Arctic Nights, North Dakota Days : Harsh Weather Just Another Fact of Life for Hardy Locals

Times Staff Writer

A couple of dozen farmers took shelter in the small cafe and played cards as the wind howled outside. The temperature was 15 below, the wind chill minus 45.

"Warm day," allowed the operator of the local grain elevator, Hank Schaack, 53. "It was 38 below last week with the wind chill of 74. Sometimes it gets so cold in Starkweather it turns your eyeballs."

Half the farmers were playing a card game called Smear, the other half a card game called Buck Euchre, as is their custom nearly every winter afternoon at Kathleen Besse's K-B Cafe. Besse, 83, has owned and operated the eatery since 1931.

"One good thing about a day like this, the mosquitoes aren't biting," farmer Dave Anders, 55, said with a laugh as the cafe owner made her rounds refilling the card players' cups with hot coffee.

High school athletic teams in Starkweather, population 210, are called Storm Kings and Storm Queens.

Cruel, cold, blustery winters are a way of life in North Dakota, the heart of the great central prairie where there are no mountains to break the fast-moving Arctic storms coming out of Canada. The storms blow in so fast locals call them Alberta Clippers.

Residents of the sparsely populated state (660,000) are hearty souls braving some of the coldest day-in, day-out winter-long temperatures recorded in America, as well as some of the fiercest storms.

And, the end is nowhere in sight. March in North Dakota is traditionally the month of the year's worst blizzards. North Dakota has blizzards in April. Sometimes in May.

It's so cold in North Dakota that undertakers place the dead in unheated concrete holding buildings at local cemeteries to await burial during the spring thaw. The ground here this winter is frozen four- to six-feet deep.

In Jack Case's "Etc." column on the front page of the Bismarck Tribune the other day, Case's parting peroration was:

"What's black and blue and bloody and crawls on its hands and knees in the gutter?

"The next S.O.B. who asks if it's cold enough for me."

In Bismarck, the state's capital, upwards of 500 hikers show up every day as early as 6 in the morning to get their exercise in the warmth of the Kirkwood Mall. Shops open at 10 a.m. but the front door of the mall is opened four hours earlier to accommodate the "wall walkers."

"They call us wall walkers because we walk through the corridors along the shop walls where distances are marked from one point to another," explained Wendelin Doll, 66, who walks eight miles a day inside the warm building. "Walking outside in this cold weather is unthinkable," he added.

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At Grafton (pop. 5,300), one of the coldest spots in the state, four mailmen are "out in it" no matter how unthinkable the weather every weekday. They each walk about 12 miles a day. They are Dennis Lykken, 44, 18 years on the job; Gene Pribula, 48, 27 years; Jim Byzewski, 44, 18 years, and Bob Mlcoch, 43, 21 years.

They claim to have the coldest foot-mail route in the nation.

"It's not an easy life, let me tell you," Lykken sighed. "People say they get used to North Dakota cold. The four of us have been out in it for years and we will never get used to it.

"We freeze our faces several times each year. It happens on a day when maybe the temperature is zero or as high as 10 above and there's no wind and we forget our protective face masks and a sudden Arctic storm blows in. Freezing your face is like getting a bad sunburn. The skin blisters and peels off."

Each Grafton mailman wears long johns, three pairs of trousers, a heavy shirt, two sweaters, a parka with a hood, boots and gloves. The snow and ice never melts all winter in most places in North Dakota.

"The post office shows us films every year how to fall on ice, what to do when you're going down," explained Lykken. "Trouble is we don't have the time to think about the right way to fall when we slip on the ice."

At Pembina (population 700), the coldest weather station in the state, weatherman George Motl, 52, who also runs the local water plant, noted that the lowest temperature in town was below zero every day from Dec. 16 to Feb. 20, and the highest temperature was below freezing every day from Dec. 16 to Feb. 20. Wind chill has been as low as minus 90 this February in Pembina.

On Feb. 21, the town had its first break in cold weather in nearly two months when it warmed up to a low of 10 above and a high of 33. This past Tuesday, however, the temperature again plummeted to below zero as the state was raked by blizzards.

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North Dakota is wide-open spaces, mile after mile of grain farms and a sprinkling of tiny towns, each with a grain elevator. The wind seldom lets up.

Snow is blown from one end of the state to the other almost incessantly. The countryside is desolate, empty and cold in winter with lonely farmhouses, barns and graineries dotting the prairie.

Ronnie Feltman, 29, of Warsaw has been clearing Walsh County roads of blowing snow with a motor grader every day since last October. On Saturday afternoons, Feltman and 11 of his friends drive their snowcats down the frozen Red River on "poker runs."

A poker run is a popular pastime with farmers and rural residents. They drive their snowcats in a group to a bar, buy a beer and pull an old card from a deck. They go to five different bars scattered through the countryside, pull five cards. At the end of the afternoon they see who has the best poker hand. The bet is $5 each; the lowest hand wins $30, the highest hand $30.

Emil Langowski, 56, an employee of the Walsh County Road Department, spends his winters shoveling ice off railroad tracks crossing county roads. "If a train derails and the railroad can show that it was a county fault for not clearing the ice where a track crosses a road, they can have us for damages," the Minto resident said.

