Jan. 12, 1888, dawned mild and bright, with no indication the day would forever be marked by one of Minnesota’s most devastating winter storms. By midafternoon, blinding snow had descended, along with 60 mile-per-hour winds. In places, the temperature dropped to 40 below.
The so-called Children’s Blizzard got its name from the many youngsters who froze to death after being sent home from school and losing their way. Raging across the Midwest, the storm took perhaps 500 lives.
“Some died within shouting distance of their own front doors because the weather was so brutal and furious,” said Bill Convery, the Minnesota Historical Society’s director of research.
This area’s early Native inhabitants and first European settlers had reason to hate winter. Back then, the season was something to survive.
With the advent of electricity, Doppler radar and anti-lock brakes, we’ve come a long way from the days when prairie homesteaders tied ropes from the front porch to the outhouse to ensure they could find their way in a blizzard.
So, why, when most of us have little more at stake than a slow commute, do many Minnesotans say they dislike winter? And when did a season that was once a source of pride become something to flee?
Paradoxically, the shift arrived in an era where winters are demonstrably less harsh, said Paul Douglas, Star Tribune meteorologist. “It’s ironic that as our winters shrink and warm somewhat over time that we complain more about them,” he said.
In the state’s early decades, enduring winter was a source of accomplishment.
Convery cited the 1886 creation of St. Paul’s Winter Carnival as a way locals thumbed their collective noses at the East Coast newspaper correspondents who compared Minnesota to Siberia, and called it unfit for human habitation.
“Historically, Minnesotans have gone out of their way to embrace their winter culture,” he said.
A recent transplant from Colorado, Convery surmises that Minnesotans who do welcome the state’s harsh winters — flush with persistent snow, overcast skies and subzero temps — do so out of psychological necessity.
“Minnesotans go into the winter with sort of this gloomy perspective, but then there’s an act of defiance that takes place where Minnesotans can turn around and embrace their own hardihood and their ability to withstand it,” he said. “And they go outside and enjoy themselves and play sports like hockey or curling. It feels like there’s kind of a sense that we celebrate winter because the alternative is too hard to bear.”
Climatologist Mark Seeley, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and author of “Minnesota Weather Almanac,” said he’s seen attitudes about winter shift largely in the southern part of the state, which has been most affected by climate change, since he arrived here in the late 1970s.
Southern Minnesota’s once-continuous snow cover is more frequently disrupted by mild spells, as the state’s average low temperatures in winter have risen by several degrees and winter rainstorms have become more frequent, Seeley said.
Some of the things previous generations used to be able to do — play a full season of hockey outdoors, haul heavy manure wagons across frozen fields — aren’t always possible now.
“I think there’s almost a regretful attitude that we’ve lost winter,” Seeley said. “The old-fashioned winter of Minnesota, at least in the southern part of the state, has become so disrupted that you can’t count on it anymore.”
When Douglas moved to Minnesota in the early 1980s, he said the locals possessed “a pervasive grudging acceptance of winter.” The season was viewed as part of the landscape, he said, and it was understood that the best way to get through it was to get out and enjoy the snow.
Over the decades, as countless Minnesotans have reacted to his forecasts, Douglas said he’s hearing greater disenchantment with winter.
“I think there are a handful of factors that have conspired to take the bloom off the rose when it comes to embracing winter,” he said.
Traffic, TikTok to blame
One reason Douglas thinks many of us have soured on snow is increased traffic, which has roughly tripled since 1970. This leads to more sluggish, harrowing winter commutes.
“What was once magical — ‘Hey, a snow day!’ and ‘It looks like a storybook out there!’ — now defaults to, ‘Uh-oh, this is going to make my drive into the city a white-knuckle slog,’ ” Douglas said.
He cites digital media as another culprit behind waning winter enthusiasm: Most American children spend hours a day in front of a screen and mere minutes on outdoor play.
“When I was a kid, parents would turn their kids loose in the neighborhood and just say, ‘Go out and play and don’t come back until you’re cold and numb,’ ” he said. “Young people now are afraid they’re going to miss something on TikTok or Instagram or Facebook or whatever, so they feel maybe more compelled to cling to their phones and less compelled to go outside and just enjoy the day.”
Winter recreation also isn’t what it used to be.
Frequent warm fronts have melted many a snow-sculpting contest and broomball tournament in recent years, and made it difficult to plan vacations around snowmobiling or skiing. Douglas described modern winters as “less reliable or durable,” because they lack the consistent snow cover that was prevalent into the early ’80s.
“We’ve lost that sense of certainty that we’re going to have snow on the ground from roughly Halloween through March,” he said. “Most winters are fickle.”
