With snow piling up, can you dig it?

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By David Filipov
Globe Staff / February 3, 2011

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P LYMOUTH — Moses had his staff. Merlin had his wand. And winter-weary New Englanders?

We have our shovels. And though we may not be parting the Red Sea in our driveways, on a snowy, slushy, icky days like yesterday it sure felt that way. Icy rain was turning roadways into shallow bays across the Bay State. Mounds of snow were devolving into piles of mush. And the forecast of a sharp drop in temperature promised to turn it all into a ghastly ice sculpture of pain.

In Plymouth, as in other communities where snow turned to sleet turned to snow turned to icy rain, residents rushed into their driveways, brandishing their PathMaster 3000s, their Truper Poly Scoops, their Ames True Temper Arctic Blasts. They were in a frantic dash to clear their pavement — while they still could.

The air of desperation seems to have afflicted even those among us who see digging out the driveway as a pleasant alternative to an hour of cardio on the exercise bike.

Count Beth Mills as one of those hearty denizens of the Commonwealth.

“That’s why we don’t have a snow blower,’’ said Mills, who was scraping slushy muck off the sidewalk outside her house in central Plymouth. Some 70 inches of snow so far this winter — and a back injury sustained by her husband — have dulled Mills’s enthusiasm a tad.

“Now I have to do 90 percent of the shoveling,’’ she said, panting as she worked. Thanks to a decision by the Supreme Judicial Court last year, property owners are liable for any ice- or snow-related injuries on their land, so Mills has to shovel that sidewalk, even though many footfalls had packed the slush into waxlike ice.

The wet snow and the huge accumulations have added to the dangers of shoveling inherent in an activity that most of us do incorrectly.

Shoveling pros say the way to shovel is with knees bent, torso as straight as possible, using the thighs and glutes, rather than the back, to lift. Joshua Koenig, a Plymouth chiropractor, says shovelers should turn their legs and face the bank where they are tossing their shovelfull, not twist their torso to throw from the side while facing forward.

“I was driving home last night and everybody was shoveling and they were all doing it wrong; they are going to be hurting,’’ Koenig said yesterday in the parking lot outside his office, where he demonstrated the proper technique on a powder blue shovel with a square, metal-tipped blade.

He recommended shoveling often during a snowstorm rather than leaving the work until the snow stops, and getting at the snow before it freezes and turns hard, or melts and becomes weighty and sticky. He suggested applying cooking spray to the blade of the shovel so that the snow does not stick. He wanted shovelers to make sure they can handle the exertion, and to warm up with stretches before shoveling.

And above all, he advised people of a certain age who do not own snow blowers to hire someone whose back is better suited to the job.

“Pay the teenager from the neighborhood $20 or $40,’’ Koenig said. “That’s better than thousands of dollars in medical bills.’’

Alas, shovelers will not listen, and his business will boom.

“All week we will be packed with people coming in after shoveling,’’ Koenig predicted. “When people try to be weekend warriors they get hurt.’’

Richard Serkey, an attorney who lives in the shadow of the Founding Fathers monument on Allerton Street, was getting no warrior vibes as he hacked at the slush-ice mix that clogged the walkway to his front door, shoveling exactly as Koenig said not to. Serkey acknowledged that his technique was all wrong.

“I don’t usually shovel,’’ he said, waving his generic-brand square-blade. “I get a lot of teasing because we have a contractor.’’

But the postman was going to use that walkway, and he had to clear it.

Richard Coffey, a retired fireman, was attacking the slush with gusto with what looked like an Arctic Blast. “This is exercise,’’ he said cheerily. His posture was also wrong. “What the heck do I know?’’ he said.

The mercury hovered at 37 degrees early yesterday. Then in the afternoon, before you could say You Make Shoveling Fun, it dove to 27.

This reporter considered bailing on this story to hit his driveway with the vermillion Garant Nordic Poly Blade his brother had given him for Christmas. It has a long, narrow plastic blade that is great for scooping and never sticks — the kind the pros recommend for sticky snow that needs to be scooped and tossed rather than pushed into a snowbank.

Debra Balboni, owner of Balboni’s Landscaping Supply & Green Waste Reprocessing in Plymouth, approved of this choice, though her favorite scooper is the Truper Poly Scoop. She also carries the PathMaster line, made by a company in Greenfield, “because they are made in the USA.’’ But those are square blades, better for pushing.

“I’m not a pusher, I’m a scooper,’’ she said.

Balboni’s keys to clean shoveling include getting at the snow frequently during a storm, and before any traffic, vehicular or pedestrian, can compact the snow into ice. She is also a fan of snow melt — as a green business owner she prefers Merlin Melts Like Magic, a product manufactured to be less ruinous to the environment, wooden porches, and pets’ paws than is ordinary rock salt.

“Bottom line, if you don’t get to the black asphalt before it freezes, you’re stuck with the snow for the season,’’ she said.

Balboni’s colleague, Brian Mullen, took another tack, one that is becoming more popular this winter.

“One bad storm last year, I was shoveling three hours and I thought my heart was exploding and I said, ‘this is the last time,’ ’’ he recalled.

So he went out and bought a snow blower.

“It was the best $600 I ever invested,’’ he said.

David Filipov can be reached at