At Nash Elementary School in Nash (population 40), the 23 first- through eighth-graders may go outside for recess if it isn't any colder than 10 below and the wind is quiet. The school's four kindergarteners do not have outside recess in winter.

Kindergarten teacher Linda Johnston, 33, left Nash with her 2-year-old and 5-year-old in her car a few weeks ago to drive to Grafton 10 miles away. All of a sudden a storm blew in.

"I could not see the front of my car. I could not see to turn around and go back. I backed up my car the 1 1/2 miles to the Nash school. It took me nearly an hour. I was terrified," Johnston recalled.

"What terrified me is that we are told to get out of the car and check the tailpipe to be sure it isn't plugged up, which could cause carbon monoxide poisoning. No way could I get out of the car in that storm. I was lucky I didn't back into anybody."

Attorney Gary Thune, 42, of Grand Forks described the sudden storms as "life-threatening stuff. If your automobile stalls, ice forms on the whole inside of the car. It's like a freezer. If you're out in the country and you leave your car to find a farm with the wind blowing the snow around, blinding your way, you may well freeze to death."

Every year people freeze to death while stranded in storms on lonely North Dakota roads.

At Hector Field, the Grand Forks airport, there's a huge billboard with the words in giant letters: CALIFORNIA, ARIZONA, FLORIDA. The sign shows the front end of a Northwest Orient jet and people in swimsuits under sunny skies at the beach. There are no other words on the sign. It isn't necessary.

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Hundreds of grain farms across the state are locked up and abandoned for the winter with the farmers escaping to warmer climes until the spring thaw. Not all farmers are so lucky. Many tough out the winters, especially those with livestock like Sharon Blumhagen, 41, and her husband, Jerome, 45, at Harvey (population 2,527).

In summer, Jerome Blumhagen grows grain on his 1,700 acres. In winter, he struggles to keep his animals fed, milked, in good health. Sharon Blumhagen milks the family's 30 cows at sunup and at sundown. She feeds the cows each evening with the help of her 12-year-old daughter, Traci, and spreads hay when they finish in their stalls to bed them down.

Jerome Blumhagen cleans the animals and the barn. He takes the cows out in the cold to give them exercise. "But I can't leave them out too long," he said.

His 85 head of beef remain outdoors, but he must watch them closely as well. He feeds them daily in the cold. He brings newly born calves into the barn to prevent them from freezing. Every winter, he loses a couple of animals from the weather.

Why does he do it?

"I enjoy farming. I enjoy the land, the open spaces. I love this country up here and our way of life. People are honest in North Dakota. We don't have to lock our doors. We feel safe. It is the only life I know," he explained.

"In winter, sure, it's a struggle. A struggle to save the cattle, to keep them going so that I will have something to sell later in the year to pay the bills."

The North Dakotans are a sturdy lot. People like Clara Krahler, 95, in Fessenden (population 761), who never misses a local high school basketball game in winter, although it means walking three blocks through the cold snow.

She likes to walk in the cold and snow.

And the ice fishing folks at Devils Lake and the other frozen rivers and lakes who drill holes with ice augers through four feet of frozen water, bait their hooks, drop their lines and wait at times for hours in the cold before they get a bite.

Newspapers run daily listings of activities going on in North Dakota's small cities and tiny towns--it is important that people avoid cabin fever and get out of their houses. "Those who never leave the house get a lot of depression," said Mert Armstrong, 54, executive director of the Mental Health Assn. of North Dakota. "We encourage people to join clubs, to be active."

She told of "pity parties" where residents of rural areas get together and air their complaints at a social gathering. "They sit around feeling sorry for themselves during the long winter--people feeling sorry for themselves getting together and hearing out one another's complaints, having a lot of good laughs, having a good time and feeling much better for it the next day."

Life is difficult, indeed, for those who brave the outdoors as a daily diet like North Dakota's firefighters. House fires are common in severe winter weather.

"Many people have switched from fuel to wood-burning stoves because of the high energy cost," noted Grand Forks Battalion Chief Clarence Coss, 58, who has 39 years' service in the department. "Their chimneys fill up with creosote, which now and then suddenly goes off like a blowtorch.

"Fighting fires is no picnic in 20-, 30- and 40-below temperatures, on a day when the wind chill is 60-, 70- or 80-below. Hose lines freeze up. When water hits the fire it condenses into steam. As soon as water hits the ground it freezes. We slip and slide all over the place. Hoses freeze to the ground. We have a hell of a time finding fire hydrants covered with snow."

Yet, Coss wouldn't move to a warmer climate on a bet. "I've been to 36 states. I wouldn't trade one of them for North Dakota. That includes California and Florida. Sure we have tough winters. But we know how to dress for them. We know how to cope with it.

"You live through a North Dakota winter and spring is like being in heaven. Spring, summer and fall in this country can't be beat. And, you know, it feels good in winter to be inside out of the terrible cold. I like the four seasons."

In Harvey, scraping the ice off the windows of her car as she does every day all winter, Mavis Kanwischer, 63, a grocery store clerk, mused:

"Everybody in North Dakota spends all winter dreaming of spring. . . . "

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