Tuesday, January 1, 2008

34 Years Ago This Morning

Thirty four years ago this morning, January 1, 1974, the air temperature in my hometown of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, dipped to a chilly -62 degrees F. I distinctly remember spitting as I walked from our barn to the house after milking cows. The saliva was a little crystal of ice before it hit the snow, as if it was right out of Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire."

The erstwhile news reporter on WJMC radio in Rice Lake reported that outside it was -62 degrees at the local airport, about as "official" a reading as you could expect.

Being in northern Wisconsin in winter we kept our cars warm and easily started by plugging in a head bolt heater. I waited that morning until about 10:00 when it had warmed up into the mid 40 below range and took off to check beaver traps set on a colony along Pokegama Creek a few miles from home. To get to them I strapped on snow shoes and, along with my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, hiked 1 1/2 miles from the road to the beaver colony where I discovered that I had caught two animals. One, a 60 pound female was entirely encased in ice. The other, a 30 pound yearling, was almost as ice-covered. Removing them from the traps and cleaning as much ice as possible from them, I put the carcasses in my backpack and began the snowshoe trek back out.

I had dressed quite warmly that morning but on the way back out, with 90 pounds of beaver in my pack and probably 40 pounds of ice encrusting them, I started shedding clothes as I walked. By the time I reached my car I was down to a long-sleeved insulated t-shirt on my upper body. Even still the steam was pouring off me as I walked.

Three years later, on January 17, 1977, during one of the more brutal winters of recent history, the temperature in Rice Lake dipped to -60 degrees, and several times in the 1990s I'd check in at home and be told that the temperature had dropped to the mid-50 below range. As my mom used to say, "What's the big deal? It's Wisconsin."

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