Winter North of the Mississippi

Born in Ann Arbor, FRANCES GILLIS received her A.B. from the University of Michigan, where she majored in English composition. Upon graduation she devoted a year to writing before taking on a job as copy writer. She is married to a stalwart Minnesotan and spent nine winters in one of the nation’s coldest areas.

Frances Qillis

IT IS well known that the interior of the United States has much lower temperatures than the interior of Europe in the same latitudes. This is thought to be true because North American mountain ranges, running from north to south close to the coast, cut off abruptly the benefit of the warm currents in the Pacific Ocean. And because there are no high mountain ranges across the Canadian North from east to west, the arctic weather flows freely south, unbraked. Nowhere are there people more keenly aware of these effects than the residents of northern Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota. It is here that a sizable number of citizens take for granted six or seven months of winter weather where —40° is common, —50 uncomfortably familiar, and even lower temperatures not extraordinary. This variety of winter has its odd accompaniment of springs and falls that last about ten days. Spring, when it comes, is not truly spring. It is the breakup, when the accumulated snows of seven or eight months, while melting in the warming sun, turn the landscape into a soggy sponge and, for a long period, cool the air sufficiently to hold the foliage dormant. Finally, with the snow gone, the sun at last receives its response in a rush of new thrusts, the spring candles of the evergreens. Leaves appear within hours, it seems. One could literally watch them unfold on every bush.

Longtime residents of Minnesota’s North testify to having seen snow there in each of the twelve months, including July and August — a staggering fact in view of the latitude in which it lies. From late October to early April the thermometer may plummet, in its normal course, to —30° or — 35°. The more divergent —40°, —50°, and lower are the exclusive tenure of the months from November through March. The cold during this period is a steady, relentless reality. The snowdriving winds can easily blow over sixty miles an hour, and the temperature has been officially recorded as low as — 59°.

It may warm to zero or 10° above, occasionally some degrees higher. But no sudden midwinter warming will raise the temperature very high for very long.

There would be nothing unusual, however, about an automobile trip to this chilled northland from the Twin Cities in the cold months of winter, provided you were familiar with the conditions. The straight, main highways in the North would offer surprisingly clear driving, but the roads would channel through the snow-filled fields and forests only by courtesy of the North’s noblest beast of burden, the snowplow.

Approximately one hundred and fifty miles from St. Paul and Minneapolis, just north of Grand Rapids, you would see the maples, elms, and ash trees disappear suddenly from the landscape. Along the streams and lakes only, in some isolated places, will they be found. The coniferous forests of north Minnesota, once immense reaches of virgin Norway and white pine, are now to a great extent tall second growth of tamarack trees, white and jack pine, white cedar, and the hardy, pale, stalklike aspens.

The terrain north to the Canadian border is flat, seemingly, but east of the Red River Valley, 1920 to 2230 feet above sea level, are the Mesabi and Vermilion iron ranges, where Pre-Cambrian deposits lie just beneath the soil, and this source of iron ore is so pure and rich that for fifty years it has been merely scooped up and shipped to the steel centers. These enormous iron deposits were made by massive intrusions of magma, the molten material of the earth’s interior, when the earth was still very young and its thin crust was being shattered by violent volcanic explosions.

The vast forests of pulpwood and the iron ore are responsible for the towns and cities in this rocky land, which lies in the path of the arctic storms. And life within them has cast and color that characterize outposts the world around.

Many families of Finnish extraction live in isolated spots on the forest’s edge or in the smaller communities like Tofte, Togo, Bramble, and Cutfoot Sioux. These rugged people, whose homeland has winters similar in severity to those of this portion of Minnesota, maintain their national fondness for the sauna, or steam bath, which ends not with the usual cold-water shower but with a brief, nude plunge into a snowdrift outdoors.

There are Swedish people here, too, and Norwegians, although most preferred to settle in the milder central and southern parts of Minnesota. And surprisingly, there are numbers of Italians and southeastern Europeans who — innocently, it is surmised — came to mine the ore. Upon those who have stayed, the North has deftly brushed its own hue and markings. Many a warm, brown eye, large and liquid, has had to narrow against the strong, icy wind until squinting became habitual and lines were dredged deeply into cheeks which have lost their smoothing moistness to the dry cold. Soft, mobile lips tighten and compress to conserve inner warmth; gestures become less wide and eloquent. In time, the stoic stamp of the North penetrates deeper than these surface changes.

