Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Winter in Minnesota: Oddities, insights, warnings February 1, 2023

Treacherous winter driving conditions along Minnesota State Highway 19 just north of Vesta in southwestern Minnesota in January 2013. These weather conditions are not uncommon on the prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted and edited file photo 2013)

WINTER IN MINNESOTA can be decidedly difficult in the sort of way that challenges us to either adjust, adapt or embrace, or flee to Arizona, Texas or Florida.

That got me thinking. If you’re not from the Bold (Cold) North, you may be unfamiliar with our winter weather obsession and terminology. Wind chill is an oft-referenced word in Minnesota winter weather forecasts. Defined, that’s the feels like temp on skin when wind meets air temperature. The result is not pleasant with repeated warnings of exposed flesh can freeze in just minutes. That’s the time to layer up, don long johns, pull out the heavy parka or down coat, shove hands into mittens (not gloves), wrap your face and neck in a scarf, clamp on a warm hat and lace lined boots over thick wool socks. Or stay indoors. Just for the record, recent Minnesota wind chills have been between 20-35 degrees below zero.

Experts, like the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, advise us to carry winter survival kits in our vehicles and to stay inside should we become stranded or go off the road. Call for help and wait. Exiting your vehicle is risky as in risk becoming disoriented and lost in a snowstorm if in a rural area or risk being hit by a vehicle if your vehicle slides into the ditch along a busy interstate. Just recently a driver was struck while doing exactly that; he’ll be OK.

Ice fishing on Union Lake in Rice County. Some anglers don’t fish in houses, but rather in the open air, sitting on overturned 5-gallon buckets. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)


Regarding risk, Minnesotans continue to participate in a sem- risky winter sport. Ice fishing. As absurd as this sounds to those who have never lived in a cold weather state, this is the sport of angling for fish on a frozen lake. It can be (mostly) safe if anglers follow basic rules for ice safety, the first being that no ice is ever 100 percent safe and know your lake. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources offers basic ice thickness guidelines such as stay off ice less than four inches thick. If it’s four inches thick, you can walk on lake ice. Nine to 10 inches of ice will support a small car or SUV. You’ll need 16-17 inches to drive a heavy truck onto a frozen lake and so on. Every winter vehicles plunge through the ice and people lose their lives on Minnesota lakes.

Yet, we Minnesotans continue to embrace the sport, exercising caution. Clusters of simple pop-up temporary day houses to homemade wooden shacks to fancy sleep-overnight factory models create mini villages on our frozen lakes. Anglers hang out therein, drilling holes in the ice, drinking beer, playing cards and doing whatever while waiting for the fish to bite. Decades have passed since I participated in this winter sport. But I did. It was the cracking noise of the ice that got to me.

Randy shovels snow from our house rooftop during a previous winter. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)


Ice. I quite dislike that aspect of winter. And we’ve had a lot of ice this winter on roads, sidewalks, parking lots, every hard surface. As I age, my fear of falling and breaking a bone is real. I deal with ice by either staying off it or walking like a penguin.

Recently I observed my neighbor trying to remove ice from his driveway with fire fueled by a small portable propane tank. It was the weirdest thing—to see this flame in the black of evening aimed downward onto his cement driveway. It didn’t work well. The next evening, two of them were out chipping at ice the old-fashioned way with a long-handled bladed tool designed for that purpose.

Yes, we chip ice from our sidewalks and driveways. We shovel snow from our roofs in an effort to prevent ice dams (of which there are many this winter). Getting through a Minnesota winter, especially one as snowy as this season, requires fortitude and effort.

This oversized Minnesota driver’s license hangs above a rack of buffalo plaid flannel and other shirts at the A-Pine Restaurant near Pequot Lakes in the central Minnesota lakes region, aka Paul Bunyan land. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)


Winter here also requires plenty of flannel, our unofficial winter attire. I recently purchased two flannel shirts to replace two that I’d worn thread-bare. I love my flannel. It’s comfy and cozy and warm and makes me feel Paul Bunyan authentic. If you’re unfamiliar with Paul, let me explain. He’s a legendary lumberjack, a symbol of strength and endurance. And he wears red buffalo plaid flannel. My community even celebrates flannel with the Faribault Flannel Formal, set for 5:30-9 pm Saturday, March 11, at Craft Beverage Curve (10,000 Drops Craft Distillers and Corks & Pints)). And, yes, that means attendees wear flannel, sample hotdishes (the Minnesota term for casseroles) and participate in lumberjack games. Yeah, sure, ya betcha. This is how we survive winter in the Bold (Cold) North.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


26 Responses to “Winter in Minnesota: Oddities, insights, warnings”

  1. beth Says:

    this is so well-written and described, Audrey. I can identify with every word of this, being a michigander. we adapt to our environments and try the best we can to be safe and live our lives, even under extreme conditions and that says something about all of us who choose not to leave.

