Winds of hell

It was a cold front that should never be forgotten.

Duck hunters are especially fond of cold fronts. Almost everything in the duck-hunting world revolves around perfectly-timed fronts that push and move ducks down the migratory path to waiting hunters.

This cold front, though, could be considered the deadliest duck hunting day in history.

It occurred almost 70 years ago, on Nov. 11, 1940, so long ago there are few duck hunters around to recall it, just numerous news stories and weather agencies ranking that day as one of the worst weather days in the Midwest.

It is simply referred to as the Armistice Day Blizzard. From Minnesota to Wisconsin, the day began unseasonably warm, with temperatures in the mid-60s. As the day wore on, a north wind started to blow and temperatures began to fall. By the afternoon, snow had begun falling.

Like duck hunters of today, excited hunters started to spill out into the marshes and rivers for the coming push of flocks of new ducks. Today, we would call it the perfect scenario.

It turned out instead to be the perfect storm.

An intense low-pressure system had tracked from the southern plains northeastward into western Wisconsin, pulling Gulf of Mexico moisture up from the south and pulling down a cold arctic air mass from the north. In no time, a blizzard was raging.

Ducks may have been flying, but the hunters were ill-prepared for what they faced.

Snowfall measured up to 27 inches, winds were recorded from 50 to 80 mph, snow drifts measured as deep as 20 feet and temperatures dropped 50 degrees in parts of Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

In all, a total of 154 people died in the storm, many of them duck hunters. Newspaper accounts from survivors said that prior to the storm, thousands of ducks funneled down the Mississippi River, creating some of the best shooting in years.

But the quick change in conditions failed to register in the excitement of a great hunt.

Other accounts called the storm "The Winds of Hell." Once the storm subsided and the damage was assessed, that title was deadly accurate.

The small duck boats that were, and are still today, common in this region couldn't stand up to 70-mph winds and the waves they created. Some accounts said those waves were as high as 5 feet on the open water of the Mississippi River.

Those conditions forced many hunters to hunker down and ride out the storm. But they didn't fare any better than those said to abandon their prized guns and decoy spreads trying to make it to shelter.

By Nov. 12, the storm had cut a 1,000-mile-wide path across the middle of the country. In addition to sinking three freighters and two small boats on Lake Michigan and causing a train wreck, the death toll to hunters started climbing.

Searchers found dead hunters frozen under their boats, huddled together, while others were found sitting in their blinds, frozen stiff. And to give a stark example of just how brutal and quick the front hit, one dead hunter was found standing upright and in water, holding onto a tree. Rescuers had to cut the tree above and below the hunter's hands to get his stiff body out of the woods.

Some hunters did manage to survive by building fires or huddling together with their retrievers. The Winds of Hell, though, had exacted their toll.

To this day, duck hunters spend their day watching the skies and their nights praying for a cold front. But at least once in the past 70 years, the excitement of enjoying wings on a north wind was far more than some hunters bargained for.