Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
Armistice Day Snowstorm – Nov. 11, 2013
It may not have been the storm of the century, but the Armistice Day snowstorm of 2013 will certainly do until a better one comes along. The weather predictions for November 11 called for 25 mph NNW winds, steadily falling temperatures throughout the day, and a good chance of some light snow flurries. As forecast; temperatures fell, north winds blew, and the flurries arrived. Conditions for waterfowling were ideal and newly arriving, migrating ducks began showing at daylight. Green as grass, the migrants came to the decoys like cats to catnip.
My decoy rig consisted mainly of canvasback and bluebills with a handful of mallards and teal off to the side. My hope was to lure migrating diving ducks – especially ‘cans or redheads – into the spread. My wishes came true when a group of redheads came burning into the decoys at first light. I collected a bird with each barrel and by the time my Chesapeake Bay retriever had delivered the birds to our blind, more ducks were appearing. The winds increased and temperatures continued to drop. But although the weather was getting colder by the second, the morning duck flight quickly heated to the boiling point. In just seventeen minutes past shooting time, I had bagged my six-bird limit which, in addition to the divers, also included some magnificently colored late season green-winged teal.
Meanwhile, the “light flurries” were suddenly becoming a full fledged winter squall. It was now snowing so hard, in fact, that visibility was reduced to around a quarter mile – or at least that was my best estimate judging by how far I could see down the shoreline. The snowfall intensified and, before long, the ground and trees were white. Ducks increased in number and I spotted several more low flying groups of redheads, including one flock containing upwards or 70 or 80 birds. Visibility being what it was, I began to wonder how many passing ducks I wasn’t able to see due to the weather. I stuck around the blind and drank coffee until mid-morning when I finally picked up and headed home over local roadways that, by now, were 100 percent snow and ice covered.
After arriving home and unloading my gear, I plucked the green-wings and put them in a roaster filled with wild rice, mushrooms, and apple. I decided to go bow hunting for the afternoon, and although I saw a few does, no bucks passed my stand. Around 5 o’clock, Carol slipped the roaster of teal and rice into the oven and supper [That’s what we call the evening meal around our place] was ready when I got home. The green-wings were tender and exceedingly delicious. The meal seemed even more exceptional when we considered the fact that, just hours before, the ducks had been a part of a very spectacular waterfowl migration. I already had a pair of redheads in ‘cold storage’ from the day before, bringing the total to four. Redheads, along with the legendary canvasback, provide unparalleled table quality and we’ll plan on enjoying them tonight. All in all, the splendid Veteran’s Day snowstorm of 2013 will be one for waterfowlers to remember for a long time to come.
ARMISTICE DAY BLIZZARD — NOV. 11, 1940
STORM OF THE CENTURY
Although the Armistice Day snowstorm of 2013 was certainly memorable, it can never compare to one of the greatest storm events in history — the infamous Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940. No contemporary novel or movie script could have contrived a more elaborate backdrop. Picture this — A powerful Western weather system had just topped the Rocky Mountains and was careening eastward toward the Mississippi river. At the same time, a huge Canadian cold air mass was sliding down from the north, while warm moist air pulled up from the south. Call it a Weather Bomb, Widow Maker, Perfect Storm, whatever. Any way you sliced it, the atmospheric brew spelled trouble for the Heartland.
But the trouble was that no one was looking. Primitive by contemporary standards, 1940s weather forecasting was something that most folks put little stock in. In fact, according to the National Weather Service’s own data, no one was even in the building at Chicago’s Mid-west Weather Headquarters during the late night hours of November 10, 1940.
During the wee hours of the following morning, the systems’ combined energy unleashed a storm of unfathomable fury. Barometric pressures plunged to some of the lowest ever recorded, reaching a record 28.92 inches at Charles City, Iowa. By then, the storm had already begun to cut its thousand mile wide path of death and destruction. Within 24 hours the system would become the most famous and disastrous blizzard in U.S. history. A storm without equal, it is remembered as the day the winds descended, the heavens rained ducks, and hunters died.
