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Upper Mississippi River Revisited

The author returns to the big river to hunt ducks on the anniversary of the Armistice Day Storm 
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  • Nicklaus and his Chesapeake Bay retriever Ludwig keep a sharp lookout for ducks from a makeshift blind.
    photo by MichaelFurtman.com
  • photo by MichaelFurtman.com
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More than 70 years ago, hundreds of duck gunners taking advantage of the Armistice Day holiday (now called Veterans Day) headed to the Mississippi River. They had no idea how that day and the next would unfold. When the weather turned ugly, many became trapped on islands by gale-force winds and a raging river.

According to one report, 60-degree temperatures the morning of November 11 were followed by single-digit readings by the morning of November 12. Mild weather ahead of an intense low-pressure system tracking from Kansas to western Wisconsin was quickly followed by a raging blizzard. Up to 26 inches of snow fell in Minnesota. Winds ranging from 50 to 80 miles an hour were recorded in parts of Wisconsin, NebraskaMinnesota, Iowa, and Michigan. More than 150 deaths were blamed on the storm. Many of those who died were duck hunters along the big river. Fifty-nine sailors died on Lake Michigan. 

"The winds of hell were loose on the Mississippi Armistice day and night," wrote Gordon MacQuarrie, outdoor editor of the Milwaukee Journal and Wisconsin's outdoor poet laureate. "They came across the prairies, from the south and west, a mighty, freezing, invisible force. They charged down from the river bluffs to the placid stream below and reached with deathly fingers for the life that beat beneath the canvas jackets of thousands of duck hunters."

ADVANCE WARNING Weather forecasting has come a long way since 1940, when scores of duck hunters perished during the Armistice Day Storm. With today's technology it's unlikely that hunters would be totally unaware of an impending storm of that magnitude. Up-to-the-minute weather reports are at the tips of one's fingers. There were no warnings for the Armistice Day disaster. Back then, the Weather Bureau's Chicago office issued only four forecasts per day for eight midwestern states. The morning of November 11, a moderate cold wave warning was issued. That storm, and another the following March, brought about a change in the way storms were forecast. Political pressure led to Weather Bureau staff expansion that distributed responsibilities to regional centers in order to provide more timely weather predictions. The Armistice Day Storm, however, still serves notice to duck hunters to be aware of possible changes in the weather before going afield.


MacQuarrie detailed the carnage in his inimitable writing style in the story "Armistice Day Storm." Duck hunting had been slow until that date. The early stages of the storm held promise for a great outing. 

Ducks poured into the river valley, riding the wind from the west. 

"The wind did it," MacQuarrie wrote. "The cold was its ally. Mother Nature, sometimes a blue-eyed girl with corn-colored hair, was a murderous mistress Tuesday night on the Mississippi.

"The ducks came and men died. They died underneath upturned skiffs as the blast sought them out on boggy, unprotected islands. They died trying to light fires and jumping and sparring to keep warm. They died sitting in skiffs. They died standing in river water to their hips, awaiting help."

A government tug boat, the Throckmorton, and other rescue boats were sent to retrieve marooned hunters. Famed aviator Max Conrad flew a Cub training plane over the river, relayed information to the boats about where to find hunters, and dropped supplies to many of those who had been stranded overnight. Communities rallied behind the rescue crews. Lives were saved. But this catastrophe remains duck hunting's darkest day.

"There were long prayers by the Mississippi's banks Tuesday," MacQuarrie wrote, "the day after Armistice, when the ducks came and men died." 

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