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Bless the USPS: Postal Service workers are a tough bunch, trudging through record snowfall this year

Rick McDougall makes his way along his mail route on Lake Avenue. Kaysey Price / Tribune1 / 4
Mail carriers with walking routes park their trucks and walk a few blocks, delivering mail, making their way along. Kaysey Price / Tribune2 / 4
Rick McDougall's route is about seven miles. Kaysey Price / Tribune3 / 4
The snow was pretty heavy on Tuesday afternoon, as Rick McDougall delivered the mail. Kaysey Price / Tribune4 / 4

Shortly before Rick McDougall parks his United States Postal Service truck at the intersection of Lake Avenue and Forest Street, the snow begins to fall. It collects on the cold ground and on the high drifts that have nestled in yards. McDougall begins to make his way along his neighborhood route, trudging along the narrowly shoveled paths on the sidewalk. He seems unphased by the weather, even a little chipper, despite the negative seven degree wind chill.

"I actually stay pretty warm, as long as I keep moving," he says, as he trudges through drifts that have blown across the sidewalk. "This winter coat I have on is pretty toasty."

McDougall has been working for the postal service for 21 years, since he finished a four-year enlistment in the United States Marine Corps. He's been a mail carrier for 10 of those years and, currently, he works a walking route in Detroit Lakes.

It's a cool job that has him outside for at least six hours a day, maybe even a little longer in the winter. But he stays warm by layering up. He says carriers get a clothing allowance, so they're able to purchase official postal service attire to stay warm, like the boots that pull on over his tennis shoes and protect him from the piles of snow.

He also uses hand warmers and a face mask when it's really cold, but he says the frigid temps don't really get to him.

"In my opinion, 90 degrees is worse than 20 below," he said, adding that you can't really get away from the heat, like you can get away from the cold by adding another layer or two.

McDougall has a pretty lengthy route, though he's not sure exactly how long. He says he doesn't track his steps or anything, but the previous carrier said the route was about seven miles of walking.

"I don't know if I believe that. It doesn't feel like seven miles," McDougal says with a laugh.

This winter hasn't made that seven miles easy for McDougal, though, or made the routes easy for any of the other mail carriers, for that matter. The bitter wind chills and record snowfalls even had the United States Postal Service suspending delivery on Wednesday, Jan. 30, something it almost never does.

McDougall says the carriers still worked that day, though. They spent their time inside, sorting mail, a task they do every day before taking off on their routes.

"A lot of us would have preferred to just work that day," said McDougall, adding that just because delivery is suspended, that doesn't mean the mail stops. The following Thursday, carriers just had to deliver twice their normal load.

McDougal says, if anything, it's the snow that gets to him.

"I'd rather have it cold and not more snow," he said. "I can always bundle up for the cold."

The snow, which has hit record-breaking amounts in many parts of Minnesota and across the Midwest this year, is tough to trudge through. McDougall says that's what wears him out quick. Not only does it make him have to watch his footing, it lengthens his route because he can't cut through yards. (Though some folks were kind enough to shovel a little path across their yard for him to cut through, like normal, which he appreciates.)

"It really helps when customers keep sidewalks clean. We definitely appreciate that," said McDougall.

Then, there's the fact that the snow has banged up so many mailboxes this year. After a snowstorm a few weeks ago, Brad Green, the city's public works director, warned that people need to be vigilant and shovel out their mailboxes. Otherwise, when the plows come along, they push the snow up to them, which can knock them over. When that happens, McDougall says the mail can't get delivered.

"There's a lot more to it than people think," said McDougall, adding that there's a lot of behind-the-scenes aspects to carrying the mail.

Postal service workers do their best to organize and sort the mail and make their job as seamless as possible. It's the unknowns (the weather, the broken mailboxes, and the dogs) that can throw a kink into a carrier's day.

McDougall says the old cliche of the carrier getting chased — or even bitten — by a dog isn't just in the movies. While he has never technically been bit, just nipped at, he knows some coworkers who haven't fared so well against animals.

"It kind of makes your heart jump," said McDougall, referring to encountering dogs along his route. He says in the summer, that's the biggest thing they run into. In the winter, the nips they are more concerned about are from Jack Frost nipping at their noses.

But the weather comes with the territory. McDougall says you don't really go into the profession, unless you like being outside, and he says he actually enjoys that he gets to get out into the fresh air for most of his work week.

"It's fun. It's nice, if you like to be outdoors," he said, for anyone considering the profession.

After finishing his rounds on Lake Avenue, McDougall hops back in his truck and moves along his route, parking a few more blocks down and taking to the snowy streets once again. The snow continues to fall over the quiet neighborhood, making the afternoon almost hazy and maybe even a little beautiful.

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