For mid-western waterfowl hunters, the fall of 1940 was warm and uneventful. And as the doldrums continued into the second week of November, hunters were becoming impatient. Cocking an eye to the North, they watched and waited. Sooner or later the inevitable cold fronts would arrive and birds would move south. For those willing to stick to their marshes, the annual ‘Big Push’ would be a sweet dream.
On November 11, 1940 sportsmen got their wish. But the day was not what gunners had anticipated. Instead of realizing their “sweet dream“, hundreds of waterfowlers suddenly found themselves plunged into a horrific, Stephen King-grade nightmare. Temperatures plummeted from near 60 degrees to below freezing, and then into the single digits — all within a matter of hours.
By the time it concluded, the storm had dropped more than two feet of snow, buried vehicles and roadways beneath 20-foot drifts, killed thousands of Iowa cattle, and destroyed incalculable amounts of poultry — including more than a million Thanksgiving turkeys. All told, the storm claimed 160 human lives. At Winona, Minnesota the city bus barn became a temporary morgue as, one by one, the bodies of frozen duck hunters were retrieved. Since many hunters were from out of town, identification was delayed until bodies thawed and pockets could be searched. The following are accounts from those who were there.
On an island near Harper’s Ferry, sixteen-year-old Jack Meggers was one of the hunters who fought for his life that fateful day. Spending most of his adult life as an Iowa Conservation Commission game warden, Meggers [now deceased] spent literal decades on the water. And although there harrowing moments, no outdoor event remained more deeply etched in his mind than the morning of Nov. 11, 1940.
“It was Armistice Day [now called Veteran’s Day] and we were out of school,” Meggers recalled during a 1995 interview. “Me, my Dad, and two brothers headed out to an island at Harper’s Ferry. One of the things I remember most is that, just before the storm hit, the sky turned all orange. It’s hard to explain, but I remember that it was really strange.”
The big winds arrived suddenly, Meggers recalled, and with the wind came ducks. Not just a flock here or a flock there, but rather hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands. It was a scene seldom witnessed. A scene,that in terms of sheer magnitude, will never be repeated.
“We’d never seen anything like it,” said Meggers. “When the ducks arrived, they came in unending waves and they came in all species.”
“Those ducks were all flying about this high off the water [his hand indicates waist high] and they were all doing about 90 miles an hour with that wind.”
The Meggers party lost no time in taking advantage of the astonishing flight. But although waterfowl continued to pour down in unending supply, connecting with the wind driven birds presented a major challenge. The boys concentrated so hard on the task at hand, that none of them seemed to notice [or care?] as the winds began to attain hurricane force.
“All of a sudden, Dad said, ‘ Grab the decoys — We’re getting out of here.’ But we were throwing an awful lot of ammunition into the air, and none of us wanted to quit. The sky was just full of ducks,” said Meggers. “Finally Dad said, ‘Grab the decoys NOW or we’re leaving without them. That‘s when we began to see how bad it [the weather] was getting.”
Meggers’ father had made the right call. In addition to raging winds and unfathomable legions of ducks, the storm had also began to deliver pelting rain which quickly turned to sleet, then heavy snow. Visibility dropped to near zero as hunters all up and down the Great River struggled — many unsuccessfully — to return to shore.
“It was really rough. By the time we finally made it to the shoreline, you couldn’t even see the shoreline,” Meggers recalled. “By then, the combination of snow and wind was just incredible. Our group made it back. But not everyone did.”
Just one island away from where the Meggers party hunted, a father and two sons were equally mesmerized by the arriving swarms of waterfowl. Lured into staying beyond the point of no return, their shallow draft duck boat proved no match for the wind and waves. As visibility and daylight faded, the hunters found themselves stranded.
“The oldest son was a college athlete,” Meggers continued. “When things started getting tough [probably the onset of hypothermia] he told his younger brother to jump to stay warm. Every time the younger kid quit jumping, his brother would punch him. The Dad and older brother died on that island. The younger brother just kept on jumping through the night. They rescued him the next day. His legs were frozen hard as wood below both knees and he lost them. He was the sole survivor of his group.”
