Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The snow angels of rural Minnesota December 22, 2010

THEY ARE THE ANGELS of rural Minnesota.  The volunteer firefighters. The volunteer first responders. The volunteer ambulance crews.

If you don’t believe me, then spend some time in a place like Vesta, population around 330, on the southwestern Minnesota prairie where I grew up.  In small towns like this, the nearest clinic and hospital are often a 20-mile drive or more.

My mom still lives in my hometown and, because she’s getting up there in age, I worry about her. But that concern is offset somewhat by the knowledge that first responders will come to her aid in a medical emergency. And they have.

So when I read an article in the December 16 The Gaylord Hub, a community newspaper where I worked decades ago right out of college, I knew I had to share a story by reporter Lisa Uecker. She wrote about an ambulance trip from Gibbon to New Ulm during the December 11 blizzard.

Uecker is graciously permitting me to retell that story here. It’s worth your time to read for the lessons it teaches in dedication and care and how those in small towns will go the extra mile to assist their friends and neighbors.

In this instance, the miles, literally, were extra and a trip which should have taken perhaps 30 minutes became a 3 ½-hour ordeal.

The incident begins at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 11, during the height of the two-day blizzard. The volunteer Winthrop Ambulance Service receives a call to Gibbon some eight miles to the west. Once the crew reaches Gibbon and the patient, they backtrack to Winthrop knowing they must travel the longer, but safer, state highways rather than follow the shorter route along county roads. From Winthrop, they are headed 16 miles south along Minnesota State Highway 15 to the hospital in New Ulm.

A paramedic intercept is impossible, the crew learns, so snowplows are dispatched to meet the ambulance at the intersection of Highway 15 and Nicollet County Road 1 near Lafayette. One plow goes into the ditch. Another is low on fuel. The third has mechanical problems. None of the plows make it to the appointed rendezvous site.


If you're unfamiliar with Sibley and Nicollet counties, here's a map photo to show you the roadways and towns highlighted in this story.

The ambulance crew is on its own, traveling in white-out conditions near Klossner. The rescue vehicle soon becomes stuck on the shoulder. Because snowplows have been pulled off the roads, the Lafayette Fire Department comes to the rescue, freeing the ambulance with its pumper truck.

After passing Klossner, the ambulance gets stuck again, but the driver–ambulance captain and assistant Sibley County attorney Donald Lannoye–is able to rock the vehicle free.

Finally, at 6 p.m., the patient, who has been stable throughout the ride, is delivered to the New Ulm Medical Center.

The four-member volunteer ambulance crew spends the night in New Ulm.

In an interview with reporter Uecker, Lannoye says that once he passed Sibley County Road 8 right outside of Lafayette, he could never drive more than five miles per hour due to poor visibility and road conditions. The crew saw 11 – 15 cars in ditches and 4 – 6 cars stuck in traffic lanes near Lafayette.

Then Lannoye also reveals that his crew began their day at 5 a.m., transporting a patient on icy roads to Hutchinson.

If ever there was an outstanding example of the care and concern residents of rural Minnesota have for each other, then this would be it. We should all be thankful for volunteers like Lannoye, ambulance crew members Lisa Klenk and Todd Storms,  EMT-in-training Katie Uecker and Lafayette Volunteer Fire Department members who braved a blizzard to help their neighbors.

They are, indeed, snow angels.

IF YOU HAVE A STORY to share about how volunteers have helped you or someone you love, submit a comment. I’m certain there are many such stories out there.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling and Lisa Uecker


Digging out during a Minnesota blizzard December 11, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:11 PM
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“IT DOESN’T EVEN look like I blew the snow,” he assesses.

And it doesn’t. After a full day of falling snow and wind-whipped snow, our driveway appears untouched by a snowblower. But my husband was out once already, around mid-morning, clearing ours and the neighbor’s driveways.

Now he’s struggling to even get out the back door. Snow has drifted into the backyard and onto the back stoop and blocked the door. He leans against the storm door and pushes his way outside, into a world of swirling flakes and strong, bitter wind.

Minutes later Randy returns to the house asking for the hair dryer. Ice has formed in the recoil mechanism of the snowblower, he says, and he needs to melt the ice.

I follow him into the garage with my camera, realizing that this use of a blow dryer might appear rather amusing to someone who doesn’t live in Minnesota. I’ll note here that a hair dryer also comes in handy for thawing frozen car doors.

I snap a few pictures until my husband tells me he needs to start the snowblower before the recoil mechanism freezes again. I get the hint.

Randy uses a hair dryer to thaw the frozen recoil mechanism on the snowblower. Melted snow from earlier today dripped into the mechanism causing the problem.

A close-up of Randy thawing the recoil mechanism with a hair dryer.

I step back into the house, grab a yard stick and measure the snow depth off the back stoop. It measures 16 inches.

So far this is turning out to be one heckuva blizzard.

Snow drifts piled around our van as snow piled onto our driveway.

Randy makes his first pass, for the second time today, down the driveway around 7 p.m.

Randy begins his second pass down the driveway. He blew snow for an hour and then stopped because he's running low on gas. He needs enough gas to blow out the driveway in the morning so he can buy more gas to blow more snow and more snow and more snow.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Hunkering down during a Minnesota blizzard

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 2:58 PM
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My neighbor across the street shovels snow Saturday morning.

WELL, WELL, for the second weekend in a row, southern Minnesota has been socked with snow. A foot last weekend. Another foot, maybe more, for parts this weekend.

But round two brings with it a stronger punch—strong winds and dropping temps that make conditions out there downright dangerous. Windchills tonight are expected to plummet to a bone-chilling 35 degrees below zero.

In Rice County, where I live, county snowplows have been pulled from the roadways due to low visibility. Winds are whipping at about 30 mph.

I live in a valley in Faribault. So when conditions look bad at my place, I know it’s bad out there.

Today I’m hunkered down at home with my husband, Randy, and our 16-year-old son. Randy wasn’t too happy this morning when I suggested he stay home from work. (I was thinking of hiding the car keys.) But he heeded my advice and I’m thankful given he works 15 snowy miles away in Northfield. Of course, he tells me, “I could have made it there and back.”

Yeah, right. The job is not worth the risk of driving in blizzard conditions. And, yes, my area of Minnesota is under a blizzard warning.

I haven’t been outdoors yet. Randy has been out, blowing snow from our driveway and that of a neighbor. He thought it would be easier this way, clearing the snow twice rather than a foot or more all at once.

Our van, which is parked on the driveway, is encased in ice from the freezing rain and sleet that fell for several hours last evening.

All of our plans for the day have been abandoned. Our son should have been taking his ACT test, but that was canceled. The college entrance exams were canceled at more than 50 schools in Minnesota. The last time he was slated to take the test, he had to cancel because of bronchitis.

The Christmas Walk at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault is off, but the ice skating show set for 4 p.m. was still on the last I checked. I had hoped to attend both, but right now I really don’t feel like going anywhere.

The big batch of chili I cooked yesterday for tonight’s Family Game Night potluck at my church has gone into the freezer after that event was postponed. I’ll serve the chili at a family gathering next weekend…if we don’t have another blizzard and my guests can make it.

That’s life in Minnesota in winter, folks.

Traffic has picked up along my street in Faribault this afternoon despite blizzard conditions.

I've seen plenty of pickups with attached snowplows, like this, drive past my house today.

STAY SAFE this weekend. And if you don’t need to travel, don’t.

IF YOU HAVE any winter weather stories or weather condition reports to share from your area, please submit a comment. I’d like to hear from you.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling