River Flying in Winter

By W. Scott Olsen

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The Sheyenne River

Here is a truth, perhaps a secret, about the northern prairie: winter is the most beautiful season. Beautiful in the way hoar frost hangs from trees. Beautiful in the way snow can fall so gently you believe, for more than just a moment, you’ve entered a place both sacred and deep. Beautiful in the way that cold air can kill you fast. Beautiful in the way that sun dogs in the morning can make it seem like three suns ignite the horizon. Beautiful in the hard contrasts of winter light, every shape a crisp edge. Beautiful in the way that clear sky on a midwinter night is so quiet you swear you can hear the radio voices of stars. Beautiful in the way that every story is about staying alive, and beautiful in the way that people smile when they tell them.

Earlier this morning, a full moon rolled through white to yellow and then amber as it set. Yellow last night at rising. Bright crystal white at midnight. Yellow at setting. At sunrise, the temperature was 18 degrees below zero.  The wind chill was -38.

Two-thousand feet above the ground,

I level the airplane wings. This is where the Sheyenne River meets the Red River of the North. Upriver, I think. Always upriver. Upriver is toward what came before us, before here, before now. Upriver is history rushing at us. Downriver is water I’ve already seen. Not history. Just the past.

 I want to match the river turns and meanders, to feel the press of every river bend in my back and chest. There is a love between the airplane and the boat or ship—the captain of one nods to the pilot of the other. Currents and tide are winds and pressure. I want to put this airplane’s shadow on the river ice and go exploring.

The whole prairie is frozen. But you learn early the lesson that snow and ice can jump and dance. Drifts can build and disappear, sometimes migrate across the landscape. A few inches of new snow can blow into a wall that’s taller than a home. The frozen river roils underneath the ice.  I want to see the Dakota snowfields that will melt into this river. We already know a disaster is coming. This has been a hard winter. The ground was wet and full last fall when the frosts came, and the snowfall has been consistent, full of water. We already know the rivers will flood. We’ve been here before. 1997. 2009. Countless other years that did not make the national evening news. Sandbag walls to protect people’s homes. Diversions cut into the earth to protect the towns.

This January day, however, I want to fly in the fat smooth air, to see the prairie at a truer scale, to fill my eyes with the size of this place.


It’s almost like ballet. Preflight. Starting. Warmup. The voices from the control tower—the instructions. Taxiing. The rush down the runway. Airborne. There are names for every move.  The run-up. Position and hold. Every move needs to be learned, practiced, made so familiar you feel the patterns in every other thing you do. It’s technical, yes. But there is a grace to getting metal and bone into the sky.

This morning at the airport, the automated weather announcement gives a clue about the depth of this season. “Temperature minus two three, dewpoint minus two eight, altimeter three zero two five . . . notice to airmen, runway one three/three one closed, runway niner/two-seven PAPI lights out of service, airport signs are obscured…” We’ve just had that much snow.

“Fargo ground,” I say, calling the control tower, “Cessna One Zero Eight Nine Seven is at the north ramp ready to go. Departing to the north then going to turn and follow the Sheyenne River, please. At or below three thousand.”

“Cessna One Zero Eight Nine Seven, Fargo ground,” a pleasant female voice comes over the radio. “Taxi to runway three six at bravo three intersection via Charlie at Bravo, maintain at or below three thousand, departure frequency 120.4, squawk 0454.”

My airplane today is a Cessna 172. A small four-seater, high wing with a single prop. It’s a good airplane for flying low and slow, for looking at the ground and chasing ideas.  

At the runway, the final checks are easy and the engine sounds smooth. A twin engine airplane lands and crosses in front of me, its red paint bright against the snow.

“Fargo Tower,” I say. “Cessna One Zero Eight Nine Seven is at Bravo Three ready to go.”

And then that most wonderful thing. The throttle goes in, the plane moves forward.  You steer with your feet, a light hand on the yoke, and when the airspeed indicator gets to about 60 you pull back, just a bit, and the nose tilts up.