“That kid was 16, same as me,” said Meggers. “I’ll never forget what happened that day on the river.” A short distance downstream, four more hunters died during the night on an island near Marquette.
For as long as he can remember, Clear Lake’s Max Christensen has been an avid waterfowler. Today, it seems more than a little ironic that Christensen nearly missed out on history’s greatest duck hunt.
“I still remember nearly every detail from that day,” Christensen begins. “I was a high school senior when the November 11 snowstorm arrived in Ventura, Iowa. I lived on a farm and we hadn’t even had a frost yet. The livestock was still in the fields and all the poultry was still outside.”
“I got on the bus at eight o’clock, wearing just a light jacket. The bus driver was Max Millhouse, and I always sat right behind him because he liked to talk about hunting. As we got closer to school every cornfield had little cyclones of feeding ducks. The closer we got to Clear Lake, the more we saw. There were so many ducks that it was almost eerie.”
“By the time we arrived at Ventura, I had already decided to head back home. There were just too many ducks in the air to be in school. Max [the bus driver] suddenly announced he was going with me.”
“When we got back to my house, the storm was coming up fast and my folks were trying to get the chickens inside. We helped, and so instead of being in trouble for skipping school, I was a hero.”
“With that finished, we went to a nearby 30-acre marsh,” said Christensen. “It was already snowing when we got there, and at first we didn’t see anything on the slough. I thought — ‘Oh No, the ducks left.’ Then we saw something move, and suddenly realized what was happening. That slough was completely covered in ducks — so many that you couldn’t see any water or make out individual birds. We started shooting, and it was something. Every duck on that slough was a mallard. You can‘t even imagine what it was like.”
“The storm really picked up and Max announced that he was heading back while he still could. I went to a different marsh closer to home and kept hunting. I don’t think it would have mattered where you went that day, every place was full of ducks. They were everywhere.”
“The snow finally got so bad that I had to take my ducks and walk for home,” said Christensen. “A school bus came down the road, but it couldn’t make it in the snow and had to turn back. Before leaving, it dropped off 17 school kids at our house. They had to spend the night.”
When Christensen entered his farmstead, he was informed that a Garner dentist by the name of Doc Hayes had parked in the yard and then walked to a nearby marsh. Since he hadn’t returned, the hunter was feared lost. Tossing caution to the winds, Christensen immediately launched a daring rescue.
“I knew I had to try and find him,” relates Christensen. “I was young and didn’t think of any danger. I had a good idea of where Doc would have been hunting and started up a fenceline that led from the buildings. I don’t think I could see more than 15 feet in front of me, that’s how bad it was.”
“I found Doc Hayes on that fenceline. He was just standing there, stuck in a drift. He couldn’t move. When I got up to him, he started crying. ‘I thought I was dead,’ he said to me. I took his gun and a big bunch of ducks and we started back. I told him to step in my tracks. I broke the trail, and our tracks would disappear almost instantly.”
“When we got home, my Dad and all those school kids were already in the basement picking my ducks. I don’t know how many mallards were down there, but it was a lot. It was really something. We still had fresh tomatoes from the garden, all those ducks, and snow drifts piling up outside,” said Christensen.
“The next day we shoveled out Doc’s Cadillac which was buried in the yard. When we reached the road, something moved in the snow. I had shoveled out a live coot. That bird had lit on the road and become buried in a drift. The coot was just fine and flew away.”
Although the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 remains one of the most famous storms in history, few known artifacts of the event remain. Among the most interesting are a matched pair of wooden redhead ducks manufactured by the Mason Decoy Company. The decoys were discovered by Vern Haugen on Worth County’s Rice Lake. Still attending elementary school in 1940, Haugen’s parents would not allow the youngster to participate in America’s most famous duck hunt. But after the storm had passed, Haugen explored the lake by canoe and found the abandoned decoys floating on the far side of a dislodged floating bog. The decoys’ original owners were never determined, and the blocks have remained in the Haugen family’s possession ever since.