Polar vortex

Well, it is above zero this morning - at least on the Fahrenheit scale. The last couple of days I have awoken to temperatures on the minus side. And the short term forecast calls for slightly warming temperatures. Today’s high should be above 20 and tomorrow may even get above freezing. That’s little consolation for the paddler in me. The lake is frozen, and is likely to stay that way for some time. Next week is heading colder and it is going to stay that way for a while.

Meteorologists call the phenomena the polar vortex. There is a large area of low pressure and cold air that normally surrounds the poles. It is kept in place by the jet stream, an area of fast upper atmosphere winds that create a sort of barrier between warm and cold air masses. From time to time, a strong ridge of high pressure forms in the jet stream and drives that cold arctic air south. The same thing happens in the southern hemisphere with the south pole’s vortex. It can happen at any time of the year, but we are more aware of it during the winter because the Arctic air is colder due to the lack of sunlight and the jet stream makes a more extreme move to the south.

It pretty much feels like someone left the freezer door open when you step outside.

Most of the state of North Dakota is under a wind chill advisory with temperatures as low as -35 with the wind chill factored in. Having lived in North Dakota during the December polar vortex of 1983, I’m aware of how cold it can get. That year the cold out ran the furnace in one of the small churches we served and the interior temperature of the building plummeted below 50 degrees even with the furnace running full time. When the air temperature (not factoring in the wind chill) sinks below -40, everything, including metal, becomes brittle and breaks easily.

That particular polar vortex sort of settled in and kept things cold for quite while. We even made the national news for the coldest temperature in the lower 48 on Christmas Day.

From that experience, I also remember that there wasn’t much press coverage during the days when the coldest weather was in North Dakota. Cold temperatures in North Dakota simply aren’t news. However, when the jet stream pushes a bit to the east, people will start to notice. Below zero temperatures are mildly interesting in Minneapolis, news in Chicago and headlines in Boston and Washington, DC. This particular pattern should plunge much of the United States into temperatures that are way below normal for the next couple of weeks. It looks like it could be below freezing in Texas and other parts of the Deep South by the end of next week.

So we’re off to Bridger with a caravan of pickups and trailers filled with firewood this morning. It’s the same destination to which some of us headed last week. We’re stockpiling firewood there for distribution to private homes and to provide support for the annual Chief Big Foot memorial ride to Wounded Knee.

Last year’s ride was one of the largest ever as it was both the 25th anniversary of the modern ride and the 125th anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee. That first ride, now 26 years ago, was made by just 19 riders, who retraced the 7 day journey made by Big Foot’s people in 1890. The ride was repeated from 1986 to 1990, when the original riders were joined by walkers, runners and hundreds more. The size of the ride meant that support people were needed to carry off the venture. The participants camp outdoors and survive the cold temperatures as their way of remembering and healing from the crimes and tragedies of the past.

This year, with temperatures even colder than recent years, support teams will be needed to insure the safety of the animals and riders.

The group will arrive at our church in Bridger on December 21 and there will be a rest day in Bridger on the 22nd. Meals will be prepared and served from the fellowship hall of our church there and the horses will be cared for in the fenced area provided for the horses of the church’s horse program. Those who are not prepared to camp outdoors will be housed at the Takini School. Bridger is the half-way point in the ride, which begins up on the Grand River just west of Little Eagle on the Standing Rock Reservation. The riders will leave Bridger on the morning of December 23, camping near Phillip and Scenic before riding through the canyons of the badlands on Christmas Day and arriving at Wounded Knee after the final night on the trail near Kyle.

The ride is interspersed with prayer services held at a variety of sacred sites including Chief Sitting Bull’s camp, the place where he was slain on December 15, 1890. Covering nearly 200 miles of trail, the ride is intended to combine spirituality with education. It is geared especially for teens to develop a deeper appreciation for the history and culture of the Lakota people. It is about never forgetting, but it is also about healing.

I have had the opportunity to listen to the stories of a couple of people whose lives were transformed by the experience of the ride. One person I know had been trapped in a cycle of alcoholism and chronic unemployment until the ride with its strict rules about sobriety and discipline provided an opportunity for him to make some fundamental changes in his life. He now serves as an instructor in a youth horse program, working to prevent some of the problems that plagued his young adult years.

We, of course, will be traveling in modern pickup trucks with reliable heaters in a caravan with others who could help should we experience any problems. This will likely be the last firewood delivery of 2016 for our crew, unless an emergency call is received.

Still, it is cold out there, folks. Bundle up and be careful. If only we could remember what it felt like last summer when we were sweltering as we mowed the lawn . . .

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!