Embarrass, Minn. – On this day in 1996, Roland Fowler was at the heart of Minnesota history.
As a weather observer in Embarrass, Minn., for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), he was at ground zero for subzero like none other before or since. Minnesota’s all-time coldest temperature bottomed out at 60-below in the nearby town of Tower. But Fowler’s behind-the-scenes story of the temperature record enjoys a bit of controversy. It started with a broken thermometer.
Fowler has kept track of the region’s weather officially or unofficially for more than 30 years. Thus, he’s garnered national media attention on The Weather Channel, CBS Sunday Morning, the Today show and A Prairie Home Companion, among others.
At 85, Fowler hasn’t just reported the weather, he’s experienced it. He’s duck-hunted, riced, trapped, spearfished, and is an avid deer hunter, having gone into his stand again last season. Here are edited excerpts from his view of Minnesota’s coldest day and reflections of earlier times in his outdoor life.
On the coldest day ever
It was scary. I had plugged in the township pickup and started it, but the heater seemed like it was going to fly right out. It made the most awful noise, grinding and howling. The seat in the truck was just like a board. I got down the road a good mile before the tires rounded out. It was like they were frozen flat.
Four cold-weather campers came up about 8 the night before. They put two sleeping bags together, went to the north side of Timber Hall on the fairgrounds, crawled into the snow, set their thermometers outside and went to sleep. The next morning I went up there, they pulled apart their sleeping bags and there was an inch of frost between the two bags.
On who’s actually the coldest
We were getting temperatures in the 50-below range for a couple of weeks. That day it got to 60-below, my thermometer broke. It wouldn’t go that low; the mercury separated. That’s why Tower set the record. For a temperature to be official, the reading must be from a calibrated thermometer through NOAA. The one I’ve got now will go to 100-below.
But one of the campers’ thermometers showed 62-below, two said 63-below, and the Taylor thermometer said 64-below. We sent that one to Taylor’s national headquarters for a test and they said it was right on.
University of Minnesota meteorologist Mark Seeley told me there are at least six weather stations that are consistently colder than International Falls. The Weather Channel ran a friendly low-temperature rivalry between the Falls and Embarrass, and we won.
On dressing for the seasons
Fall is a favorite time of year for me because of hunting, the leaves are turning and the bugs are gone. The only bad thing about fall is you know what’s ahead of you. I remember it was 20-below zero, I believe that was in 1952, and the trees were so full of snow you couldn’t see anything. I got a deer that day, but I was one of the very few who did.
We did wear quite a bit of wool. If you got ahold of a good pair of wool pants and a jacket, you were in good shape. We didn’t have any boots like they’ve got today. Our boots had felts in those days. We’d wear them over socks and a pair of buckled overshoes.
On early game regulations
The state had them, but not to the extent they do today. I remember years ago a neighbor told me the game warden stopped by his house in a horse-drawn sleigh on the day before deer season. The neighbor had six kids. He told the warden, “You’re just in time for supper.” So, the warden sat and ate supper. In the meantime, there was an eight-point buck already hanging outside in a tree. When the warden left he said, “I see you’re going to have a most successful hunting season.” They didn’t bother people with big families then.
On duck hunting in his youth
There’s nothing better than putting out decoys and hunting over them. Oh man, that was unreal.
Where I lived, there was an island where you could walk across the empty hulls of shotgun shells from so many people shooting there. I’d go there every night after school before it got too dark to see and shoot up a box of shells just from pass shooting.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.