  2. Brrrrr. Looks cold and I know it is. You just don’t understand unless you have experienced it, right?

  3. Some people look at me like I am a little out there when it dips to high 30’s/low 40’s here and I don just a sweater and rock the sandals. I love how the puffer jackets and boots come out – ha! or even better short shorts and Ugg boots – now there is a look! I am still hearty but have lived a good portion of my life with winter and enjoy seeing white sand vs. white snow at this phase of my life. I have to agree with you in the ice is the worst and then the white out conditions. We have been getting the zero visibility fog here again and scary when people do not turn the headlights on while driving in it. I have to chuckle that anywhere you live you have the weather to talk about – hehe 🙂 Take Care, Stay Warm, Be Safe – Happy Day – Enjoy

  4. In Eastern Oregon, especially, I went through a lot of severe winters, ice, snow, etc. Here in Texas, we are currently going through what we refer to as an “ice storm”. Lots of freezing rain, sleet, etc. Everything’s frozen and the roads are impassable. Luckily, here, this type of weather doesn’t last long. Stay safe and warm, Audrey! ❤

  5. “Flee to Arizona…” Well, we’re not going to feel guilty for taking a few days in the (relatively warm) desert. 😉 Now we’re back and – thanks to the winter hiking gear we brought with us – enjoying (relatively speaking) the deep cold of a Minnesota winter. 🥶 Oregon has lumberjacks, so have flannel too! And I made our first hotdish, with tater tots! But we’re not ready yet (and likely never will be) for ice fishing, driving on frozen lakes, climbing on snow and ice covered roofs, or using a flamethrower on the driveway. 😲

    • No need to feel an ounce of guilt about going to Arizona for a break from this Minnesota winter. I was thinking more of snowbirds when I chose the word “flee.” That you made hotdish, tater tot none-the-less, shows your adaptability to your new home state. I understand your reluctance not to take up ice fishing, although given your outdoors adventures, I could see you angling for fish in the winter.

  6. Sandra Says:

    This is indeed well written. Traffic cams and the news diligently have reported all traffic issues, especially on 35W. Must be a record number jack knifed semi’s by now. If this continues, the Halloween storm of ’91 will stop being the standard description of memorable winters here. Someone posted last year’s Carnival Grand Day Parade, hoping for similar this year. Crummy week for this sub zero temps to hang on. No snow sculptures and ice carving viewing for me this year. Bummer.

  7. Sharyn Mathews Says:

    Been there, done that! Grew up on a farm just south of Northfield (on Highway 3); we ALWAYS had a skating rink and we never stayed indoors just because it was cold 🙂 I guess my Dad’s idea was “The farm work needs to be done; there’s no one else to do it; so out we go!”

    I MISS it, a LOT. I see that you are having a near-record winter there, and I wax nostalgic for the days of building snow forts, skating, and sledding. Now that I live in Connecticut, we rarely see conditions like this. In fact, we just finished a record-warm January where temps were mostly 40s and 50s. They say that Friday will bring below-zero temps, but no snow. 😦

    • Sharyn, first, welcome to the MN Prairie Roots readers’ comments section. I’m happy to have you here. Second, your description of growing up on a farm near Northfield sounds a lot like my growing up on a Redwood County farm. There was always work. And always time to play outside, whatever the season. I share snow fort, skating and sledding memories. Here’s hoping you get snow in CT.

  8. Valerie Says:

    We’re flying out to CA on Friday…for a reprieve. I know, it’s going to me nice and warm here for MN winter temperatures but I’m ready to fly away.
    I have always tried to embrace winter…and do like winter…but the older I get the less fun it is!

  9. This just delighted me! I choose sweatshirts over flannel, though. Mick and I took a walk around our neighborhood this afternoon since it was a balmy 20 degrees for a minute; the ice coating all our streets makes us pay attention and slow down for sure.

    • Sweatshirts, flannel…whatever works to keep you comfy warm indoors. Good for you to get out for a walk this afternoon. I was busy selecting photos and finishing my March column for Southern Minn Scene magazine. Done!

  10. Oh yeah, sure, you betcha! Uffda dat is Minnesota winter for ya.

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