1940 Armistice Day Blizzard: A reminder for hunters to be prepared

1940 Armistice Day Blizzard: a reminder for hunters to be prepared    

By Babe Winkelman

Hunting fatalities are a fact of life. Like clockwork, they happen every year. Like clockwork, they are written about, talked about, cried about and, for many of us, forgotten about. But they shouldn’t be forgotten, for they are a window through which enlightenment shines. We hunters can learn from our mistakes.

When I think about the perils of hunting, one date always comes to mind: Nov. 11, 1940. That’s because the Armistice Day blizzard is impossible to forget. More than 160 people died throughout the Midwest that day, many of whom were hardcore duck hunters.  

Ducks by the thousands poured into the Mississippi River watershed along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. A storm was brewing -- a big storm -- and the birds were on the move, winging ahead of its mighty wrath. Late-season duck hunting along any river system can be awfully good, often times offering up the season’s best hunting. The Mississippi is no exception. But such late-season hunts can be awfully dangerous, too.

In an era of unreliable weather forecasts, most duck hunters on that fateful day didn’t have a clue what was in store for them. The morning started innocently enough. In fact, few birds were in the area, say duck hunters who’ve recounted the day in numerous newspapers and magazines over the years.

The sky was mostly clear, the winds were light and temperature was unseasonably warm -- around 50 degrees, perhaps warmer. Many hunters dressed light, opting to leave their cold-weather waterfowling gear behind. Some even dressed in short sleeves.

The storm – often called the blizzard of the century -- resulted from a collision of a strong high-pressure system from Canada and an equally powerful low-pressure system carrying moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. High winds and snow hit the region like a sledgehammer.

By late morning, the “winds of hell” were really starting to blow, pushing mallards into Mississippi River backwaters as far down as Iowa, even beyond. Still, few duck hunters, even the most seasoned, figured the storm would get that bad. But by noon, wind speeds in some areas were clocked at 67-mph. Heavy rains changed to sleet, which morphed into snow. As many as 20 inches fell throughout the river system. Visibility was next to zero. Barns and buildings were flattened. Iced-over power lines snapped. Motorized traffic came to a standstill.

Still, shotguns barked throughout the Mississippi River backwaters. The hunting was so good that many hunters couldn’t bring themselves to leave for shore. While many hunters finally got off the river, many tried to brave the blizzard in their makeshift blinds. Many were marooned on islands throughout the bottomlands and froze to death. Still others tried to get off the river, but waves capsized their ice-riddled skiffs.

A few hunters, perhaps in the early stages of hypothermia, attempted to stay warm by wading in the water, which was considerably warmer than the air. According to one published account, they froze like “fence posts,’’ and were later found standing straight up in the water. You can almost feel the hypothermia setting in. First, your body starts to lose heat faster than it can produce it. Then the cold reaches your brain, depriving you of judgment and the ability to reason. Without treatment, death isn’t far behind.

Many hunters, miraculously enough, survived the ordeal. Many built fires (with their gun stocks, no less) or hid beneath their duck boats or found shelter amid fallen trees. According to one published report, one hunter hid beneath his ice-covered duck skiff and was saved by the body heat of his black lab, giving new meaning to man’s best friend.

The day was also marked by heroic rescue attempts throughout the Mississippi River bottomlands, with brave men risking their lives to save those of others. The next morning, on Nov. 12, the temperature was below zero. The number of dead was higher than most could of ever imagined.  

The Armistice Day blizzard of 1940 -- 70 years ago this fall -- claimed 162 lives nationwide. The storm killed 49 people in Minnesota. In Michigan, the death toll was the highest -- 73 people -- many the result of capsized boats on Lake Michigan. It’s estimated that roughly 30 duck hunters from Minnesota and Wisconsin perished in the storm.

It’s a tragedy that we hunters should never forget.

Good Hunting.
Babe Winkelman is a nationally-known outdoorsman who has taught people to fish and hunt for nearly 30 years. Watch his award-winning “Good Fishing” and “Outdoor Secrets” television shows on Versus (VS.), Fox Sports Net, Wild TV and many local networks.  Visit www.winkelman.com for air times where you live.