For those unfortunate enough to follow my regular tweeting you would’ve been well aware I was recently in one of the coldest places in America. My timing was especially incredible (for a weather forecaster) as I arrived in the middle of a major arctic blast. While the weather was sunny and calm, the air temperature was -26C at its coldest and -18 at its warmest. The wind chill made it feel down to -31, even -35 at its lowest point while I was there.
Before going, while visiting, and after returning I keep getting asked the same question “Why go there?”.
My answer? “Because it’s bleak, flat, snowy, cold”. That was then followed up with “…but why do you want to go there?”.
It can be hard to explain to some people but there is a real beauty in things that are different or even weird to what we’re used to. When most people I know prefer Australia or a tropical island if they are going to leave the country for a break, I don’t. I don’t like the heat, the people, the lack of privacy when you’re outdoors. Not to mention being in a tropical island runs the risk of making your nearest New Zealand beach look a little, well, not so warm and tropical when you return. But visit a bleak, naturally-treeless state like North Dakota in mid-winter and suddenly your appreciation of your homeland is increased tenfold.
Even the bosses at CNN Weather – who by the way chase deadly hurricanes and tornados – said I was nuts for visiting North Dakota in January. I took that as a personal challenge.
I like to experience the full spectrum of emotions – a life with a few tough personal challenges thrown at me means I have a better appreciation for the darkness as it makes the light more interesting. There is beauty in darkness too – and sadness. Ask anyone creative.
As I flew into Fargo four things stood out – snow as far as you can see, flatness as far as you can see, snow banks on either side of the road/railway that made shadows due to being so high, and very few trees. It’s just white and flat and empty…then there’s Fargo.
Fargo itself is gorgeous – a town of about 100,000 in the eastern side of North Dakota it also shares the state line with Minnesota, in fact it was just a 10 minute walk from my hotel room. The states are separated by the Red River – one of the only major rivers in the US to flow north and not south. It was mostly frozen over at the top but in the gaps of melt you could see a rushing river underneath.
I woke up at 8am on the Saturday (after landing on the Friday evening from Denver, Colorado) and checked the weather. Clear skies, fairly calm and a feels like temperature of -31C with an air temperature of -24C! After putting on leather mittens, a shirt, a puffer jacket, a major thick winter jacket with hood, plus a wool hat, two pairs of socks and – my only failure – a pair of jeans, I headed outside.
Feeling like Kenny off the cartoon TV series South Park I managed to make some noise to the man at the door as I stepped out into the cold. It hits you hard – but my attire kept me warm around my core. Hardest part was learning to walk without hitting ice. While the footpaths are cleared of snow and salted too it’s just so frigid there that ice is stuck to everything for months, usually in smooth bumps that are perfect for arsing over on. I’m proud to say that despite not having the perfect shoes I never slipped over once, but did have a couple near falls which made me hope no one saw.
My walk was gorgeous – very very cold on the face but i buried my mouth into the protective part of my jacket – which then made my sunglasses fog up. Removing the sunglasses meant my eyeballs got the cold straight and the bright snowy glare. I could see this wasn’t going to be an easy short walk. There is a consequence for everything it seems.
The morning of my walk there was a Big Freeze Advisory – warning that people can get frostbite in 30 minutes so I choose a 25 minute walk to Minnesota and back! A lovely walk – but on my return something significant happened – I had my back to the sun on the way back to my hotel. It’s a little like being on the dark side of the moon and you instantly feel the temperature drop. The cold was starting to hit me and so I walked faster – which increases the windchill. My lips were numb and dry and my jeans were failing to keep my upper legs warm – and I could feel them going numb and burning, which I won’t lie was a little terrifying knowing my hotel was still another 10 minutes away.
(Photo shows air-temp of -24C, but wind chill was -31 at the time!)
Once back inside my hotel room my thighs were in agony – red like they had been sunburnt. It took a couple hours for them to recover back to normal – and while a pair of thermals would’ve stopped this from happening it was my first time in this weather and I didn’t think they would be needed for such a short stint. I was very wrong!