Suddenly, you are flying.


W. Scott Olsen flies a Cessna to explore the northern prairie. Photo by Roy Hammerling.
W. Scott Olsen flies a Cessna to explore the northern prairie.
Photo by Roy Hammerling.
Here is another truth: what a pilot sees is a world revealed. The horizon races away as the airplane climbs. Railways, highways, river beds, forests, and farmland all become part of the same one picture. The next town over, usually just a name on the weather map during the evening news, is right there beneath you, the whole thing, connected to everything else. The silver grain bins at a farmstead, the yellow school bus crawling down a snow-covered neighborhood road, the snapping flags at a shopping center are all part of one window’s view. When the airplane and I get to 3,000 feet above sea level, which here is 2,100 feet above the ground, I can see what feels like the whole of this day in motion.

“Cessna One Zero Eight Nine Seven,” the voice in my headset says, “Fargo departure. Radar contact. Turn left and proceed to the Sheyenne River.”

“Do you mind if I go a bit farther north?” I ask. “So I can catch the intersection with the Red?”

“Eight Nine Seven, request approved. Advise when you start your turn to the left please.”

Bright sunshine on the snowfields. Brown trees along the meanderings and oxbows of the Red River stand in stark contrast to the white ice and snow. I can see the Sheyenne in front of me. More trees on the river banks. A path leading west and then turning south. Where the two rivers meet, the ice field is a bit wider. It just looks like a field. You would never know there was water moving underneath.

I call departure and let them know I am turning left. Then I turn on a voice recorder to make some notes, and without thinking I also press the airplane’s microphone key.

“Hard meanders left and right,” I say. “Very pretty in the sunshine where the rivers meet.”

“Cessna Eight Nine Seven, roger that,” departure says.

Oh bother, I think, smiling.

The entire prairie is covered in a hard pack of snow. Only the trees give any relief or contrast. Roads are nearly invisible, light gray in the white fields. Railways make a fainter line as well, snow on the berms and dusting the tracks.

The wind is from the north at 14 knots. But also absolutely smooth. This is the grace of flying in winter air. Airspeed is 115 knots. Altitude is 3,000 feet. I bank to the left as the river turns south.


Every river is a story.

The Sheyenne is an ancient and meandering river. The loop of one oxbow is often not 20 yards from the end of another, though the water takes a quarter mile to get there. This river was here in the Pleistocene, draining the prairie to Lake Agassiz, the largest inland sea in North America, a sea that covered most of Manitoba and reached into Saskatchewan, Ontario, the Northwest Territories, and Minnesota, larger than the Great Lakes combined. Back then, the Sheyenne would have looked like the Missourior Mississippi River today. Glacier cut valleys in places. Flatland wanderings everywhere else. The river is older than the last ice age. Glacial drift filled the river bed and the river works to clean it out. Three hundred and twenty-five miles long, it drains nearly 10,000 square miles. And there is a chance it could drain trouble. Devil’s Lake, north and west of here, has no natural outlet and is rising fast, eating homes and farmsteads and roads and railways as it grows. When it overflows the natural banks, it will drain into the smaller Stump Lake and then into the Sheyenne. The Sheyenne joins the Red, which flows north, throughLake Winnipeg and finally into Hudson Bay. Canada does not want Devil’s Lake water at all.

In the western distance I see some clouds moving in, although the clouds are high. Pinks and blues. But no color on the ground. The whole world is one white snowscape. Glistening ice in the fields. Softer white where the snow is deep. Every building has a snowcap on the roof, as does every silo, every farmstead, every home. Blanket is exactly the right word. 


How much snow is there? How fast is this river moving? These are the important questions in winter of deep snow.

The weather service says there are only 21 inches of snow on the ground today. But over time snow compresses and hardens, settles into every possible space. Fifty-six inches have moved from heaven to earth. The water equivalent is nearly four inches. Hundreds of miles in every direction, under at least four inches of standing water. And all of that water wanting to move.

