I may seem to be a broken record, talking about the weather again. But I just drove home from a late night at the News-Herald office and noticed that the thermometer in my car was recording minus 15 degrees. And that is not factoring the wickedly howling wind. The “Polar Vortex” appears to be back.
But weather is on my mind, for a reason other than I am still shivering as I write this week’s column. I’ve been thinking about the weather because of a weather related job that I had in the ’80s. It was a great job. I was a secretary for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in beautiful Monterey, California. I worked for an office of scientists supervised by a NOAA officer, Captain Otto Steffin.
The scientists were an eclectic bunch—they all had doctorates in a variety of fields—marine biologists, meteorologists, oceanographers— and they all worked together collecting weather data. However, they spent the majority of their time in dark offices, staring at lines and lines of code scrolling across their computer screens. I didn’t understand how they were collecting weather information by sitting at their desks all day and sometimes late into the evening.
I didn’t understand much of what they were doing and it didn’t really matter. My job was to provide office support. I answered the phones for them, screening nuisance calls. I ordered supplies using the complicated government purchase order system. I made travel arrangements for our scientists who were going somewhere and booked lodging for visiting scientists and government officials. It was interesting work because they were interesting people.
It was interesting just getting to work. Our office building was on the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center (FNMOC), a Navy base, and it was a heavily secured facility. I had a special Naval picture ID that served as a passkey at a gate that opened when you swiped the card. It was pretty high-tech for the ’80s. Everyone was matter of fact about it, so I didn’t think much about the secrecy of it all.
Our office had a lot of visitors, from all over the United States, but mostly from Washington, D.C., from the Department of Commerce (DOC). NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce. After a few months of taking messages for the scientists from DOC, I asked Captain Steffin why NOAA and the weather gurus were under the DOC umbrella. It was logical, he said, weather is very important to commerce.
That made sense, but I still didn’t understand what our scientists were doing and what the DOC officials were looking for when they visited. I just provided office support and wondered. The mystery was revealed when Captain Steffin asked me to help find lodging on Cannery Row, near the Monterey Bay Aquarium for a number of officials from DOC. A planeload of dignitaries was coming to FNMOC, including the Secretary of Commerce.
And, very exciting, there was to be a black-tie event at the Monterey Bay Aquarium during their visit—and my husband Chuck and I were invited.
To this day it was probably one of the most elegant affairs I have ever attended. The aquarium was closed for the evening and we were free to wander as we wished and there was fine wine and fancy hors d’oeuvres. And set up in the big atrium, were about a dozen computers, with the familiar code scrolling across the screens. However, our scientists had a surprise. After entering a bit more data, the screens changed. In place of the lines of white text on a black background were funny shaped blobs of color scrolling across a map of the United States. As they flipped the map view from the entire United States to just California, to across the United States to Florida, to Washington, D. C., they explained that what we were seeing was weather. It was a live picture of weather, beamed to their computers by satellite.
It was a fascinating evening and one that I have thought about often when I check out AccuWeather or watch the nightly weather report on TV. I often wonder if I am imagining the import of that evening. Was I part of the advent of weather radar and I didn’t even realize it?
I did some research as I sat down to write this week’s Unorganized Territory and the weather mystery deepened. I can find no mention of the NOAA office in Monterey. Researching weather radar does not bring up the names of any of the scientists I worked with. As I clicked and clicked on NOAA and National Weather Service websites, I found nothing—except a very official-looking government website declaring that I needed special security clearance to go any further.
I’ve lost touch with all my coworkers, so what happened to those brilliant scientists remains a mystery. I hope they are doing well. I hope, wherever they are, they are warmer than we are!
But who wants to be foretold the weather? It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand.
Jerome K. Jerome
It is amazing how advanced our weather-predicting technology has become. As a child of the ’60s, I remember weathermen standing in front of a large plexi-glass map of the United States, drawing arrows to demonstrate the cold fronts swirling across Minnesota from the Canadian plains. I remember the meteorologists tacking up big snowflakes or raindrops on the map to show what was coming.
Now we have Doppler weather radar and we don’t even have to wait for the nightly news to see it. We have miniature weather stations on our smartphones, ready to call up a video loop of advancing storms any time we want.
We’ve come a long way, but the science still isn’t perfect. For example, one of our latest storms—when our local schools let kids out at 1:30 in the afternoon— dumped about 8 – 10 inches on the North Shore when the weathermen had predicted only 3 – 5 inches.
So, as I write this Unorganized Territory, I wonder what is going to hit us as the meteorologists with their fancy computer weather models are predicting 8 – 10 inches of snow tomorrow. Does that mean we will get 16 – 20 inches? That is a lot of snow.
I don’t know where we will put it. The topic of conversation around the office in recent days has been of the difficulty of shoveling our walkways. It’s getting harder and harder to pitch a shovelful of snow onto the snow bank. Our snow banks are now shoulder high.
The folks plowing our driveways are having the same problem. I went riding with my husband Chuck while he attempted to clear our driveway and a few others that he keeps open through the winter. The snow banks are so big that when he rams them with a new plow load of snow, they just tumble back down. It’s an adventure plowing this winter!
Chuck avidly watches the weather forecast, mentally preparing for what is on the way. I don’t pay too much attention. I have to be out and about no matter the weather and my philosophy is that I’ll look out the window in the morning and figure out what I need to wear that day. I’ll worry about driving conditions when I start driving.
