Thriving in a Freezing Climate

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Seasonal, Traditions
on January 7, 2001

When the mercury on the 22-foot thermometer in Smokey Bear Park drops below freezing and the snow starts flying in International Falls, Minn., Shad Murray gets a warm feeling inside.

Murray, a construction worker who operates a snow plow business in the winter, knows the phone soon will be ringing and an exhilarating snowmobile ride across ice-covered Rainy Lake isn't far away.

"The cold is really more of a positive thing up here," Murray says. "I'm a big snowmobiler, so I look forward to winter."

People in International Falls (pop. 8,000) have learned to embrace—and even capitalize on—the cold and snow that winter brings. They really don't have a choice; when you live in northern Minnesota, you have to take extreme weather in stride. It's part of life.

During a normal winter, more than 60 inches of snow falls in International Falls, and the average temperature is 5 degrees. When you factor in the wind, it can feel like 75 below zero in the self-proclaimed Icebox of America.

"It gets so cold, the snow cracks," Murray says. "You can hear it as you drive."

For the last 50 years, engineers from around the country have come to town to test products against the worst that winter can deliver, and several companies have even filmed commercials on frozen Rainy Lake. At one point, there was a fleet of cars parked on the lake for a Sears Diehard battery commercial, recalls Mayor Jack Murray.

In 1990, the Minnesota Cold Weather Resource Center was headquartered in International Falls to capitalize on this natural resource. Construction is under way on a $400,000 cold box facility, which will allow companies to test products while engineers wait for winter weather to arrive. The facility will be capable of maintaining temperatures as low as minus 35 degrees in any season.

Cold temperatures also allow loggers to venture onto nearby swampland with heavy equipment after the ground freezes. Some of the felled trees are turned into pulp at the Boise Cascade Corp.'s paper mill, the towns largest employer.

When the workdays done, townspeople also know how to have fun—despite the weather. Snowmobilers take advantage of an extensive trail system that crisscrosses the U.S.-Canada border, and outdoorsmen create a makeshift town on frozen Rainy Lake. Some portable ice-fishing shacks are equipped with all the comforts of homeheaters, padded chairs, tables, even portable stoves.

"Ice fishing is a real social activity here," says F.R. Woody, owner of a fishing guide service. "In the middle of winter, there might be 400 icehouses on that lake. You fish a little, play some cards, then walk over to the neighbors place to visit."

"In the wintertime, the lake looks exactly like a scene from the movie Grumpy Old Men," Woody says. "Exactly," he emphasizes.

People in International Falls also celebrate winter at an annual bash known as Icebox Days. This year's event, scheduled Jan. 18-21, features an Ode to the Cold poetry contest, a cold pizza delivery race, snow skiing events, and a Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard 10K run, as well as snow sculpting, ice skating, and, for the daring, a dip in the icy waters of Rainy Lake.

"We have cold temperatures and warm hearts," Jack Murray says. "I've traveled all over, but I wouldn't trade living in this area with any place else. I love the country, and the people here are special. There seems to be a happiness about them you dont find anywhere else."