At the Baldhill Dam, 271 upriver miles from north of Fargo where the Sheyenne empties into the Red, the water is flowing at 320 cubic feet per second. Too low to come over the spillway, the water drains from pipes in the bottom of Lake Ashtabula. On this day in 1956, the water was flowing at only two cubic feet per second. The previous maximum flow on this date was 306 cubic feet per second, recorded in 2001. The maximum flow ever was 6,200 cubic feet per second on April 17, 2009. In other words, the river isn’t fast, but it’s the fastest it’s ever been in the hard freeze of winter.

Yesterday, I called the Army Corps of Engineers, the St. Paul office that oversees the dam, and talked with Richard Schueneman, who is the Corps of Engineers North Dakota Flood Control Section supervisor. “We’re drawing the lake down as far as possible,” he told me. “We want to get down to 1,257 by March 1. We’re anticipating a lot of water coming in this spring.”


Ibank to the right, wondering if I can turn as fast as the river. Even with the airplane tilted nearly 60 degrees, back pressure on the yoke to maintain altitude, I cannot match the bend. Some pilots like to get low over wide rivers, settle in as if they were speed boats with wings. It doesn’t work if the river is narrow, meandering, folding back toward itself a thousand times. There would be no way to fly the actual course of the river. Too many hard loops and turns, too many bends in the path. Even the slowest airplane, with the steepest angles of turn, would overshoot these banks.  If I were at river height, I’d be smashing through the trees.

Yet I am not very far above the river. My altitude, measured to sea level, has been the same since I took off. But the land is rising. I am nearly 500 feet closer to the ground. Here, however, there is nothing on the river. There were snowmobile tracks in some places before, but not now. I pass expensive river homes in new neighborhoods, homes too new to know the deep history of how a river behaves, sold perhaps in autumn when the river was low and an empty canoe tied to a tree seemed like a promise of forever. But then those homes disappear behind me and all I see is the snow, the trees, the cornices on bare banks, the shape of finger drifts downwind.

A tree farm appears on the southern bank, ordered rows of small evergreens sticking out of the white.

A view of suburban Fargo, North Dakota, during a winter flight. Photo by W. Scott Olsen.
A view of suburban Fargo, North Dakota, during a winter flight.
Photo by W. Scott Olsen.
There are days I wish I knew a lot more than I know. There are days I wish I was a meteorologist, a glaciologist, an historian, an anthropologist, and yes, even an astronaut. Today I wish I was a geologist. Flying over the river, all I can do is wonder what makes the river find this particular course. What resistance in the soil at one spot is missing or doubled in another? What causes the yielding of erosion here? I wonder if it’s all accidental. I wonder if it was cataclysmic—a flood moving through to reorder everything. This happened to the Mississippi at the New Madrid fault. This happened to the Columbia and Clark Fork when the ice dams broke. Even theYukon used to flow south—the evidence in the rocks of valleys long dry and off-course. The cut-off oxbow lakes and ponds show where the Sheyenne used to flow, but how did this river appear? One-hundred million years ago, in the Cretaceous, this was all under saltwater. The Western Interior Seaway and the Hudson Seaway joined here. The water was warm, tropical, and shallow. There were sharks and giant clams. There were beasts named Mosasaur and Xiphactinus and Cretoxyrhina. And then the seaways drained. The earth changed. One-hundred thousand years ago the ice moved in and stayed. The Laurentide Ice Sheet covered nearly all of North America. Ten-thousand years ago it left, and the meltwater and drainage made Lake Agassiz, the largest inland sea on the planet. I know the Sheyenne is older than the glaciers, but I don’t know how.

A red barn in the snow. A row of young pine trees at another farmstead, just struggling, it seems, to make it through this winter, to keep their branches above the snow line, to find another summer to grow.

Snowball earth, 715 million years ago. The whole planet frozen and still. But a tremendous pressure building under the ice.


