Although we had plenty of notice before last week’s Friday the 13th blizzard, when winter storm Xanto’s punch landed squarely, and powerfully, in Jerauld County, it was much more than we ever anticipated.
As I was finishing up an interview for the paper in town Friday morning, I noticed the wind pick up and visibility begin to wane. I started in on another question when my husband texted me, “You probably better not screw around much longer.”
I thought to myself, well this storm isn’t really supposed to hit until 1 p.m. It was only 11, but the snow was definitely starting to stick to the surface of Dakota Avenue — and I couldn’t risk the chance of getting stuck in town, especially if Jason needed my help with calves during the blizzard.
As I made my way west to our place on Highway 34, worry struck me like a ton of bricks. Road conditions were rapidly deteriorating and I noticed lightning and thunder along with the heavy snowfall. Odd. Any doubts about thundersnow really being a thing immediately vanished.
As I turned off of the icy highway and into our driveway, a frightening reality struck me: if this keeps up, my father-in-law Bob won’t be able to get to us and help my husband tend to calves during the blizzard. Jason would be stuck with me as his only helper.
After eight years living in rural Wessington Springs on a cattle ranch, I’m proud to admit I’ve come a long way from growing up in the suburbs of Phoenix — but my jobs usually include barn chores and bottle feeding calves with our youngest son JR. Robbie is quite the ranch hand when it comes to helping his dad and grandpa move cattle — but with these dangerous blizzard conditions, I felt better knowing the kids were safe inside.
The storm continued to gain momentum and after dinner, Jason headed back out. I heard the back door slam shut after about an hour. When I entered the mud room to ask him how he was getting along, I found him wearing an expression I’ve never seen before.
Anxious and frustrated, his eyes were wide with worry and his skin was bright red from the cold and wind. With fists clenched, he uttered four frightening words, “This is really bad.”
He told me that visibility was plummeting and that he was having a hard time navigating the snow in the Ranger. With strict instructions for the kids not to leave the house, I headed out with him, not sure how much help I’d be but curious about the conditions.
As we walked towards the Ranger, away from the wind break of the house, the force of the wind took my breath away, nearly knocking me over. Thick sheets of blowing snow made it nearly impossible to see more than a few feet ahead.
I jumped into the passenger side of the UTV and we headed south to check on the cows and calves. I sat in anxious anticipation as well as amazement — the depth, weight and sheer magnitude of the snow was something I’ve never seen before in my lifetime.
As we made it up the hill and through the electric gate that divided the space between us and where cows were calving, the Ranger came to an abrupt halt. I looked to Jason and the expletives that followed confirmed it — we were completely stuck.
Thunder and lighting roared as Jason made his way on foot through thigh-deep snow towards the shop to get the only thing that would get us un-stuck, one of the tractors.
As I sat alone in the Ranger awaiting Jason’s return, the clock ticked and visibility became a thing of the past. Terrible thoughts of Jason wandering in the wrong direction and getting lost entered my mind. I opened the Ranger door to see if I could see anything at all and a wind gust ripped it from my hands, pinning the door against the body of the UTV.
I’m supposed to be here to help and all I’ve ended up doing is leaving a gaping entryway for blowing snow to fill the cab of the Ranger. Panic set in and after many attempts and some sort of miracle, I was finally able to yank the door shut and clear out the snow before Jason returned.
Jason hooked a chain up to the Ranger as I got behind the wheel to navigate it out of the snow drift we were caught in. During the course of the next 30 minutes in futile attempts to get to the cows, we managed to get stuck several more times, finally surrendering to the fact that the Ranger, at this point, was useless.
I waited in the immobile UTV while Jason took the tractor to check the herd, filling the bucket with calves and making the round trip to the barn and back several times for another load.
With plenty of time alone with my thoughts, the no-nonsense voice of True Dakotan’s graphic designer and lifelong cattle rancher, Cam Fagerhaug, rung clear in my mind, “A horse sure would be handy now.”
