The weather—that’s what’s on my mind.
What are we Minnesotans known for besides Minnesota nice, hot dishes, and an odd (at least to some) accent? One thing is we’re able to endure harsh winters and make the best of whatever the weather decides to throw at us. Most of all, during the cold snaps, we are known for making it the main topic of conversation.
This past week or more has put us in a deep freeze or, according to the news reports, a “polar vortex.” I don’t think it’s been above zero since February 4, although predictions are that we may see above zero for a high as soon as February 16—quite a long stretch to go with subzero temperatures!
We take it in stride. What’s a Minnesota winter without a good stretch of cold? How we deal with it is a topic worthy of discussion.
Bragging rights top the list. Cold weather is nothing if you don’t have the right to brag that it was colder at your place than at your neighbor’s. It’s the inevitable conversation— one that we’ve had several times over the past week or so when gathered around our kitchen table with friends or relatives, hot cup of coffee or tea in hand.
“What did you have at your place?” The standard question. The question isn’t posed as asking what a person had for dinner, how many guests were over to visit, or what wildlife there was meandering through the yard. No. This seemingly offhand question during a cold snap directly means, “What temperature did you show at your place on your thermometer?” This is where a person pauses, carefully considering their response, hoping to say the right thing to ensure that they win the unofficial lowest-temperature contest. “Well, our digital thermometer showed 32 below… but our outdoor thermometer said 39 below.”
Was the hand well played? Was the opponent undercut? All wait with bated breath. The response: “Well, we showed about 35 below, but I’m not sure if our thermometer is accurate.” That seals the deal. The neighbor has folded their cards and the best low wins! Of course, temperature reports are often fudged by a few degrees to pad them in the reporter’s favor. It’s a game I’ve seen played many times every winter.
Sometimes, after a particularly long cold spell, these general social conventions are skipped altogether as patience wears thin. “Can you believe how cold it is? We had 40 below this morning! This is really getting old.” This leaves the recipient of this comment with no polite way to one-up their friend or neighbor. Best to just let them vent their frustration and agree that, yes, it is cold, and we’ve just about had enough.
Then there’s the classic, “Is it cold enough for ya?” I could answer with any number of snarky retorts, but Minnesotanice guidelines dictate one be tactful, nonconfrontational, and to the point. A simple, “Yup” generally suffices.
What do we do during a cold snap? Some enjoy playing out in the elements with freeze antics (for lack of a better description). Freeze antics can include throwing boiling water from a pan into the cold air to see it evaporate into a mist before your eyes. Another is to pound a nail into a board using a frozen banana or tomato. I haven’t heard much about that cold-weather gag since the record low of February 2, 1996 (as covered in the February 5, 2021, HTF edition). It must have to be in the close to 60-below range to make that activity doable.
Others brave the elements and continue to partake in outdoor activities such as ice fishing and snowmobiling.
The weekend of February 5 was the annual Splash snowmobile ride which originates in Cook and has been held for over 30 years. Riders leave from Cook and take the Littlefork River all the way to the City of Littlefork. From there, they continue north to International Falls where they spend the night, then return to Cook the following day, using a variety of routes to make their way back.
There are typically more than 100 riders who participate—this past year was no exception, despite the subzero forecast. The ride can be hazardous given unknown riding conditions on the river. Some years, the water level is low and ice shelves form, making it more probable to break through into the running water below. Other times the river is slushy or covered in very deep snow—no year is the same.
We played host in our home to the usual bunch of guys who come from southern Minnesota each year to partake in the ride. In all, there were 10 riders who left our home early the morning of February 5 to head north. They had all arrived the evening before and I was happy to finally have the chance to cook for a crowd.
A large batch of beef stroganoff for dinner Thursday evening was all but inhaled by a hungry bunch of guys. As they left from our home early that Friday morning, I made a vow to myself that I was going to stay in pajamas all day, putter around the house, take a nap, snuggle with my puppy, Frieda, and watch movies. Mission accomplished on all counts!
That’s another thing we Minnesotans do. We hunker down, tuck in, hibernate, lay low; whatever name you have for it. I think we’ve been pretty adept at staying home long before it became part of our mandated bumpy lifestyle this past year.
One thing I did a lot over the past week or so was cook. I told the guys I’d have a meal ready for them upon their return Saturday evening. Typically, they eat at a local restaurant on their way home, but with extreme low temperatures predicted, they decided it would be best to get back to home base before sunset. So, while I was able to be a self-imposed bum on Friday, Saturday I went to work making yet another big meal for the guys.
Wild rice soup, chili, corn bread and chocolate chip cookies were on the menu. The variety of hot food was very much appreciated by the guys. By Sunday afternoon, when the last of the crew took off, there was nothing left.
So, during our extreme winters, some of us venture outdoors. Others are content to stay indoors to enjoy leisure time and take advantage of an opportunity to cook, clean, nap, organize; whatever feels right at the time.
It has always fascinated me that, even with the extreme cold we continue to experience year after year, each spring we will once again see the green shoots of plants poking through the last bit of snow, coming to life after months of being stifled under the frozen ground by a heavy blanket of snow. Although, I’ve often been disappointed when perennials, which have made it for many years, fail to show up after a winter. I guess even the hardiest of plants can only take so much.
We make it through each harsh winter with humor, friendship, a common sense of camaraderie, and with the knowledge that we’ll continue to experience the same scenario year after year. Stories and experiences shared from past years remind us that we’ve been through this before, and will continue to do so. We always remember the coldest it ever was, although, if it’s an unofficial report, this is typically open for debate year after year.
Kirsten Reichel lives in Cook. She is a Hometown Focus staff writer and columnist and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.