The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 2, 2014

Riding out winter gales is a challenge


The Mankato Free Press

---- — In yet another chapter of this winter that just won’t quit, the National Weather Service issued another blizzard warning last week for the area.

The technical definition of a blizzard calls for sustained wind or frequent gusts to 35 miles an hour or greater accompanied by considerable falling or blowing snow reducing visibility frequently to less than a quarter-mile, all of this lasting for at least three hours.

So on that basis, we certainly had blizzard conditions last Thursday in parts of Minnesota.

But not all blizzards are created equal.

Naturally, they’re never very pleasant things. But in the immediate Mankato area, we’re blessed with geographic features like bluffs, woodlands and rolling countrysides that tend to blunt the full force of a wintery gale.

To truly understand what a fearsome thing a blizzard really can be, one really needs to be in the wide-open flatland of southwestern Minnesota.

In counties like Cottonwood, Nobles, Jackson and Watonwan Counties, save for a few river flowages and sparse groves, the wind blows virtually unimpeded across bare, flat farmland.

The term “white-out conditions” is a term that frequently accompanies a blizzard warning.

Around here, white-out conditions — where your world ends at the end of the car hood — certainly can make for difficult, dangerous travel.

But on the prairie where I grew up, given just a few inches of snow and 50 mph winds, your world ended at the windshield as unrelenting wind-driven snow obliterated any visual connections at all. There are scores of accounts in the late 1900s and even well into the 20th century of farmers getting lost and perishing while trying to get from barn to house in their own familiar farmyard during a prairie blizzard. As a precaution, many strung a rope between barn door and back door to guide them.

Red Lake anglers last week got a taste of what blizzard conditions can be when more than 40 of them were stranded in their fish shelters on that expansive lake for three days by a winter blow.

Seven foot-high drifts and zero visibility made it impossible to get on or off the lake.

Been there, almost did that. Several years ago, a fishing buddy and I were caught in a blizzard on Waubay Lake in northeast South Dakota.

What began as a January thaw by early afternoon had deteriorated quickly to a raging blizzard with plummeting temperatures and sheets of snow. Fishing was good and by the time we noticed the changing conditions and began to pack it in, it was too late. Strong winds and drifting snow had reduced visibility to virtually nothing.

Another nearby angler, also caught by surprise by the sudden change in the weather told us to follow him: He said had a route entered into his GPS receiver that would lead us all back to the landing several miles away.

However, in the white-out conditions, his tail-lights quickly vanished in the swirling white maelstrom, leaving us to creep along following only his tire tracks until those, too, were filled by the drifting snow.

Even with the four-wheel-drive engaged, we frequently were getting stuck in the growing drifts and had to dig ourselves out during the next hour as we crept along. We had plenty of gas in the truck’s tank, a portable shelter and a propane heater, so we figured we could tough it through a long, albeit uncomfortable, night out on the ice if it came to that.

Fortunately, in a rare moment when the wind abated, we spotted the glint of reflective tape of an occupied wheel-house.

The anglers had a lake map on the wall and they were able to point out their precise location. Reoriented and paying attention to the wind direction, we were able to feel our way around a couple of islands, a couple of ice heaves, finally reaching the landing where a game warden had parked, his emergency lights flashing as a welcome beacon in the growing darkness. Once upon a time in my youth, the experience likely would have been regarded as high adventure, something to talk about.

But on that evening, I was just relieved to have terra firma once again beneath me as we headed to town where the warmth of our hotel room beckoned.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at jcross@mankatofreepress.com.