Winona native Jon Steffes, an avid hunter and fisherman, grew up listening to his father, Bob Steffes, talk about his time on the river patiently waiting for the perfect drake to swoop down, or in the backwoods of bluff country on the quest for the biggest buck. But, out of all the stories that his father has passed down, no one is more vivid than the tale of his father surviving the devastating Armistice Day blizzard of 1940. In his new book, “Wings in the Wind,” Steffes takes parts of his father’s story and crafts it in an easy-to-read format for young children.
“My father didn’t talk about this day very often but he did keep a detailed journal of his hunting experiences,” Steffes said. “He would write down where he was anchored right down to how many shots he took. As I kept reading, I came across his entry for the Armistice Day blizzard and that got me intrigued. So, I went to the historical society and began searching through articles.”
As the spring of 2011 approached, Steffes put pen to paper describing the events that changed the lives of so many people. A delicate blend of fact and fiction sets the stage for the day leading up to and following his father’s horrific journey into a frigid Minnesota snowstorm and back.
‘Beats sittin’ at school’
Bob, a 16-year-old Winona high schooler, was dedicated to two things – hunting and baseball. A pitcher for the local sporting good store’s team, Bob was a star player on the field. When he wasn’t running the bases, he was out on the Mississippi calling ducks.
An enthusiastic Bob woke up around 4 a.m. on the morning of November 11, 1940, to help his father, Nic, in the family’s car garage business before heading out to hunt. Armistice Day meant no school for
Winona area kids. Nic promised Bob they would go hunting together, but it seemed everyone in Winona was in need of an oil change or tire rotation. Bob was allowed to leave work just after 10 a.m. and promptly headed for Prairie Island. The weather was a little warm for November but nothing unusual. There was a slight chance for rain in the forecast, but Bob saw that as an advantage.
“Starting in the bay a bit, Bob unwound each decoy and tossed it into the water,” the book reads. “Satisfied with his decoy spread, Bob began driving his boat toward the shore. A little wind and rain would push the ducks to the calmer bays, giving him some good shooting.”
However, the ducks weren’t flying. Bob and his Black Labrador retriever, Duke, sat and waited. A glance at his watch sometime later told him it was past 2 p.m., and still no birds had come. But, as if by
magic, a flock of a dozen mallards responded to his hail call.
“Even in the growing wind and rain, Bob picked out a drake and squeezed off three shots just as they were about to touch down in the water, dropping two birds,” the book reads. But, within 20 minutes,
Steffes’ confident character, Bob, got an uneasy feeling from the increasing wind and rain, and rapid decline in temperature.
Suddenly, Bob saw two hunters in a boat trying to cross Twin Lakes. The wind had churned up the waters and engulfed the hunters’ boat by what Bob thought to be four-foot waves. “Then, just like that, a bad angle through the waves, maybe someone shifted their weight weird in the boat; the hunters’ boat lurched hard and slowed, taking on water over the back.” Bob risked life and limb and paddled out to the quickly capsizing boat. Ed and Bruce, the two hunters, were plucked from the freezing waters and the three stranded young men made their way to the shore of nearby woods.
What ensued next was 24 hours of mind numbingly cold weather wailing down on Bob, Ed, Bruce, and Duke, and the story of their fight to stay alive. However, this is where Steffes blends fact and fiction.
“Everything that my father went through before the storm hit was real, his life story created the storyline,” Steffes said. “But, my dad was one of the lucky ones to make it back to shore before the storm got bad.”
The struggle in the woods that the characters go through is based on real stories told by hunters who were stranded during the Armistice Day blizzard. Bob had to use his Evinrude-powered boat as a makeshift shelter, a survival technique that dozens of hunters actually took, Steffes said.
“I did a lot of research from articles written about the guys who were stranded and I incorporated parts of their stories into my father’s,” Steffes said. “In a way, Bob’s character is a representation of all
the stranded hunters.”
The three hunters and their loyal companion Duke are sent on a literal whirlwind of adventure trying to get back to safety. "Wings in the Wind" is a story of immense courage and brute strength, and tells the
true story of life and death seen through the eyes of three teenagers.
Passing on the tradition
As Jon Steffes grew older, got married, and moved to La Crescent, the time he spent out in nature with his father became even more important. Bob was 52 years old when Jon was born and suffered a stroke when Jon was just 9 years old. However, that didn’t deter his father from watching from shore.
“He sat in our family station wagon or in a lawn chair on the bank and watched us,” Steffes said. “He was always a part of our outdoor adventure. But, I was never able to go duck hunting with him because of the stroke. I know he really missed duck hunting.”
When his father passed away in 2001, Steffes made it a point to give his own son, Cal, now 13, the hunting experience he wishes he could have had with his father. The two have been to Canada hunting several times, are avid fisherman, and each summer, the family boards their pontoon and makes the journey out to the slough that Bob frequented.
“We follow his path down Crooked Slough, down through Fountain City, and over to Minnesota City,” Steffes said. “A lot of the area and channels have since changed because of the flooding, but the spirit of my dad is still there.”
Every now and then, Jon gets a hankering for a Pabst Blue Ribbon and a chat at the Elks Club, where he and he father would often talk trapping, hunting, and his time serving in the navy. But, it’s when Steffes is on the water or in the woods that he misses his dad the most. With the 72nd anniversary of the deadly Armistice Day blizzard today, Steffes said his dad would have been proud to read his story.
“My father always taught me how important it was to take advantage of the nature that surrounds us,” Steffes said. “We have bluffs, river bottoms, open land. We live in a great place and I think he was trying to teach me the excitement of exploration. I still go hunting with the same group of guys that my dad hunted with 50 years ago. And, to still hear stories about his adventures really touches me.”
“Wings in the Wind” is available at Pearl Street Bookstore in La Crosse and on Amazon. The cover art for the book was generously donated by the famous Houston, Minn., wildlife artist, Michael Sieve.