Why does New Hampshire put up 4,000 sticks alongside mountain roads each winter? 

  • Whips hang out of a New Hampshire Department of Transportation truck on the Kancamagus Highway just out of Lincoln on Oct. 8.

  • Shawn Woods (left) and John Narrow, employees at the Lincoln location of the state Department of Transportation, work on putting whips in the parking lot of an overlook on the Kancamagus Highway just outside of Lincoln on Oct. 8. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • John Narrow, who works at the Department of Transportation in Lincoln, puts in whips along the Kancamagus Highway. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • A whip rises above a marker on the Kancamagus Highway just out of Lincoln on Tuesday, October 8, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Shawn Woods (left) and John Narrow, who both work out of the Lincoln Department of Transportation, put in whips on the Kancamagus Highway just outside of Lincoln on Tuesday, October 8, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • State Department of Transportation employees John Narrow (left) and Shawn Woods discuss the process of putting in whips in Lincoln on Oct. 8, at what they called “the overlook past the hairpin,” which any Kanc regular will recognize. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/23/2019 2:36:48 PM

When Shawn Woods began working at the Lincoln shed of the state Department of Transportation, he didn’t realize it would turn him into Old Man Winter.

“Locals, they hate seeing us do this. They hate seeing us put these up,” said Woods, an assistant foreman who works out of the Lincoln DOT shed, during a recent work break on the Kancamagus Highway. “They know that’s the end of summer.”

The things that Woods and his co-worker John Narrow were putting up are called whips. If you’ve driven the “Kanc” or through any of the Notches in the White Mountains, you have seen hundreds of them, although you might not have noticed. This article will rectify that oversight.

Why ‘whip’?

Nothing sinister here. “Whips” are the DOT term for small, hardwood trees that have had their limbs trimmed off. Basically they’re long sticks, an inch or so in diameter and somewhere between 8 feet and 14 feet in length.

Each fall, DOT workers cut down and distribute up to 4,000 of them along roads that get a lot of snow in the White Mountains, including the Kanc and roads that cut through the Notches.

They stick them next to the metal poles that hold reflectors along highways, which are called “delineators” in highway-speak.

Why do they do that?

To alert plow drivers when snowdrifts cover the delineators, which happens often in the White Mountains.

A 10-wheeler truck pushing a 12-foot plow will do a lot of damage to the pole, and probably also to the plow if it hits one. So the state has developed a system of marking the spots that plows need to avoid.

They put one whip at each delineator – which under federal road-safety guidelines exist every 250 feet on straightaways and every 50 feet on curves. They also put one at the start of each guardrail marked with a red ribbon and one at the end of the guardrail marked with a white ribbon, marking the entire “no-go” zone for plow drivers to use their wing plow blade.

Some parking lots at overlooks along the Kanc are bordered by big boulders, designed to keep cars from plunging down the hill. Each of those boulders gets a whip, too.

The whips are driven into a hole in the ground, which is why this has to get done before the ground freezes. They’re usually not tied to the delineator pole for a surprising reason, according to Philip Beaulieu, DOT engineer in the District One office in Lancaster: The famously high winds of the mountains can push against a whip so hard it will actually pull over a metal pole, which doesn’t bend like a tree.

Whips make thrift

Using sticks to mark the edge of snowy roadways is a long tradition among tight-fisted New Hampshire drivers who don’t want to spend money on store-bought markers. Whips just take the tradition to a new level.

I couldn’t find out how long the state has been doing this, but certainly longer than the eight years that Beaulieu has been on the job.

We’re also not alone in the practice.

“We use sticks on mountain routes to keep track of guardrail ends, culvert inlets and outlets, hydrants and other hazards that could potentially get covered by heavy snow. We do indeed call them ‘whips,’ usually made from 1-inch to 2-inch maple saplings,” said Amy Tatko, outreach manager for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

Our transportation counterparts in Maine weren’t as quick to respond.

“It takes them about a month to harvest and install them,” said Beaulieu, the N.H. DOT engineer. Any species of hardwood will do although he said willows are particularly valuable since they’ll bend but not snap when snow pushes against them.

Trees are cut, usually with brush clippers, wherever the right size and shape are available, although workers try not to harvest where tourists will notice.

“We like to get them from underneath power lines, where they’ve been cleared. There’s no problem there,” said Woods.

A big dump truck can carry about 500 whips at a time, I was told. The usual procedure is dump about 30 of them at a time on the road, move the truck out of the way – “don’t interrupt the flow of traffic” is the No. 1 safety rule, said Woods – then walk back to the pile and carry them from delineator to delineator.

The Lincoln shed covers 22 miles of the Kanc, east to Sabbaday Falls. So putting out whips along most of that road, said Woods, translates into “44 miles of walking.”

That doesn’t sound fun

Actually, Woods and Narrow said it’s not bad.

“I like it,” said Narrow who, like Woods, drives DOT snowplows all winter. “Soon we’ll be trapped inside the cab of a truck for six months. This gets us outside.”

On a recent sunny day amid forests that were at peak foliage, getting outside was glorious. As the duo demonstrated the placement of whips for Monitor staffers at what they called “the overlook past the hairpin,” which any Kanc regular will recognize. A metal rod is driven into the ground using sheer brute force, creating a hole a few inches deep. The fat end of the whip is jammed into the hole with the thin end pointing toward the sky.

More than a few curious tourists wondered what was going on. One woman, puzzling over a row of limbless whips standing in front of parking-lot boulders, even asked what was killing the trees.

Woods and Narrow are happy to answer tourist questions, although some tourist habits make them less happy.

“In parking lots, people will take them out of the ground and throw them away, because they interfere with photos. They’ll turn them into a javelin for a while,” said Woods. As a result, the team doesn’t usually put whips into parking lots until after the peak leaf-peeping time of Columbus Day weekend.

Another deadline they observe: Don’t put whips near town until after Halloween. “The kids like to play with them,” Woods observed.

Isn’t it a lot of work?

Yes, it is, which is why the Department of Transportation is experimenting with a modern alternative in Franconia Notch.

“They’re called Snow Poles; an extendable plastic delineator that reduce the amount of whipping we had to do,” said Beaulieu. The poles, which can be raised in winter and lowered in summer, will cut down on the operator hours need to cut and install all those limbless trees. Vermont has installed them on most mountain roads.

“It definitely reduced the amount of time we spent installing the whips,” said Beaulieu. But these newfangled devices aren’t perfect.

“They have to be designed to be hit by traffic, so they’re almost too flexible at the base. If you push snow against them they tend to bend over so you can’t see them,” he said.

They’re also fairly expensive. A metal pole and delineator costs about $20, while a Snow Pole, which replaces the delineator, costs about $40. The state bought 600 as an experiment and Beaulieu said they’re still deciding what to do.

So for at least this winter, the traditional method will continue to hold sway. And this time you’ll notice.

Unless there’s too much snow, that is.

“Last winter, especially up on the Kanc and the heights, there was such a large amount of snow that we couldn’t even see the whips any more,” said Beaulieu. “The drivers had to work by memory.”

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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