“Alexa, how cold is it?” Frank Walsh asked Tuesday morning from the cozy comfort of the house he shares with his wife, Laura, on Oak Island of Lake of the Woods in Minnesota’s Northwest Angle.
“It’s minus 27 degrees,” the trusty Amazon virtual assistant replied in her trusty Amazon virtual assistant voice.
The old tune, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” could be the song of the week as the region finds itself firmly immersed in a polar vortex for the next couple of days as low temperatures dip into the minus 30 Fahrenheit range.
Nippy, for sure, but it’s been nippier, Walsh and a handful of area residents said, recalling memories of cold weather or extreme winter storms.
Yes, it’s bad, people, but take comfort:
It could be worse.
Owner of Walsh’s Bay Store Camp on Oak Island, Walsh, 65, says he recalls a winter in the mid-’90s when the actual air temperature up at the Northwest Angle flirted with 60 below zero.
The electricity was out for three solid days, and only a small diesel generator kept them in heat, Walsh says; burning wood also helped.
“Anybody who didn’t have a generator was totally frozen,” Walsh said. “We survived most everything. I think I had some cabin issues—some things freezing up a little bit—but I think house-wise, we were OK. (Thanks to the) combination of the diesel generator and the fact we were burning wood.”
Some people even had to light bags of charcoal under their propane tanks to heat them up and keep the liquid from gelling, which happens in extreme cold temperatures, Walsh says.
“It seems like when we got here—I’m sure not a climate change guy—but it seems like we had a lot colder weather,” said Walsh, who has lived on Oak Island since 1994. “I think we had almost a month of 40 below nights and 20 below days.
“It could have been my first or second winter, but we rarely see 30 below anymore, let alone extended 40 below.”
Stuart Bensen of Erskine, Minn., was a young conservation officer for the Department of Natural Resources still in his 20s when he got a call to do a welfare check on a fisherman who hadn’t returned from Lake of the Woods.
The air temperature was about 25 below zero that winter day in the early to mid 1980s, said Bensen, who was stationed in Roseau, Minn.; any windchill would have made conditions on the big lake’s vast expanse even worse.
Bensen, along with the late DNR conservation officer Al Markovich, set out by snowmobiles from Warroad, Minn., and found the fisherman dead of natural causes in a fish house somewhere south of the Northwest Angle, a distance of some 30 miles by snowmobile.
They towed the body back to Warroad on a sled. The cold was so brutal, Bensen says, that he actually froze one of his top front teeth.
“It was like (Tuesday)—very blustery out there,” Bensen, 61, said. “By the time I got back—we probably found (the fisherman) midday—that evening the pain started.”
He underwent a root canal and eventually had the tooth crowned.
“It was quite a process,” Bensen said. “People are fortunate if they don’t have to go out in these elements. They’re smart not to go out in these elements. No matter what amount of clothing you put on, you feel it come through every seam.”
Climbing the roofs
The infamous March Blizzard of 1966 stands out for Marilyn Hagerty, a veteran Herald columnist now in her 90s; not so much for the cold as for the snow, which brought the region to a screeching halt.
Grand Forks received 27.8 inches of snow in the March 2-5, 1966, storm, according to the National Weather Service.
Schools were closed for several days, and Hagerty’s children and the neighbor kids on the 1500 block of Cottonwood Street in Grand Forks took advantage of the break to play outside.
The drifts were high enough for the kids to climb up on the roof of a single-story house on the street, Hagerty recalls.
Apparently, plenty of other kids in town had the same idea.
“They started announcing on the radio that kids shouldn’t be climbing on the roofs of houses,” Hagerty said. “These kids are all in their late 50s or 60s now, and they still remember the good time we had.”
Whether a couple of cold days in January 2019 turn into the stuff of legends remains to be seen, but the current cold snap definitely won’t pass the coldest air temperature ever recorded in North Dakota, which is 60 below zero on Feb. 15, 1936, in Parshall.
The weather observer was C.E. Schubert, who was married to the aunt of retired Herald editor and publisher Mike Jacobs.
“He was a great storyteller, and this was one of his great stories,” Jacobs said. “The air was clear, calm, and he knew it was cold. He said he spit, and it froze before it reached the ground.”
Top that one, Alexa.