Saturday, August 7, 2021

Gone with the wind off Lake Superior...

Written by By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on August 6, 2021

Some like it hot, they say. I’m one of them. I like it hot, as it has been this rare summer in Duluth and the northland. And we’re just a week into August. Whew.

 How does it happen that a native Duluthian, such as I, could be so fond of hot weather when in most years we get so little of it? That’s exactly why. We traditionally get so little of it that when we do, when the mercury hovers near 90 Fahrenheit, I become elated, but at the same time wary that it could abruptly end.


I learned to like it hot in my childhood, listening to my parents decrying the northeast wind’s arrival all too often in summer. That’s the wind, commonly known as the “nor’easter,” that ushers the cool air perpetually hovering over our beloved Lake Superior into our city.


You could be enjoying a perfectly lovely day, a southwesterly breeze wafting in nice warm air, when suddenly — oops — the wind would change to a northeaster and the temperature would drop from, maybe 80, to around 57. Ugh. Break out the sweaters and sweatshirts, raise the top of the convertible; it’s going to be cooler near the lake. (More on “Cooler Near the Lake” at the end of this column.)


When I was a child growing up in what was known in those ancient times as Duluth’s West End, one of our neighbors had a weathervane atop his garage in the alley behind our house, visible from our small pantry window.


It never failed. Even the gentle wafting of the first breaths of a nor’easter wind would reverse the arrow on that weathervane from southwest to northeast and the temperature would start dropping. In our family, we kept our eye on that weathervane whenever we were experiencing a nice warm day, just waiting for the arrow to point toward the lake and change everything. Goodbye nice warm day.


Oh, the dread. Oh, the disappointment. Chilly in July. That’s why I like it hot.


In my early 20s, when I was on active duty in the Army, I was stationed for a time at Fort Lee in Virginia in July. The weather is always hot south of Richmond, Va., in summer. Back then, there was no air conditioning in the barracks, just large screened windows in case a cool breeze might come up as the troops slept. It seldom did.


Fellow soldiers, some from the South, would be writhing in their bunks, sweat pouring from their brows and backs, fitful sleep caused by the unrelenting heat. I, in their midst, would throw a sheet over my boxer shorts-T-shirt clad body and sleep like a…well, I hate to employ a well-worn cliché, but how better to put it than to say I would sleep like a log in the high summer heat of the deep South. (Well, there’s “sleep like a baby” too but everybody knows babies’ sleep isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.)


How could a private soldier from the far north sleep soundly through hot summer nights in the South? I always figured that, being from Northern Minnesota, Duluth in particular, I was finally thawing out. 


Back here on the home front and recalling way back during my early years, there was one drawback whenever the blessed southerly breezes pushed the cold air back on Lake Superior. The warm wind would invariably be accompanied by a strange odor, a sort of sweet stink. This was universally known as the smell of Cloquet.


When you smelled Cloquet, you knew it was going to warm up, making it kind of a mixed blessing. Of course the odor came from Cloquet’s wood industries, their air quality unregulated in those days by the environmental concerns that were invoked later. The ranks of those of us who remember the stink of Cloquet are thinning.


Still, it was worth it if the breezes brought warm weather, as far as I was concerned.


I have visited the vicissitudes of Duluth weather before in this column. Years ago I composed some light verse with the title “Cooler Near the Lake.” I’ll just reprint the final two verses here, one more time…make that one last time:


“I know the day is coming when

The real God’s Country beckons,

And when St. Peter meets me there,

He’ll ask my home, I reckon.

When I tell him it’s Duluth,

He’ll say, “For heaven’s sake,

Ain’t that the place everyone says

Is cooler near the lake?”


“That’s it,” I’ll cry, “oh kindly saint,

And in this realm please spare,

From chilly off-lake breezes,

And winter underwear.”

“If it’s heat you want,” he’ll reply,

“In the other place you’ll bake!”

“Fine, send me any place except

Where it’s cooler near the lake.”


We’ll see.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at

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