The forecast for tonight is minus 31F. That might be what prompted a Lily Fan for ask how bears fared in the record cold of 1996 when temperatures on February 2, fell to minus 60 in Tower, just 8 miles from the Research Center. That is still the state record.
Lynn thought of that cold night just yesterday when he saw Mike Hillman in Zup’s grocery store. Mike and Lynn hosted a weekly half-hour radio show “The Bear Facts” back then. Mike was a friend of Charles Kuralt who bought the local radio station and made Mike the manager. Mike said Charles was about the best person he ever worked for.
Mike got curious on February 1, 1996, when the official temperature in Tower was 59 below zero with colder weather coming. He headed for Steve Piragis’ Northwoods Company Store and bought 2 of Steve’s best sleeping bags. One even had a hood to keep his ears and nose from freezing. Word spread. Three TV stations watched Mike set up his camp near Tower’s official weather station. The metal poles of his tent gave his hands freezer burn. Fortune Bay Casino sent Mike a steak dinner, but by the time he ate it, the fork stuck to his lips and he had to blow on it to keep it from ripping them.
Mike settled in and listened to the radio until the batteries froze. Mike is from one of the oldest families in Ely, fourth generation, and no one in his family had ever seen it that cold. The last thing he remembers before drifting off to sleep was howling wolves.
The next morning TV reporters gathered to watch Minnesota’s cold record get broken. On the way, the reporters had stopped by the Embarrass, MN, weather station, which is often the coldest spot in Minnesota (12 miles from the Research Center). But when a reporter pointed his camera light at the official thermometer it shattered. No record would be set there. They continued on to Tower. As the sun came up, Mike pounded a nail with a banana. Checking the thermometer, it read only 58 below zero. The weather station manager said not to worry. When the sun comes up and hits the tall pines, convection will draw colder air up from the swamp. When Marshall Helmberger, editor of the Timberjay Newspaper, heard there was a spare thermometer, he asked if he could take it down into the swamp. He and Mike walked it down. A few minutes later, Mike saw the blood retreat from Marshall’s nose and said, “Marshall, I don’t know how cold it is, but your nose just froze and we have to get you inside.” He handed Mike the thermometer. It read 72 degrees below zero.
That night the last thing David Brinkley said on the Nightly News was, “And how cold was it in Tower, Minnesota this morning? It was cold enough that you could pound nails with a banana. Keep warm, and good night from ABC News.”
Charles called later to say the banana line was on every major news network that night. And he added it was colder in Tower than at either Pole. Charles said he had been at the coldest place on earth once, and he had to travel hundreds of miles to get there. He said that all Mike had to do was drive 20 miles and pitch a tent. (Quotes above from “Stories of Old Ely” by Mike Hillman, Singing River Publications, P. O. Box 72, Ely, MN 55731, www.singingriverpublications.com).
And how did the bears fare? Lynn remembers the great concern at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary when the usual bears did not show up there that spring. But Lily Fans already know the rest of this story. It turned out to be the greatest year for bear food we have ever seen. The bears didn’t care about garbage, bird feeders, or food offered at the Sanctuary and local feeding stations. The bears were occupied in the forest eating the best that nature had to offer. Near the end of summer when natural foods waned, all the usual bears showed up at the Sanctuary. They had fared just fine in the 1996 winter of record cold.
On a different (but related) note, a Lily Fan came across a great article put out by Yellowstone National Park on “Denning and Hibernation Behavior.” We could only find one wrong sentence in the whole article. It’s a great 2-page summary on the topic, plus a page of references for anyone who wants to read further. It is at http://www.nps.gov/yell/naturescience/denning.htm.
Thank you for all you do.
—Lynn Rogers and Sue Mansfield, Biologists, Wildlife Research Institute and North American Bear Center
Wildlife Research Institute
145 West Conan Street
Ely, Minnesota 55731 USA