A Look Back: Armistice Day Blizzard Of 1940
February 04, 2011
The blizzard killed at least 160 people, many of them duck hunters who froze to death.
"Armistice Day Blizzard" by Michael Sieve. artwork provided courtesy of the artist and Wild Wings. www.wildwings.com
The voice broadcasting over the truck radio exclaimed with a degree of concern: "Winter storm watch. Falling temperatures throughout the day. Wind shifting to the north at 20 to 30 mph with stronger gusts. Snow likely."
Weather changes in the Midwest are expected, but major winter storms in November are rare, atypical. There's no explaining the lure of such a day to those who are not members of our fraternity, but a prediction of bad weather not only fires up the hunter, it moves the hunted.
For us, duck season had gotten off to a slow start, with very little action after the local birds and early migrators had taken a pounding. October was truly an Indian summer, and November began as one of the mildest on record. This November morning, the temperature was an almost balmy 50 degrees at 4:30 a.m., with a light wind from the southwest as my son, Todd, and I headed 60 miles north to Calhoun County, Ill., for a day at our Wild Wing Club.
Was the weather guy pulling our leg? Could we really trust him?
Ready for Action
The trip to the farm club was smooth, with light conversation about hunting tactics, decoy placement and calling. Every 15 minutes, the radio would again mention snow. We welcomed the weather change, but waterfowl hunting in snow is usually a case of feast or famine. Ducks are like people: If it gets too bad, they just hunker down.
Regardless of the weather, we were ready for the challenge. We had the essentials: Guns, shells, calls, insulated waders, camouflaged rain gear and an assortment of snacks.
"We got charcoal, Dad?" Todd asked as the headlights lit up the gate to the duck club.
I'd forgotten the main fuel source for heat in the blind. "I doubt that it's going to get as cold as predicted. I left the bag in the garage."
I did have a small one-burner stove to make coffee. The pot, coffee and water were inside the blind's storage box. My doubts about the weather forecast somewhat eased my mind concerning heat. Granted, we've all had to eat a little crow in our days afield, but mine would be a double-dose by dark.
The ducks on our rest lake were quackin' up a storm as we loaded the all-terrain vehicle for the bumpy ride to the willow-covered hide on Short Slough.
"Hear all that racket, son?"
"Yeah, sounds like they listened to the same weather report that we did," Todd replied.
A light rain began to fall as we started down the lane toward the slough. The first light of day revealed what we had hoped for: waterfowl on the move. Ducks seemed to be everywhere, flying as singles, pairs, small bunches and large flocks. Big ducks, teal and some divers appeared in the cloud-covered heavens, all heading south. We hastily arranged the decoys to our satisfaction, commenting as we worked about seeing more birds this day than we had seen all season.
The wind had turned due west by shooting time, and a cold rain stung our faces as we loaded our shotguns and waited for action. With an assortment of 100-plus decoys dancing to the tune of our calls, we had our first shots of the morning. A small group of greenwings with the wind at their tails buzzed the blocks at 30 yards.
"Wow, hope that's not an indication of our marksmanship," exclaimed Todd as the small squadron of teal, still intact but somewhat confused, headed skyward.
"We'll do better," I consoled. "Increase your lead, take your time and concentrate on one bird."
Our first bunch of decoying mallards yielded better results. Three drakes tumbled out of the group.
"At least we didn't get skunked," I said with a smile as Todd finished off a cripple with a water shot.
Most of the ducks ignored our highballs and hail calls as the morning progressed, but periodically, birds would drop to the bouncing look-alikes as if beckoning them to join in the flight southward. Shooting in the heavy wind was tough. Each chance was a challenge.
At 9 a.m., the rain had turned to sleet. During one of Todd's retrieves, I lit the little Coleman for hand warming and coffee brewing. Todd's ice-covered waders indicated the temperature as the empty charcoal heater sat frozen in the corner of the blind.
By late morning, the hunt had truly become special -- the weather, the ducks, father and son locked in their passion of waterfowling.
"We only need two more for a limit," I said, counting the dead hanging from the duck stringers. We were indeed part of a major migration, perhaps even witnessing a Grand Passage. The waterfowl term "Grand Passage" had been credited to internationally known waterfowl biologist Frank Bellrose, founder of the Illinois Natural History Biological Station on the Illinois River near Havana, Ill. Bellrose personally led his team from 1938 until retirement in 1991, trapping, banding and studying migrating birds.
According to Bellrose, each fall, usually in November, a mass migration of waterfowl occurred during a three-day period. He concluded that the Grand Passage was based on three factors: advancing winter weather, food availability and the birds' physical status. Memories of our passage day will last a lifetime.
Armistice Day 1940
Watching the storm intensify, ice forming around the edge of the pothole and snow collecting on the struggling decoys, our conversation turned to a similar day: Nov. 11, 1940. That Armistice Day lives in infamy in the rich history of waterfowling. A major blizzard caught the upper Midwest totally off guard. The fast-moving storm with hurricane-force winds and blinding snow saw the temperature drop from 54 degrees mid-morning to 9 degrees by evening. Hunters, both of waterfowl and upland birds, as well as fishermen and trappers, became victims of the elements. With many trapped by the howling wind and blowing snow, the results were tragic.
Imagine, if possible, that day on the waters of the Mississippi or a tributary, without today's technology. No outboard motor, no cell phone, no high-tech warm clothing, only a man-powered wooden boat for transportation. Those hunters and fishermen caught offshore did every
thing possible to keep from freezing to death. They burned decoys, blinds and even boats. In the end, 163 people perished, and many others were scarred for life.
Without a doubt, it was the most tragic one-day outdoor event of the 20th century. We can only imagine what those river men experienced on Armistice Day, 1940.
We were shocked back to reality as a pair of mallards suddenly appeared from the snowy sky into our kill zone. Our daily bag now complete, it was time to gather the gear and accept the adventure of the journey home. The pothole was almost completely frozen. The decoys were ice-covered, motionless statues, locked in time as we said farewell to Short Slough.
Getting the doors of the truck open required a little Yankee ingenuity, but finally we had shelter, and soon, warmth from the heater. The trip was slow and treacherous, to say the least. Although the heavy snow had somewhat abated, the roads were laded with some 6 inches of frozen precipitation. Thankfully, there was little traffic, with our top speed 35 mph. It was late afternoon and dark before long when we reached the Great River Road, the final leg of our homeward journey. Only a guardrail separated us from the muddy, white-capped waves of the Mississippi River. The temperature had fallen, headed for single digits. Unoccupied open-water duck blinds were visible from the unplowed road, and I wondered about the warriors who had started their day on the big water. Hopefully, they quit in time to make it safely to shore. We need no replay of 1940.
Nov. 11, 2010, marks the 70th anniversary of that tragic day, yet even now, waterfowlers discuss, suggest and read about those bone-chilling events and the consequences.
We'll always wonder what we would have done considering the circumstances. Would we have been able to endure Mother Nature's assault? The quote of a Greek philosopher might say it best: "History is the witness that testifies to time."
When Todd and I tell the story of our "Storm Day" hunt, we don't mention any of our misses. We focus on the cold, the snow, the wind and the ducks.
And Todd never fails to mention, "Dad forgot the charcoal."
Larry Reid is host of "Outdoors With Larry Reid," which airs at noon every Sunday on WBGZ radio, 1570 AM in Alton, Ill.