed because you’d end up in exactly the right spot.”
Lorenz said he used the ice road every year for the 40 years he worked as a mechanic at Andersen Corp. He retired in 2006.
“I told my insurance man once - he asked how far I drove to work - and I said, ‘About 20 miles in the summer and about three in the winter, Lorenz said. “And he said ‘I don’t want to hear that.’ ”
But even if it’s not plowed, Lorenz said, he and other drivers will continue to forge a path across the river. “Everybody stays on the trail, and you can keep it pretty well packed down,” he said.
The road is especially popular with workers at Andersen, Xcel’s Allen S. King plant and the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Oak Park Heights, Lorenz said. “For people who live in North Hudson, you can cut your commute time in two-thirds,” he said.
Mark Zezza, 63, of North Hudson, proudly boasts that he used to be the first one to drive across the river each winter and the last one across each March.
“I have gone across on St. Patty’s Day weekend - it’s been that late sometimes,” said Zezza, a retired Andersen Corp. mechanic. “I’ve got a Jeep, so it’s not that heavy. Once there was 3 to 4 feet of open water on the other side, and if I got enough of a run, I could jump it to get to the other side.
“People thought I was crazy, but it saved a little bit of time and a little bit of gas,” he said. “That was the good thing about it - saving gas and saving money.”
Zezza said he and others will miss Swanson’s handiwork.
“It gets really rutted out there when it’s not plowed,” he said. “Swanee did such a good job. It was a like a four-lane highway out there. He’s such a great guy, just a super guy.”