Little children learn early to keep a watchful eye upon their playmates on the days when it is mild enough to play outdoors ( — 15° and upward). The snow falls and deepens and settles and falls again and again. The youngsters build snowmen and forts early or late in winter but not during the coldest months; the snow then is too dry and fine. Curb lines disappear from the city streets by Christmastime in spite of the diligent sidewalk and street plows, and one walks and drives upon the same level, the concrete well buried beneath the hard-packed snow. “You’d better go inside and get warm,” one child calls to another. “Your cheeks are turning white.” Each footstep is explosive and, when it is really cold, —30° and below, every dry, delicate crystal is a stone underfoot, grinding to powder against stone, with the sound of a small glacier creaking. And rare indeed is the person who has lived here all his life who has not had at least one encounter with frostbite.

Regardless, committee meetings for the hundreds of clubs and organizations are well attended — if anything, better attended — when the thermometer reads —30°. It is tacitly understood that no one ever says, “I stayed home because of the cold.” Cowering indoors is discouraged.

In fact, the picture of the Englishman in the jungle dressing for dinner is evoked by the delightfully dressed-up community life in the range cities. In one, the mining engineers, executives, business and professional men and their wives converge five times during the winter upon the hotel’s fine ballroom to dance, even though the temperature may register —40° and the city streets may have all but disappeared in swirling blizzard.

IN THE cold months there are few visitors, for northern Minnesota is not a winter playground. And yet the intrepid traveler would be well rewarded by the natural beauty surrounding him. The skies and the undulating fields merge as one; unreality assails the mind and the eye. The sun swings in a low arc, and at sunrise and sunset it is not hard to imagine what the world may be like in many distant aeons when ice and snow envelop the earth, while the sun, cooled to the ruddy glow of bittersweet, lingeringly touches the clouds with warm colors of apricot, tangerine, lavender, and rose.

Night skies may be indescribably clear. The stars are sharp and brilliant, pricking perception; the northern constellations diagramed with utmost clarity upon the blackest of skies. There is no illusion here that they are hung like lanterns just beyond reach. The vast distances of space are as clear to see as the barbed points of light.

When the aurora borealis sweeps in to dominate the night, it elicits a quite different and emotional reaction, not unlike the surging, impressive sight itself. If the luminous, pulsing scarves of light were tangible streamers, certainly it would be possible to become entangled in and absorbed into the celestial kaleidoscope. The excitement that a full aurora generates, the quickening pace of the blood stream and inner identification may be a kindred response of charges within us to the playful, electrical vortex swirling from horizon to horizon.

By night and by day, calmly, violently cold or voraciously shrieking in storm, the North Country is a marvel of impetuous power. But there are few sightseers at its finest, most exclusive performances.

Outdoor winter sports are not given the emphasis you might expect with so much snow and cold weather. There is some skiing and some sledding on the warmer days. Nearly everyone ice skates, and from the rinks of this region have come many of the country’s best hockey players. But the outdoor rinks are not very popular. For one thing, the ice, solidly frozen, is too hard and the sharpest of blades seems dull. Much more popular are the towns’ indoor arenas, where one can skate free from frostbite and in a warmed atmosphere in which physical exertion does not make each deep breath a searing stab of subfrigid air. One of the finest indoor rinks is at Hibbing, which was the scene on January 4, 1959, of a match between the hockey teams of the Soviet Union and the United States’s best amateurs; the outdoor temperature was -44°.

Newcomers are like greenhorns anywhere, with much to learn. The air, at first, seems so bracing that it is deceptive. There is no warning rawness. At —40°, all perceptible humidity is gone from the atmosphere, frozen into solidity. The first few minutes of standing outdoors, dressed in winter clothing that would be more than adequate elsewhere, may be exhilarating, but before many more minutes go by, a sudden numbness grips the limbs with frightening rapidity. “Keep moving, keep moving” is the instruction, and at a certain speed. Never at a run, because you cannot breathe this air deeply. Not slowly, because you must keep the blood circulating rapidly, generating heat. Turn your heavy scarf close over your mouth and nose to warm the air you breathe as you walk along vigorously. If you are under twelve or over forty-five, you had better not walk more than a few blocks at a time. This climate is no respecter of age. Those who can, move south upon retirement, and the number of old people living here is noticeably smaller than in other parts of the country.

This is cold weather that surpasses, in length and depth, the merely uncomfortable and miserable or the forays of lowered temperature and blizzard that may make headlines elsewhere in the country. If the tropic lands give us Nature uncorseted, inviting embrace, the North shows her most reverse, aloof character, best admired from an insulated distance.

Respectful admiration cannot be withheld, however. It is hard to conceive of any tropical or desert scene that could compare with the Olympian panorama of Minnesota’s North, the dark pines flowered with snow and, between the woodland tracts, the prairies, deeply white and pristine. It is a singular creation, wrapped in a temperature formidably cold, that stands siege fiercely against desecration.