Remembering vets, the Fitzgerald, and a deadly storm that caught duck hunters in its crosshairs

On Nov. 11, 1940, a blizzard dropped temperatures from the 60s to single digits in hours and trapped duck hunters across the Upper Midwest. (Iowa DNR photo)

The song still haunts me.

And I have no idea what it would be like to be on a ship in distress a mere 15 miles from the safety of Whitefish Bay, or even what it’s like when the gales of November come early on “Gitche Gumee.”

But, thanks to the song, I feel like I was a part of it. Or at least that I know more about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald; what it might have been like to have been there.

Haunting.

Yesterday (Nov. 10) was the 42nd anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. And thanks to Gordon Lightfoot’s song about the tragedy, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” anyone who has heard it knows the story, whether they were born at the time or not. The tragic story lives on through the lyrics and the vibe of that haunting ballad.

And today (Nov. 11) is the 77th anniversary of the Armistice Day Blizzard, when a storm even more devastating than the one the Edmund Fitzgerald would encounter 35 year later hammered the Midwest – Minnesota and the Upper Midwest in particular. There is no song – at least not that I know of – to tell the story, and few of those who would have been old enough to truly remember the epic storm are around.

But still, we know the story.

That Armistice Day Blizzard also wreaked havoc on the Great Lakes: On Lake Michigan, 66 sailors aboard three freighters and two smaller boats died when their vessels went down in the storm.

The blizzard also proved deadly for duck hunters.

An historic account of the day, according to Wikipedia:

“The morning of November 11, 1940 brought with it unseasonably high temperatures. By early afternoon, temperatures had warmed into the lower to middle 60s over most of the affected region.

“Along the Mississippi River, several hundred duck hunters had taken time off from work and school to take advantage of the ideal hunting conditions. Weather forecasters had not predicted the severity of the oncoming storm, and as a result, many of the hunters were not dressed for cold weather.

“When the storm began, many hunters took shelter on small islands in the Mississippi River, and the 50 mph winds and 5-foot waves overcame their encampments. Some became stranded on the islands and then froze to death in the single-digit temperatures that moved in overnight. Others tried to make it to shore and drowned. Duck hunters constituted about half of the 49 deaths in Minnesota. Those who survived told of how ducks came south with the storm by the thousands, and everybody could have shot their daily limit had they not been focused on survival.

“Snowfall of up to 27 inches, winds of 50 to 80 mph, 20-foot snow drifts, and 50-degree temperature drops were common over parts of Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. In Minnesota, 27 inches of snow fell at Collegeville, and the Twin Cities recorded 16 inches. Record low pressures were recorded in La Crosse, Wis., and Duluth.”

Nov. 11, of course, is Veterans Day – formerly known as Armistice Day. This year, we again remember our veterans. But there’s no forgetting that Nov. 11 of 77 years ago, either.

Song or no song.

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