Written by Lee Hoedl; LAKESTYLE magazine - Winter 2006 Issue
It started out as a brisk but mild winter Minnesota morning; not unlike so many midwinter days and seasons before. Hardy northern residents bustled through the morning cold to complete only their necessary daily tasks, while children hurried off to school. It might very well have been a frosty landscape scene plucked right from a work by Courier & Ives… but all that was to change, and very quickly.
Silently roaring in from the western plains was a sudden cold front that caused temperatures to plummet; reports claim a drop of 40 degrees in less than two hours, with temperatures reaching as low as -37 degrees. For numerous residents outdoors, they were caught unsuspecting and quickly succumbed to the sudden temperature change and blinding snow. As the full fury of the impending blizzard approached, children were released from school early and many did not survive the trip home.
Blinding snow pummeled and blanketed the entire state of Minnesota in a twenty-four hour time period, with accumulated drifts exceeding twenty feet. Fortunately, as quickly as the blizzard descended on the Midwest, it exited as well. In its wake, the storm left behind hundreds of dead cattle and several stranded train lines in the extreme snowfall. 200 lives were claimed in what many residents referred to as the worst blizzard in the history of Minnesota. The date was January 12, 1888.
The great state of Minnesota, including the upper Midwest region of the United States, is by no means a stranger to the winter tempest. In fact, this region has a dramatic, and sometimes tragic, history of winter storms. The blizzard of 1892 witnessed blinding snow and 70 mph winds with accumulated snowfall so high that it blocked second story windows in some buildings. The blizzards of 1905 and 1913 caused the demise of several ships on Lake Superior. The Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 (Nov. 11) entered during the full swing of duck hunting season and caught hunters completely off guard; 49 deaths occurred, plus 59 sailors were lost on the Great Lakes during this storm. 1967 displayed six separate severe blizzard warnings in the state, with total snow accumulations ranging from 40 to 50 inches. The November blizzard of 1975, with its 70+ mph winds, led to the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the loss of its crew on Lake Superior. And the January blizzard of 1989 – the worst blizzard scene in the Red River Valley – delivered almost 30 inches of fresh snow overnight to upper Minnesota, stopping all traffic and business.
Sprinkled between and beyond these recorded dates have been numerous winter flurries and storms; not quite large enough to register as a full fledged historic Minnesota blizzard, but enough to provide an annual and glorious winter wonderland. As integral as the transitioning of seasons and enduring twilight at this latitude, winter and its ensuing fury are accepted and respected as a component of Minnesota living. And it is the successful sojourner, prior to any journey outside one’s door, which glances to the horizon with this healthy respect and sporting an ever-brimming winter survival pack… every mindful that just over the horizon might lie the very next
As a youth growing up on the shore of a northwestern Minnesota lake, winter provided my family with all the outdoor activities articulated in almost every Christmas and winter song. And for me, cross country skiing was my winter sport of choice. Quickly strapping on my skis after school during the week, I was granted just enough time before dinner to ski across the lake’s darkness to Bald Island, in the center of southern Star Lake, or along the shoreline. Once out on the snow, I often found myself transformed into the legendary Robert E. Peary as he ventured across the darkened arctic north pole or the historic Roald Amundsen as he struggled bravely through the desert terrain of Antarctica in search of the southern pole. These were moments to be treasured as I enjoyed being out in the elements while at the same time being inside my head. And it happened on one darkened December late afternoon that I found myself simultaneously trapped in both worlds.
The year is unknown but the memory remains an indelible moment of a winter long past. The winter season was turning the corner toward the winter solstice, as each day’s light continued to diminish. As it had become habit by this time of year, I quickly left behind my school items in the family breezeway and with skis, poles and minimal winter wear, I was on my way onto the lake and across the frozen winter playground. In my youthful haste, I failed to realize that a winter storm warning had posted for our region just hours before; it would quickly be upgraded to a classic Minnesota blizzard. But for the moment, the afternoon darkness concealed the danger that would fast approach.
