Roland Fowler will always remember the one that got away.
No, he’s not a fisherman. Fowler, whom everyone calls “Charlie,” is the longtime volunteer weather observer in the Iron Range town of Embarrass, Minn. With his folksy humor, media-friendly demeanor and diligent attention to detail, Fowler put Embarrass on the national weather map.
“I’ve brought a lot of publicity to this community,” Fowler said last week. “I’ve had all the big networks up here, the Weather Channel, Jimmy Kimmel. Been interviewed twice by Garrison Keillor.”
They came because Fowler colorfully promoted Embarrass as one of the coldest spots in Minnesota.
But not THE coldest.
As Fowler, 85, gets ready to retire and hang up his thermometer after 30 years of faithfully recording daily temperatures and precipitation at his home on the Embarrass River, he can’t shake the memory of Feb. 2, 1996.
It was a bitter winter. Temperatures had been hitting 50 below for more than a week. That day, Fowler went out to his truck and found the tires had frozen flat.
He walked out back to check his official National Weather Service thermometer and discovered that the cold was too much for it. The alcohol and mercury in the old-style thermometer had separated, and he couldn’t take a reading.
That day, nearby Tower, Minn., recorded a temperature of 60 below, setting a Minnesota record that still stands. But Fowler insists that the record rightfully belongs to Embarrass.
“We had four thermometers, and none of them was above 62 below,” he said. “I had a Taylor thermometer at the house that showed 64 below. We sent it to Taylor’s headquarters to be calibrated, and they said it was right on the mark.”
But since none of the thermometers was officially certified by the Weather Service, Tower got the record. By the way, the lowest temperature ever in the United States was 80 below in Prospect Creek, Alaska, in 1971, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The lowest temperature in the Lower 48 was 70 below at Rogers Pass, Mont., in 1954.
Fowler is retiring because, he said, “I’m pretty much here alone. It’s getting to be a struggle for me to go out in that deep snow. If I fell down, I don’t know how I’d get up again.” He’ll stay on the job until later in the spring, when the ground thaws and the Weather Service can dig up his weather station and move it to a new location.
Local residents will miss his calls to radio station WELY in Ely at 6:15 a.m. every weekday. Fowler gives the weather report, chats a bit and always throws in a joke.
“It’s impossible for me to imagine Roland being replaced by anyone,” said Brett Ross, the station manager. “He’s kind of the wake-up call on the air. When Roland calls, you’ve got to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to talk weather.”
Weather Service officials aren’t sure yet who will replace Fowler.
Steve Gohde, who oversees 60 observers in the Duluth office, said observers like Fowler are crucial.
“You can’t get accurate snow observations from a machine,” he said. “And you just need the perspective of people with their boots on the ground.”
Gohde said anyone interested in weather observation can join the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, an online group of weather observers that he called “the junior varsity that we can pick our official observers from.”