This winter of 2022-2023 has been a one with plenty of snow. Most people who live for any length of time in Minnesota have a stockpile of memories about particular winters that they will tell you were the snowiest, the coldest, the easiest, the longest, or just “the worst!”
The wonderful magazine “Ore, Iron and Men” was published monthly from 1950 to 1963 for employees and their families of the Oliver Iron Mining Division of the United States Steel Corporation. The magazines provide insight into how iron ore mining was done during those years, but also contained in those pages are terrific stories about family life, awards received, and leisure activities.
From the February 1956 issue comes a story about a group of Boy Scouts, their adult leaders, guide and a pack of sled dogs who all endured a memorable winter camping trip. Several of the Scouts were sons of Oliver employees, and their scout leader was an employee of the Oliver.
Scouts from Hibbing’s Explorer Post 2 will talk about the blizzard of February 20, 1955, for years to come. Their motto “Be Prepared” is always with them and this is one time it really paid off.
On Friday, February 18, twelve Explorer Scouts with their leader, Bob Rathbun, left the Hibbing Village Hall in three cars loaded with snowshoes, heavy clothes, pack sacks, food and other equipment headed for a three-day journey across the rugged snowdrifts of Lake Kabetogama.
The first part of this memorable trip was uneventful. The group arrived at Lake Kabetogama about 3:30 P.M. where they met their guide, George Esslinger, his 11-year old son, Denny, and seven sled dogs. This was Denny’s first trip and he would take the rugged life in stride. Also along was Bob Brooks, the Assistant Editor of the nationally published monthly scouting magazine “Boys’ Life.” (The title of this magazine is now “Scout Life.”)
It wasn’t long before the boys started across the big lake, followed by George Esslinger and the dogs pulling the food and camp equipment on sleds. It was snowing lightly but the thermometer read a comfortable 24 degrees, almost too warm for comfort! The heavy wet snow gathered on the snowshoes causing some trouble, but the party crossed the four-mile lake expanse at dusk.
Needless to say, they were hungry. Mike Mahoney and Joe Dolinich, both sons of Oliver employees, were in charge of the first meal. Their knowledge in the art of cooking soon satisfied everybody’s empty stomach. Working by candlelight, the boys managed to have supper ready at 8:00 P.M. Supper consisted of salmon patties, boiled potatoes, corn, bread, cocoa, tea and coffee.
After supper the Scouts in charge of breakfast the following morning, along with George Esslinger and Bob Brooks, were assigned beds in an old hunter’s shack. The others prepared lean-tos near the cabin. Huge fires were built in front of the open lean-tos and at about midnight everyone crawled into their sleeping bags. Soon after, the dogs began to howl, adding to the blustery wilderness picture.
Heavy winds arrived shortly after midnight, followed by additional snow, chilling the noses protruding from the sleeping bags. The fires soon diminished to ashes. However, this wasn’t for long as Joe Dolinich decided the fire was much warmer than the snow which was blowing into his sleeping bag. He soon had company when Don Jacobson and Dale Madson climbed out of their lean-to to help build the fires back up. At 3:30 A.M., with temperatures below zero, the Scouts were gathered around the fire waiting for the alarm to awaken the cooking crew.
That morning crew did a good job in preparing a hot breakfast of bacon, eggs and oatmeal. The Scouts then broke camp and started on a journey to another inland bay in the Lake Kabetogama region.
After arriving in that bay area, an hour was spent selecting a place to prepare the largest project of the trip—a huge lean-to to protect the boys from the coming night. The guide, George Esslinger, a veteran of World War II, instructed the boys in the preparation of winter camping and how to survive the cold.
Huge trees were felled to use as large heat reflectors. Boughs from fir trees were gathered and used to kindle a fire which soon lent to a homey atmosphere. Dinner was served by the boys and the rest of the afternoon was spent looking over the snow-covered pines and firs while hiking into the woods to collect a large supply of firewood for the long night to come.
The dogs were tied just outside of the lean-to but soon were almost buried by the heavy snowfall. These beautiful malamutes and huskies were the pride of the trip as they made friends with the boys. Meals of fish were fed to the dogs prior to their night’s sleep.
