INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. — Spring arrived here at 10:14 Wednesday morning, long-shut windows were opened a crack, flies buzzed against the screens, "Snowmobile for Sale" signs were blooming even if the lilacs weren't, and the talk at Jim's Cafe downtown was about sea gulls.
Sea gulls and spring.
Local legend has it that the return of gulls to this land of lakes means only three more big snowfalls lie ahead.
"Spring here is just like spring in every community--only three weeks later," said Dan Ganter, sipping coffee at the counter on a brilliantly sunny day, the temperature well below freezing.
A few sea gulls have been spotted floating on ice chunks in Rainy River, bobbing signs that another winter is ending but not over. It's too cold here for groundhogs in February, so sea gulls in March have to do.
As the sun moved northward across the Equator Wednesday, the nation officially shook off a winter of record low temperatures from Florida to Chicago. Here on the 47th Parallel, this hamlet of 6,000, which takes a measure of perverse pride in being America's own arctic whipping boy, logged 17 days as the coldest spot in the lower 48 states this winter.
The gauge at the weather station read 21 degrees when spring arrived.
International Falls wasn't exactly celebrating spring. But at least it was crawling out of hibernation.
"We've made it again," said Robert W. Anderson, part-time mayor and lifelong Falls resident. "We've made it through another winter!"
Spring here is less a feat of nature than a state of mind. Residents must look closely for its signs, especially when their lawns are covered with snow and the frozen lake can still support logging trucks and airplane landings.
"Your husband shovels a path through the snow so you can get the ladder to wash the windows--that's spring fever," said Carol Anderson, the mayor's wife.
Despite the cold, people here got a bit antsy Wednesday. Windbreakers replaced parkas and sport shirts appeared under business suits. Joggers ran for the first time in months without hats or gloves.
Spring is a subtle season in International Falls.
"It's kind of nice to see water running again" in Rainy River, said Bill (Huntz) Wagner, whose assorted duties at the tiny airport include plowing the runway.
"Even such a little thing as the runway showing up through the ice is invigorating and enlightening," he said.
Small airplanes were lined up at the airport for the annual shoe change--from skis back to tires. Red and green fire hydrants, topped by flags to keep snowplows from running them down, were once again peeking above the snow.
Ice Box Days
Another sign: A crew that had been testing an auto anti-skid device on the plentiful ice packed up and moved north Wednesday. Teams from other companies from down south--places like Detroit--have already left after a winter of pitting batteries and antifreeze against the subzero cold.
International Falls traditionally shakes off the winter doldrums in January with Ice Box Days, a festival that includes a softball tournament on ice and a 10-kilometer Freeze Your Gizzard Blizzard Run in temperatures a couple dozen degrees below zero.
But, for those who can't afford trips to Florida and Arizona, there is little respite from spring. The appearance of the first robin is several weeks away. That first dandelion won't come up until sometime in May, followed by the first cluster of purple lilacs, the first rhubarb pulled up for sauce and the first apple blossoms.
Gardens aren't planted until June, and even then a freeze is likely.
In many ways, spring--not winter--is the worst season in the Falls.
"It's cabin fever time," said Dave Ramnes, general manager of the International Falls Daily Journal. "You can't snowmobile because it's too slushy; you can't hunt; you can't fish much; you can't cross-country ski.
"Pretty soon, it'll get gray and gloomy and start snowing again--and that can really get you down."
About the only diversions at this time of year are hockey and curling, a sport played with 40-pound rocks on ice. But soon those arenas will melt away. Card clubs are popular, and reading too; the local library has the highest per-capita use of any in Minnesota.
"Spring is really the transition time between winter and the Fourth of July," Mayor Anderson said.
So when does spring begin?
"When the ice goes out of the lake--about May," Ganter said.
"When you go out to the golf course and you can see the fairway. That's spring," said Roy Linsten. But that's also May.
"Spring isn't here until you take your long johns off," said Richard Debenedet, who hasn't.
But, of course, everyone knows when spring really begins--three snowfalls after the sea gulls appear.