WOSTER: This is not the first hot SD summer; it won't be the lastMy friend, in his middle 80s, I’d guess, summed it up this way: “I’ve seen longer hot, dry spells in South Dakota, but I don’t remember when.”
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
I visited with an old friend the other day, and as it often does during a South Dakota summer — and way more so during the month of July in this South Dakota summer — the conversation turned to the weather.
I’d just come from the river, where Nancy and I had joined two other couples in a kayak trip from just below Oahe Dam down to Marion’s Garden. The Corps of Engineers had the release rate from the dam cranked up, so the current was ripping downstream at a pretty fair clip. That’s always a good thing if you’re paddling in the same direction, and it was especially so last Saturday when a generally upstream breeze freshened us through the course of our kayak journey. We made it, in spite of all odds, and with the temperature near 100 degrees, the spray from the waves that crashed against the bows of the kayaks was far from unpleasant.
With the journey finished and the watercraft tucked away in the box of the pickup, I stopped to visit my friend, as I said. We talked about the long, long string of sweltering days, the lack of rain and the frequent harsh winds. My friend, in his middle 80s, I’d guess, summed it up this way: “I’ve seen longer hot, dry spells in South Dakota, but I don’t remember when.”
That’s about as good an answer as a guy can get when he talks with an old-timer about how a current stretch of hot (or cold, or rainy or dry or stormy) weather compares with the all-time worst ones the old-timer has ever seen. That’s my opinion, anyway, based on years and years of newspaper reporting that frequently involved assignments to write another drought story and find some old-timers to talk about how the current one compared with the ones they remembered from the early days.
Those could be great fun. Listening to the elders of South Dakota as they talked about their personal histories was one of the most rewarding parts of being a newspaper reporter. It never ceased to surprise me, either, how willing most folks in South Dakota were to open up to a complete stranger. Sometimes I’d just pull into a town, stop in the drug store or café, ask “Who should I talk to about droughts (or storms or rains or blizzards) of the past,” and I’d walk out with two or three names, addresses or directions to homes and like as not a phone number or two. And the people who had been singled out would invite me into their homes, like as not give me fresh cookies and answer all sorts of personal questions.
Those old-time weather assignments could be frustrating, too. I don’t think I ever worked one in which everyone agreed that the current drought was or was not worse than the last one or the one before that or the Great Depression. The Depression, the Dirty Thirties, was the gold standard for drought measurements with my news sources.
I remember one old-timer out around Winner telling me that a string of dry years the state was experiencing was far worse than the Depression. Later in the day, at a stop in Kadoka to chat with another old fellow, I repeated what the Winner man had said. The Kadoka fellow said that was crazy talk, that nothing since the 1930s has ever come close to the woes of the Great Depression, and probably nothing would.
Well, the crops looked equally dry in both areas that day, and the cattle looked just as thirsty in the pastures outside of Winner as they did in the pastures outside of Kadoka. But the two old-timers who had lived through the same Great Depression had completely opposite notions of how that latest drought compared.
A year ago at this time, the Missouri River where I live was running way over its natural banks, held in by levees along both shorelines. My dad used to say South Dakota was never more than three weeks from a drought. It took a little longer than that this year — but not all that much longer.