After supper chores, the boys gathered around the fire to sing songs. George Esslinger related some of his war experiences when he had charge of a rescue dog team in Europe and Alaska. A fun fest was held just before 11:00, and soon the lean-to was filled with tired Scouts. A few wanted to try to keep the fire going and elected to stay up as long as they could—chatting and singing.
It was shortly after midnight when more boys who could not sleep because of the falling temperature gathered around the fire and piled more wood on it. The wind began to howl, bringing with it a blinding blizzard. The whirling snow soon covered the lean-to and the once brown and green sleeping bags, causing a cold and lonely scene.
Silence came over the boys when George Esslinger gave a sharp warning telling them not to leave the camp under any conditions. He said, “To become lost in this area would be tragic.”
The storm persisted for hours—drifts of snow outlined the fire, along with boys stamping their feet. They threw blankets over their heads to help ward off the severe cold winds. As one of the adults put it, “The boys became men and took it on the chin as each hour wore on.”
The schedule called for a 6:00 A.M. departure, but due to the severe storm and zero visibility, it was decided to not leave until daylight had come upon the land more fully.
Not long after 6:00 all the boys were up and anxious to be on their way—the dogs were barking, too, and pulling on their ropes. At 7:00, George gave the signal for the boys to break trail across the five miles of snowfields with winds raging in the biggest blizzard any of the boys had ever tried to tramp through. Because of the low visibility, they could not travel more than 50 feet from the sled.
Instead of easing, the storm became increasingly worse and it was necessary to release the plodding dogs from the sleds in the rising snowdrifts. However, upon being released from their heavy burden, they caused many boys to fall as the dogs stepped on the boys’ snowshoes, making a comedy out of the struggling boys. But, the Scouts crawled and stumbled to their feet without a whimper.
After the dogs were released from the sled, one of the malamutes, “Igloo,” turned around in the trail and headed back to the camp the boys had left. Though he was called and called by George to come back, he never turned around. The last that was seen of him was a large white form fading into the snowdrifts to the east. It was later learned that he returned to the other dogs after satisfying himself that the camp was entirely empty.
Step after step no land was in sight. The snow became sleet, then hail, then blinding gusts of powdered snow. They felt like they were walking into unknown lands as their vision was lost.
After two and one half hours of stumbling, tripping, laughing and many anxious moments, they arrived at Kline’s Landing only to find that it was necessary to form a shoveling brigade to release several snowbound cars. The large bus that George had for carrying his dogs swerved off the road and into a ditch. Other cars that came to pick up the boys had difficulty making the steep hills, so another job awaited them as they turned to lifting cars and pushing them uphill. It was after 1:00 P.M. when they landed in Orr to devour a healthy meal.
None the worse for wear and tear, the boys and men who made this trip learned what it means to survive in the cold and snow. They found how important it is to listen to a man like George Esslinger who knows what it means to “Be Prepared.”
All agree who made the 12 mile trip is that “they wouldn’t care to go through it very soon again, but it was worth more than money could buy in experience.” A grand guide, a swell, courageous group of boys, and a dog team that is tops—those things will always be remembered.
One boy slept 20 hours after arriving home. For years after, the adults agree, these Scouts will remember the blizzard on Lake Kabetogame and “the times we thought we would never survive!”
The following Scouts made the trip: Ray Abel, Steve Bunetto, Terry Hendricks, Jerry Kleffman, Tom Lang, Duane Stolpe, Barry Woodle. “Oliver boys” on the trip were: Joe Dolinich, Don Jacobson, Dale Madson, Mike Mahoney. Adults on the trip: Bob Brooks, George Esslinger and his son Denny. Also on the trip was Oliver employee and Explorer Scout Advisor of Post 2 Hibbing Bob Rathbun, who is a long-time Scouter, previously a Scoutmaster in Duluth, and chosen in 1953 to be one of the Jamboree Scoutmasters, resulting in 22 Scouts from Post 2 attending the National Jamboree. Under his leadership and guidance, five boys have so far achieved Eagle rank and another five have their applications under way. He is an excellent example of a citizen for the boys. He also finds the time to teach a Sunday School class and take part in other church activities. At the Oliver, he is currently the claim supervisor for the Hibbing-Chisholm district. He is typical of the scores of Oliver employees active in leading worthwhile programs within their communities.
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