Inside the Outdoors: Tales, and gales, of November

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If you were to pick one month out of the twelve that seems more forbidding than the others — perhaps even dangerous — November would be a good choice. November ushers in a harsh changeover from a time that is warm, comfortable and benign, to a time increasingly inhospitable to creatures wild and tame, plant or animal. To cope with the climatic extremes that lie ahead, some life goes dormant. Some life exits via migration. Other life has somehow become adapted to tough it out through impending winter, in a place that could easily pass for America's Siberia.

The transition is often less than a peaceful one. "The gales of November" is an expression familiar to many of us who were teenagers or older and listening to popular music in 1975. Familiar in part, because powerful song lyrics have a way of embedding themselves in your mind. This one — "the gales of November" — was powerful not because it was particularly clever, or poetic. Its power came from what this music by Canadian songwriter and performer Gordon Lightfoot was about. The song commemorated the then-recent sinking of the Great Lakes iron ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down while carrying Taconite ore pellets across Lake Superior to Detroit.

The Fitzgerald went down in a massive storm, one that made Lake Superior as dangerous as any ocean. Last Friday, Nov. 10, was the 42nd anniversary of the sinking of the huge freighter, called "the pride of the American side" by songwriter Lightfoot, and the loss of all hands; 29 seamen to be exact.

Thirty-five years before the Edmund Fitzgerald went down — almost to the day, on November 11, 1940 — the nation was celebrating the date in 1918 when The Great War came to an end. It was then called Armistice Day, when the official end to fighting — the armistice — took effect. Only later would this national holiday be changed to Veteran's Day to honor military veterans in all conflicts, not just to celebrate the end of World War I.

November 11, 1940, would come to symbolize not just the end to military hostilities in a war a generation in the past, but the arrival of weather hostilities that threatened life and limb in an entirely different manner. Many Minnesotans were off work due to the holiday. This being a state that was bristling with avid duck hunters, many would be out in the hope of intercepting late migrants before they were beyond our borders on their southward migration.

Weather forecasting for Minnesota and much of the Upper Midwest was then headquartered in Chicago. It could be imprecise, at best. That day's forecast was for "a moderate cold wave warning." But weather the previous day — Sunday, when many holiday plans were no doubt being made — was balmy, with temperatures in the 40's over most of Minnesota; even 50 degrees in the Southeast. Monday, Nov. 11, began with temperatures above freezing in the Twin Cities and elsewhere. A fine day for a late season duck hunt!

We tend to expect severe weather from the Northeast or Northwest, but this weather system was flowing up from Iowa on a Northeasterly track. During the morning a light rain turned to sleet, and then to snow, and the temperature began to go down instead of up. By afternoon the temperature had plummeted from just above freezing to 15 degrees as registered in the Twin Cities. The wind that had been steadily building rose to a sustained 30 miles per hour over a wide swath of the state, with gusts up to 40 miles per hour. Some hunters with small boats, ill-equipped to handle the waves, were forced — or chose — to wait it out rather than risk swamping and drowning.

The third element of this storm of the century, snow, was soon added to the mix of wind and plummeting temperature. During a 12-hour period from early November 11 to the morning of November 12, more than two feet of snow fell over much of Central and Northern Minnesota, and almost a foot and a half of snow in the five-county Twin City area. The fierce, unrelenting wind whipped the heavy snow into drifts that immobilized vehicular traffic, even trains. The state basically came to a standstill. In the end, 49 Minnesotans died in the weather event that defined "blizzard" in the 20th century in our state; roughly half were duck hunters.

A similar event touched me and my lifelong duck hunting partner a quarter of a century ago. It hardly seems possible that it could be that distant in time, but the math doesn't lie. It was not officially a November event, since it began on October 31, but the timing is close enough for me.

My partner and I prefer late season duck hunting, and this trip was planned for the first three days of November. Jim was to arrive on the evening of Halloween. We would venture forth the next morning for several days of awaiting ducks over our decoys, hoping to harvest enough for at least a handful of game dinners in the weeks and months ahead.

The storm that stymied our plans was really a combination of two storms. One part of this toxic meteorological cocktail was a strong Canadian cold front that formed over the North Atlantic off the Canadian Maritime provinces. As it moved westward it collided with the northward-tracking remains of Hurricane Grace, which by then had been downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane after it left the tropics.

This storm came ashore in New England and headed west to the Great Lakes states. When it hit Minnesota it dropped as much as 36 inches of snow from the Twin Cities — where my partner lives — southward, and more than a foot of snow here where I live. My hunting partner was stranded as vehicular traffic came to a halt, not to mention the "digging out" he had to do over the next day and more. Our duck hunting plans for the first days of November were scuttled. The probability that any significant numbers of ducks remained after the storm were slim and none, and — as one of my other friends would say — "Slim just left town."

Minnesotans were spared any weather-caused casualties, but in all, 12 people died. Six of the 12 lost their lives when their commercial fishing vessel was caught in the storm offshore in the Atlantic and sank. If you've not guessed already, this 1991 event was the inspiration for the book The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, later made into a movie that starred heartthrob George Clooney.

I, however, knew it as "the perfect ruination of a duck hunt."