Another factor driving the dissing of winter may stem from unfamiliarity. Minnesota’s population of foreign-born residents — many of whom hail from warmer climes — has quadrupled since 1990.
While Minnesota’s first settlers emigrated mostly from countries with established winter traditions, the majority of today’s newcomers come from Mexico, East Africa and South Asia. New Minnesotans who haven’t experienced cold weather can find it intimidating, and may lack the gear and skills to go skiing or ice skating.
There’s also the democratization of air travel, which began in the 1970s with the introduction of jumbo jets. Cheaper airfares made midwinter escapes more accessible for middle-class Minnesotans, who could trade frostbite for flip-flops with a few hours’ time and a few hundred dollars.
Douglas cited our modern lifestyles of instant gratification and convenience as yet another reason why winter sends so many reeling: We’ve become so accustomed to doing what we want, when we want, that we bristle at the slightest disruption.
“In this era of ‘me me me’ and ‘I’ve got to get here’ and ‘I’ve got to run the kids there,’ a snowstorm is a poignant reminder that we are not in control and not in charge,” Douglas said. “The weather gets in the way, many times, of our plans and our lives, and I think that may create a little bit of simmering resentment.”
If there were ever a year for Minnesotans to reembrace winter, this would be it.
During the virus-beleaguered months we’ll spend mostly confined to home, the outdoors will be among the few safe respites.
And if there’s anyone who can teach us to love winter, it’s the Scandinavians, who savor the season to such a degree that their babies nap outdoors, bundled in their prams, even in subzero temps.
The Norwegians refer to this cultural affinity for spending time outdoors as friluftsliv, (pronounced free-loofts-liv) or “open-air living.” And you don’t have to be an arctic explorer or sled-dog racer to be an adherent. Enjoying a wintry walk with a hot beverage in hand counts, too. The key to friluftsliv is adopting an outdoor-oriented attitude.
Kari Leibowitz, a Ph.D. student at Stanford, spent time in the far-north city of Tromsø, where rates of seasonal depression are lower than expected for a place where the sun stays below the horizon for several months.
Leibowitz’s research found that participants’ relationship with winter — whether they saw it as something wonderful to be enjoyed or something boring and limiting — predicted how they experienced the season.
Those who relished the chilly months reported better life satisfaction and mental health. In fact, participants who lived farthest north — where winters were harshest — showed the most positive mind-set, on average.
King of Cold
For inspiration on adopting a friluftsliv lifestyle, we need look no further than local entrepreneur Eric Dayton, Minnesota’s de facto King of Cold and informal leader of a movement to make the state’s much-maligned weather its “coolest” attribute.
“There’s no question that time outside and time in nature is good for us on a physical level, on a mental level and even perhaps on a spiritual level,” Dayton said. “And I think we’re recognizing that those benefits are needed now more than ever in the time of COVID.”
Physically distancing ourselves can be psychologically isolating, Dayton noted, making it even more important to find safe ways to experience the social connections vital to our species. “We have to be creative and maybe a little bit adventurous in spirit to accomplish that,” he said.
A few of Dayton’s community-building suggestions — midwinter outdoor dinners, concerts and films — have already been successful during the Great Northern festival he helped found. These typically indoor activities can translate outdoors if we stretch our idea of what’s possible in winter, he explained.
“Some of these things that we may not think of as winter activities can actually be made all the more memorable by having that experience in winter,” Dayton said.
The key to enjoying a winter spent outdoors is staying warm, of course. Dayton refined his strategies for staving off the cold during a monthslong expedition to the Arctic Circle with Will Steger years ago.
First and foremost is dressing in breathable layers and well insulated footwear (Dayton swears by Steger mukluks). Second is to keep moving — even light motion helps. Third is to bring snacks to fuel yourself with a quick calorie infusion. “Think about your body as a little wood burning stove,” Dayton explained. “You want to keep the fire burning.”
One more suggestion Dayton picked up when he watched the Vikings lose to the Seattle Seahawks at TCF Bank Stadium, in 4-below temps: Sit or stand on a chunk of Styrofoam to buffer the cold.
But one of the important aspects of cultivating a positive winter mind-set, Dayton said, is avoiding negative small talk about the season and surrounding yourself with others who appreciate winter.
In Dayton’s case, that’s his three young sons, who intuitively think winter is fun. “You don’t have to try to sell them on it,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Bundle me up! I want to get outside! I want to go play in the snow!’ ”
Dayton said he doesn’t want to diminish the difficulties some people experience with winter, but hopes Minnesotans will be able to experience friluftsliv as much as possible.
“I’m rooting for all of us to be able to find ways to enjoy time outside, in spite of the challenges,” he said, “because I think it’s just going to be critically important to making the next however many months not just bearable, but hopefully healthy and enjoyable.”