South of the town of Kindred, the trees grow more numerous, the shelterbelts more prominent and thick. Around the river, the line of riparian trees becomes a forest. It would be possible to lose the winter thread of the river in the trees, the snow filling in the low spots, nearly level from field through forest. Over the river and through the woods, I smile, to the next open field of ice.

According to the instruments in the airplane, the outside air temp is -1 degree Fahrenheit. A lot warmer up here than it is on the ground. Cold air sinks. Snow and ice reflect the sun back into space. Snow and ice compress and harden.

There are hills here. You almost can’t see them because of the snow. Nothing spectacular. Ten feet. Twenty feet, maybe. TheSheyenne National Grasslands. This is where Lake Agassiz ended. This is beachfront property. This is where glaciers left moraines.

South of the town of Leonard, a yellow barn surrounded by snow. The river bends, cuts underneath me and then cuts back. If you know the grasslands are there, you can imagine what is beneath the snow. But today, just white fields. Smaller, younger trees stick up out of the freeze.

The size of the sky and the size of the earth here, where the land is flat, is gut-stealing at times. South of the town of Sheldon the river takes a hard turn to the south and the trees thin out again. No marks on the river ice. The day has been growing dimmer, softer, more gray as the weather gets close. A hole in the clouds in the southern distance lets the sunlight through and the prairie beneath it sparkle. The ceiling now is overcast at 7,500 feet.  The wind is easy, 020 at ten. Visibility is still ten miles. The temperature on the ground is minus 23 degrees Celsius. Minus nine degrees Fahrenheit.


Colors are aqua blue, pink, chromium steel, purple, bright piercing white. Not on the ground, however. These are the colors of clouds today. Some of the light is filtered from the sunshine above. Some of the light is reflected from the ice fields below. All of it subtle. All of it mesmerizing.

Trying to keep the river off the left side of the airplane so I can look out my window and down at it, I’ve given up trying to match the bends in the river to the banks and turns of airplane. I’m looking for something else now, I think, though I’m not sure what. Where the river makes a turn to the west, a red house rises from the snow. A beautiful home. Barn inspired, but clearly a home and not a utility building. A posh home. Frozen in place. Nothing else around it. No outbuildings. No plowed driveway. I have no idea how anyone is getting to or from it. It may be new enough no one lives there yet.

What I am looking for, it occurs to me, is simply evidence. Evidence of what came before this day. Evidence of what is still on its way.

One-hundred twenty-three years ago, in 1888, a January morning like this was the morning after what came to be known as theChildren’s Blizzard. Schoolchildren, having gone to school in light jackets because the air had become unseasonably warm, froze to death on their way home. Montana, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa—the whole of the American prairie. Lethal cold, terrible wind, white-out snow, you couldn’t see your hand at the end of your arm. Your eyes froze shut. You literally suffocated on the fine crystal powder snow. The temperature fell in some places to nearly -40 as fast as wind moves across a lake. Somewhere between 250 and 500 people dead in one night because the cold came so hard and fast.

Only a few years ago, in 1997, a mother and daughter drove off the road in a blizzard and then froze to death in the yard of a farmstead they could see but could not reach.

Only last week, a man froze in his car after he drove off a rural road and into a snowbank. He did not have a telephone. He could not walk to save his life.

The river runs west. Open ground with tremendous drifts where something creates a wind shadow. Nowhere near any school or town, I pass four baseball fields, home plates at the middle of the pie-shaped fields, making it all look like a strange, white clover. Evergreens planted just outside the homerun fences dot the white drifts. The river turns north and I bank the airplane to follow. Where the county roads are open, no cars dare make the journey.


In truth, today is not a difficult day. By northern standards, the temperature and sky today hardly warrant a moment’s thought. People will forget their gloves today, and decide not to go back to retrieve them. But the newspaper yesterday gave voice to what we have known for some time. “A snowier than usual winter and a grim flood outlook expected today from theNational Weather Service have spring flood preparations ramping up early this year. Both Fargo and Cass County are ready to issue emergency declarations following today’s flood forecast, a move usually made much later in the spring.”

