Survival on cold comfort campus

April 2, 1999

One of the most important subjects Amy Stiffler says she has learnt as a student at Bemidji State University was not from a book or a lecturer. It was how to survive severe cold.

When Ms Stiffler's car broke down one night on a remote road in temperatures of minus 45oF, she knew she had to put on layers of clothing, change her wet socks and stay in the car until daybreak.

Bemidji State in north Minnesota is one of the coldest campuses in the United States. Winter lasts most of the academic year.

An environmental studies major, Ms Stiffler has chosen an environment so severe that researchers from other universities study it. Ford Motor Company even tests its engines there to see if they bear up.

"Nothing works when it's minus 45oF," Ms Stiffler said. "But we still go to class."

Many of the people in Bemidji are descended from lumberjacks and iron miners. They take pride in their ability to live with the cold for half the year. Most are avid cross-country skiers or go hunting, snowmobiling and ice fishing on the adjacent Lake Bemidji.

Students can take courses in winter camping, which teaches them how to build snow caves and stay warm. The buildings are connected by underground tunnels and the frozen lake is used to relieve a parking shortage, although parking on the lake is increasingly frowned on for environmental reasons.

"It's sort of a northern Minnesota thing," said Tim Engrav, director of outdoor programmes. "The kind of people who come here enjoy this kind of weather."

Dale Ladig, director of residential life, said: "You have to do one of two things: be comfortable doing things outside or comfortable curling up with a book, because unless you can do that, you'll go crazy."

Cabin fever is a major concern for the university's 4,000 students, Mr Ladig says. "We will have times of very prolonged, very cold weather when everyone takes to the tunnels," he said. "The avid outdoor people are still doing their outdoor activities, but you need to have things indoors."

The university opened a huge indoor recreation centre in 1990, complete with pool. On really cold nights, it hands out hot chocolate and the university president reads children's stories to the students as a lark in front of one of the many fireplaces for which students buy and store kindling.

"I think there's a survival excitement when you get into winter, that you can survive in that climate and thrive and enjoy it," Mr Ladig said.

Not everyone likes the cold, says senior Andy Eggerth, a competitive runner who was drawn to the school by its indoor running track. "But they have a good attitude about it. Maybe it's just because I've lived here all my life, but I don't think it's that bad."

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