It was only a few miles into my usual route when I suddenly realized that the trail was barely visible and light blowing snow had suddenly progressed into a virtual whiteout. The heavy snow now falling to and swirling on the ground, combined with the low cloud layer above granted me no opportunity to gain my bearings. The visible world was gone and a smothering panic swept over me for the first time in my life. I could no longer see the ends of my cross country skis. And had gravity not been in place, I would not have been able to tell up from down. For a moment I felt as if I was literally drowning in complete and utter whiteness.
Without a flashlight, headlamp or distant landmarks, my options narrowed greatly. I quickly decided – as riding out the storm in the elements was not an option – to backtrack on my ski trail and hopefully come close enough to my home to see its interior lights. It was very slow moving, with my eyes continually straining to see the faint outline of the ski trail that was already filling in by the driving snow. Finally reaching a familiar knoll of trees and shelter belt near our property line, I was able to gradually make out the lights from our dining room facing the lake. It was one of the most welcomed sights in my youthful life.
The wonderful smells of my mother’s dinner and the slow sting of my skin warming combined to remain a powerful lifelong reminder of the importance of refuge in a storm. And the wind and snow continued to howl outside…
It is that time and season of the year again. The days become very short and the nights seem very long. We gather with family and friends and toast hope, compassion and the turning of another year. We find ourselves looking back over our past year and remembering those days when Life was gracious to us. We also remember those days when we walked out of our home full of our own expectations and Life handed us very different events, experiences and circumstances. Some events pleasantly surprised us. Some experiences bewildered us. And some circumstances left us in a virtual whiteout; circumstances that suddenly swept across our otherwise peaceful life, blindsided us and left us chilled and smothered. One moment we were traveling along our habitual routine in Life and in the very next instance, our bearings had disappeared amidst a storm of confusion, challenge, pain and loss.
Much like our control over the winter weather, we have the same effect on many of Life’s circumstances. Regardless of our best laid plans, my friend, we each will eventually find ourselves surveying the horizon, assessing that all is fine, and then stepping out into our day and right into one of Life’s whiteouts. Life remains the grand, glorious, magical, mysterious and precarious journey that calls for our deepest respect, our greatest wonder and our strongest resiliency. It has been twenty years since the passing of my father and the effects of that painful whiteout have taught me to greatly respect the time and the journey that I find myself on these days. Beyond that storm, that moment has instilled in me an even greater wonder into the very mystery of Life. And through the ferocity of that painful time and beyond, I am even more committed to a personal faith and resiliency through future whiteouts that will appear on my horizon. Oh yes, there will be storms on the horizon, my friend. As the earth’s rotation creates all forms of weather, so the dynamic process of your Life will create new challenges, setbacks and adventures for you. But know this: all storms will pass. It’s inevitable. The lasting effects of any storm may remain, but the storm itself will diminish and pass. You need only to ride it out and know that you are not alone; just beyond that complete and utter whiteness in front of you, others are finding themselves in a similar situation. And they are unaware that you are right next to them. Call out and find one another. Rather than simply curse the storm, huddle together and protect one another until the skies clear.
And above all, my friend, remember that you always have the option to follow your trail back home; that place where you feel most loved and safe. Especially during this season, take time to backtrack on your past trails, step by step, to the places, times and relationships where your world made sense, you felt most loved and you felt most confident. They remain the refuge in the storm. Enter their hearth and let the storm continue to howl outside.
But don’t wait too long – those very same tracks and trails you once made are being filled in behind you, amidst the swirling flurry of Life.
Post Note: Reflections focuses on the metaphorical ability and need to address Life’s “whiteout” situations. In the physical realm, a winter whiteout is just as life-threatening. Be sure to refer to To Hill and Back as it outlines those items and suggestions that may be crucial to your survival should you find yourself in just such a situation. Safe travels to you and yours through and beyond all of Life’s flurries and whiteouts.
Copyright 2006, Lee Hoedl, firstname.lastname@example.org