When Jason was done getting the calves he could find into the barn, he came back to pull the Ranger, again, from a snow drift and lead me in with the tractor. I followed closely in the Ranger, hunched over the steering wheel with my face as close to the windshield as I could get, trying to catch a glimpse of the tractor’s lights to guide me towards the house. Disoriented and fearful of getting stuck again, my prayers were answered as we both made it back to the barn to start tending to the near-frozen baby calves.
The afternoon became a blur of wiping down violently shivering calves in the warm tack room, their hair caked in ice and snow like dreadlocks, feeding the newborns bottles of colostrum until night began to fall.
Jason went out at dark then came in, frustrated with zero visibility, utterly helpless and trying to navigate new territory he’s yet to experience in his cattle ranching career — not being able to get to or even see the cows. Nightfall combined with blowing snow made safely locating newborn calves impossible. After a long phone call with his dad, together they made the decision for Jason to stay in until daylight.
After a sleepless night, Jason found daylight to be equally as frustrating, with more hours of blizzard conditions causing the route to get to the cows completely impassible.
Banging his fists on the door to the mud room and hanging his head in defeat, he knew he had to get to the cows but wasn’t sure if he could until the wind died down. After a couple deep breaths, a creative idea came to him — and I was hoping that finally, I could be of some useful help.
We spent an hour removing panels and scooping snow to create a completely different pathway to get to the cows. Visibility was still bad but improving, and we got to work loading calves in the tractor bucket and up to the barn.
Glimmers of hope surfaced as conditions improved. Bob, along with Jason’s sister Jacki and brother-in law Jarrod Bultsma were eager to make the three-mile drive along SD Hwy 34 west to our place. We walked out to check the highway and found a six foot drift and a thick layer of ice covering the road. They bided their time until the state plow went by, then showed up ready to move snow and make navigating towards the cows more manageable.
As the storm moved on I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Grateful that our boys are old enough to stay inside alone. Grateful that Bob, Robbie and Jason were able to separate, organize and move cattle the day before the storm. Grateful that the shelter Bob and Jason built worked, and that losses were kept to a minimum. Grateful for the arrival of Bob, Jarrod and Jacki, after being Jason’s only helper for a terrifying 24 hours. Grateful for technology that warned us about this storm and allowed days of preparations. Grateful to all of the humble men and women who care for and tend to their animals everyday, year after year, in good weather and bad.
As Jason and Jacki started the work of pairing up mothers and their babies while Jarrod and Bob continued to move snow, the boys and I started to scoop around the barn, outbuildings and house.
Anyone who scooped out from this storm knows that the snow it brought was very heavy. When the boys took a much-needed water break and looked up from scooping, they noticed the sudden appearance of quite a few 15-foot high snow piles dotting the length of the yard — a result of Bob and Jarrod’s snow-moving handiwork. They pleaded for a play break and I obliged. It took a few minutes for the dynamic scooping duo to decide on the perfect snow pile to explore in yard, but they ended up picking a good one.
Located between the house, shop and machine shed, this particular snow pile was shielded from the wind. As I stood at the base of the mini-mountain watching the boys take off on their adventure, I noticed the sun’s warmth on my skin as it’s rays reflected off the snow. It occurred to me that it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that sensation, thinking back to the cold, wet winter we’ve all experienced this season.
I pushed that thought aside and came back to the present moment, enjoying the sounds of the boys’ laughter, the sun on my face and movement of the herd once again in the cattle yards.
Although the moment was short lived, it was revitalizing, helping me prepare for what’s to come as we continue spring calving in the high plains of South Dakota. With more snow on the way and the messy and dangerous issue of snowmelt adding to the already deep mud, I know that the struggles of this calving season are far from over.
I was reminded of this Monday night, as I was finishing this column on my laptop. Still catching up from the long, busy weekend, I drifted off to sleep in the recliner while writing.
The shrill ring of our landline jolted me out of a lovely, dreamless reverie around 11 p.m. When I picked up the phone, Jason’s voice was on the other end of the line.
“Honey,” he said in a tense voice. “I’m stuck again.”