But a few days ago, as I was driving home from the office, I noticed the most beautiful sunset over the Grand Marais harbor. The lake was almost completely frozen and both the lighthouse and the light on the west breakwall were coated in white. All that white against a pastel pink sky with faint streaks of blue and purple was stunning. It almost didn’t look real. It looked like a snow sculpture of our harbor. I pulled over to just stare at it for a moment.
The old poem, “Red sky at night, sailors delight; Red sky in morning, sailors take warning,” came to mind. Forget the weatherman, I thought; it is going to be nice tomorrow.
And it was! It snowed like crazy through the night and we woke up to another dumping of snow—more shoveling, snow-blowing and plowing—but it was also bright and sunny and way above zero degrees. It was beautiful. I’m not a sailor, but I was delighted.
I’m hoping to see a lovely pink sky at night again soon!
~ ~ ~ ~
Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.
Take a look at the February photo, which was submitted to us by a News-Herald reader. If you think you know where she was when she took the picture of the abandoned, snow-covered car, send us your answer. The location will be announced next month and a winner will be drawn from all the correct answers. Whoever is drawn will win a free one-year subscription to the Cook County News-Herald (a $30 value). Good luck!Our January WHERE ARE WE? photo was taken from the dock in Chicago Bay in Hovland. Several people responded that the collapsed fish house in the picture once belonged to Helmer Aakvik. Drawn from all the correct entries was David Stemp of Chatfield, MN and Hovland. Congratulations to David, he wins a one-year subscription! Answer to the February WHERE ARE WE? must be received by March 10, 2014.
This has been a tough winter for those of us who like to get outdoors. I have always claimed that my rule for participation in winter activities—whether it’s snowshoeing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, or just going for a walk—is that it must be 10 degrees above zero. I have broken that rule a multitude of times this year.
If I waited for a day with temperatures of 10 degrees above zero this winter, I would never do anything fun. So I have been out and about in the bitter cold on a number of occasions, most recently as a snowmobiler in the 11th annual Snowarama for Easter Seals.
My husband Chuck and I bundled up and headed out on the fabulous Grand Portage trails with about 120 other riders. I say about 120 riders because I’m not sure how many riders took the same trail as us.
We were among the riders who braved the long route to Windigo Lodge, Trail Center or Hungry Jack Lodge and back to Grand Portage Lodge, while others took a shorter route. The shorter route took riders up the beautiful ridgeline overlooking Grand Portage and included a stop at Grand Portage Trail Center for a bonfire and S’mores.
Chuck and I decided to make the long trek. I chose not to ask what the temperature was. I was determined to enjoy the day, no matter how cold it was. We were rewarded with trails as smooth as butter, letting us sail up and down the hills and around corners at exhilarating rollercoaster speeds.
It warmed up a little bit as the day wore on and a light snow fell, decorating the trees that overhang the trail. We were disappointed not to see any moose on this
ride, but we saw plenty of tracks, caught a glimpse of a couple of deer and spotted a very healthy-looking fox on Poplar Lake.
During the 116-mile ride, I had some time to do some thinking. The beautiful scenery and the lull of the engine are soothing. I sing songs or compose poetry in my mind while cruising along. I toy around with ideas for News-Herald features or Unorganized Territory columns. I think of fun activities for my Girl Scout troop or projects for my grandkids. Of course I can’t write anything down, so I seldom remember these wonderful ideas later. But I greatly enjoy the thinking time on the trail. It’s almost a motorized meditation.
But I do remember one thought from this most recent ride and that is how proud I am of the people who take part in Snowarama—and all the other charity rides and events that take place every year throughout our region— despite the challenges of winter weather.
As we rode along, I recalled that for three years, Chuck took part in the three-day ALS Association of Minnesota Blackwoods Blizzard “Never Surrender” Tour, which raises money to fight Lou Gehrig’s disease. Several other local snowmobilers took part in the Blizzard Tour for seven years, riding from Cloquet to Ely to Two Harbors and back to Cloquet. Although there were no Cook County riders on the ride this year, in the past Cook County riders raised thousands and thousands of dollars to assist those stricken with ALS. The 2014 Blizzard Tour raised $710,000.
On our Snowarama ride, I thought about my editor friend Lynn from the Twin Cities who was riding that same frigid weekend in the annual Mud Dog Ride for Rein in Sarcoma. She rode from her home in the Twin Cities to the Shooting Star Casino & Hotel in Mahnomen, Minnesota, using the ride as a platform to raise money to fight the rare and deadly cancer. The Mud Dog Ride has raised over $25,000 to fight sarcoma since it began in 2011 in memory of outdoor writer Eric Skogman.
And of course, on the Snowarama ride, I thought about the money raised for Easter Seals kids, to help children and young adults with disabilities live more independent lives. This year Snowarama riders raised $36,000 to bring the 11-year total raised in Grand Portage to $292,750.
There are many other groups and organizations that also go the extra mile to help others—the Polar Plunge to benefit the Special Olympics, for instance. Several brave local participants will be taking the plunge shortly after this issue goes to press. Mush for a Cure is another amazing event, coming up soon on the Gunflint Trail, which raises thousands of dollars to fight breast cancer.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. We are hardy, generous souls in Minnesota no matter the weather. I’m proud to be one of you. Stay warm and ride on!
A candle loses nothing by
lighting another candle.
Father James Keller