Being a true Kiwi I felt being indoors was also wrong – especially on such a sunny day. After a bottle of wine at lunch (yes, I know, but I was bored and cold) I ventured out again. This time to the mainstreet to take photos. Here’s my next learning curve: iPhone’s don’t work when it’s below -20. I could take one photo then it would go dead. I could restart it only if I warmed the phone up by breathing hot air on it for several minutes, or tucking the phone into an armpit etc. It was insanity! Normalness comes to a halt when basic things don’t work.
Sitting in the hotel bar that night having a snack and a local said to me you have to have an emergency kit in your car because you can freeze to death in half an hour if it breaks down. Anyone who has watched the movie or TV series “Fargo” would know this. Oh and side note, their restaurant proudly had New Zealand Lamb Chops on the menu – I ordered them and it was seriously the best lamb meal of my life.
But that Saturday night, after midnight, when it was -35 again, I looked out my hotel window and saw people walking the streets, going in and out of bars. To them it’s normal life.
The visit was one of a lifetime and one that serves me well as a forecaster. When some New Zealanders wake this winter to a -5 frost and complain about how bitterly cold it is I can balance that with -35 now. It helps me appreciate what our planet is capable of doing – and here’s the kicker – it makes me love my own country even more. When I travel I tell everyone “New Zealand is the most beautiful country on earth” but from a weather perspective part of the reason our nation is so lovely is because we live in the Goldilocks belt of weather – not too hot, not too cold. So when a weatherman wants some adrenalin, wants a change, wants a shock – well, we often need to travel somewhere else on the planet.
I have a much better appreciation for winter in New Zealand now – I always suspected we had it good, but now, wow, I know it for sure. We can wear t-shirts and shorts in winter. ‘Nuff said.
– Philip Duncan, WeatherWatch.co.nz
on 10/11/2017 7:07pm
Awesome read, Phil!
I’m heading to the US in January, but haven’t chosen my location after arriving in LA!
I love cold weather, and was in Anchorage January just gone. Temperatures at the time dropped to -10 at night, but would like even colder!
I’m thinking Fairbanks or North Dakota?
on 11/11/2017 10:16pm
Hi Jacob – Thanks a lot! Ha you’re definitely a lot like me! I’m disappointed I can’t get over to a colder climate this summer, but after two years abroad it’s time for a classic Kiwi summer for me 🙂 Both are quite different, Fairbanks being mountainous/hilly and a long way north, North Dakota being flat further south but brutally cold stil (at times anyyway). I really loved Fargo, it’s a small town with a big heart and easy to get to from Chicago, Denver or some parts of Canada. They aren’t used to meeting many New Zealanders in Fargo! 🙂
on 28/01/2017 7:38pm
It’s interesting how you describe it as so cold, because as someone who lives in Fargo I have felt like this winter hasn’t been bad at all. Yeah, it’s gotten bitter cold a few times, but for the most part it has been mild. Just the other day I was out-and-about in a short sleeve shirt!
At my house in a rural part of North Dakota near Wahpeton, we have a wood-stove that heats the house, so we have no choice but to go outside in these temperatures to fill it if we want to stay warm.
on 29/01/2017 6:46pm
Hey Adam – very interesting to get your local perspective! I must admit my timing was a little uncanny with the Arctic blast in early January. Not quite as cold as your December one though – and I noticed just how mild it was after I left, some days even above freezing. All the best with the rest of winter – I will google where you’re from too. Would love to vist Fargo in Summer, a really lovely town.
on 28/01/2017 5:40pm
Hi. I am from Fargo. This was an interesting article. Thanks for visiting our city and posting this. It is always nice to hear a different perspective.
on 29/01/2017 6:46pm
Hi Jason – my pleasure – I had a really great two nights there, I look forward to returning some day (but maybe in summer!)