This morning, again front page: “The chances for another record-breaking flood in Fargo-Moorhead deepened Tuesday—High soil moisture content and excessive snowfall and precipitation in the fall and winter signal the probability of the significant flooding, said Greg Gust, weather service warning coordination meteorologist in Grand Forks—The Red River Basin is poised to receive twice its normal snowfall through the end of the winter, Gust said. To compound the problem, most of the same area received ten to 12 inches above normal rainfall during the summer and fall, he said—Based on climatic outlooks, this spring is likely to be cooler and spring thaw could come later than the past couple years, Gust said. If the melt comes in April, warmer temperatures can lead to a rapid runoff, which happened in 1997….”

It’s difficult to look out the window and not see the past. It’s difficult to not imagine the future. Only a month ago, on Christmas Eve, the headline was clear. “Forecast: Major Flood Likely.”


The snow-covered, ice-capped Sheyenne River. Photo courtesy National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center, National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The snow-covered, ice-capped Sheyenne River.
Photo courtesy National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center, National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
West of Lisbon, some cattle feed in a corral. The earth is brown and muddy under their feet.

North and west of Lisbon, trees give evidence of a main valley and a network of smaller rifts cutting away to the sides. Looking like hash-marks leading down to the water, the trees forest the small ravines.

I’ve seen this before. Not this particular site. But I’ve seen this tone, this mood, this emotion in the land. I stare at the river in the new valley and it comes to me. I am looking at a tombstone rubbing! The strokes of black or gray. The hard white of the paper. If not a rubbing, then a woodcut. There are no subtleties at first. Everything is hard white or hard brown. But then you look, and you realize there is no such thing as a broad stroke. Every white is a thousand shades. Every brown is a thin line amidst a million thin lines. A smudge in a tree becomes a squirrel’s nest. A spot on the river is a deer finding its way across.

Coming up on Fort Ransom, the valley gets a bit deeper. The river turns north. A couple brown areas come into view, corn fields left standing south east of Kathryn.


The valley grows wide. And in the valley, the river does not meander. In the Cessna Skyhawk, the GPS map shows me there are lakes around here. One to my right. One to my left. Looking out my window, I can’t find any clue of where they really are.

I approach Valley City, a pretty town even in snow and ice with its famous trestle bridge for the railway. The interstate highway is a clear ribbon on the prairie. Not as clear as the trees or the valley, though. North of the interstate, the railway runs east and west.

A long dark streak in the snow appears. There is open water north of Valley City! Beautiful sight, I say aloud. Scattered ice on the river crowds into bends and corners, but the river is open. I have to be close to the dam. Yes, there it is. The end of Lake Ashtabula. I can’t tell the lake is there—it looks like just another field at the moment—but the water south of the dam is open, steam rising off the surface. I can see the spillway, then two more basins and drops for the water. Then the frozen lake.

I know the water in the river is coming from the bottom of the lake where the water temperature is just one degree above freezing. I know the water takes ten days to get from here to the intersection with the Red. And I know the reason the water is open is because the warmer water is coming out fast for this time of year. But I am happy to see the open water. Potential energy made kinetic, I think. Or just the deep beauty of moving water. Something ancient in all of us.

I turn the airplane east, toward home. In front of me, a forest of pale white wind turbines turns slowly in the winter air. Today, I have seen the past, I think. Which is to say I’ve seen what’s coming our way.

Behind me now, weather’s coming in.



W. Scott Olsen’s most recent book is Prairie Sky (University of Missouri Press, 2013). He teaches at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he also edits the literary magazine Ascent. His website is wscottolsen.com.
Read more nonfiction by W. Scott Olsen appearing in Terrain.org: “Chasing Clouds”.

Header image, photo from small plane over the North Dakota winter landscape, by W. Scott Olsen.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.