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Baby, it's cold outside
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Douglas Gardner of south Minneapolis is ready to brave the cold. (MPR Photo/Dan Olson)
Record cold weather the past few days is bringing out the hardiness in some Minnesotans -- the ones who actually like spending time outside in the winter.

Undated — An arctic mass from central Canada kept an icy grip on the upper Midwest on Thursday and Friday, driving up energy demand, closing some schools - and leaving even cold-weather veterans in awe.

Friday was the most frigid yet. Temperatures ranged in Minnesota from 36 degrees below zero in Fosston to the state's warm spot, Winona, at minus-8 degrees, the National Weather Service said. The Twin Cities were at 21 degrees below zero Friday morning - the coldest since Jan. 9, 1999.

While many people are not big fans of the bitterly cold weather, others are taking it in stride. Take mail carrier Eric Witzman, who delivers mail on the east end of Duluth.

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Image Layers -- lots of layers

He's a big, smiling guy in sunglasses. Witzman is a Duluth native, and he's been delivering mail for about 10 years. Friday, he was dressed in regulation blue, and his cheeks are pink. It was more than 20 below zero when he started his route. But he says there's a simple trick to keeping warm -- a trick that's probably encoded in your DNA if you grow up here.

"Layers. I got several different layers on top," says Witzman. He has layers -- on top. But get this -- no long underwear. "Nope. Just my wind pants."

Witzman says he gets too warm if he wears them. "I just try to keep moving in this weather. I got all these snowbanks and stuff to climb over right now, too, so it gives you a little workout warming up, too."

Eric Witzman seems genuinely nonchalant about the weather -- he can't even remember the coldest temperature he's faced on his mail route.

Even though Witzman doesn't wear long underwear, plenty of the rest of us do. And cold weather clothing is flying off the racks at outdoors stores like REI in Bloomington.

One rack in the store holds thin, light pairs for the active crowd -- skiers, runners and others who laugh in the face of meteorological adversity. REI's Patrick Campion stands next to a rack of heavier longjohns, more suitable for couch potatoes who either purposely -- or more likely mistakenly -- venture out in the cold. These are not old-fashioned wool underwear, but rather longjohns made from polyester.

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Image Good business at REI

"This is a good base layer and a good start, but as you put either a middle layer or a down layer on top you'll be toasty," says Campion.

Campion recalls the coldest weather he's ever been in -- several years ago he took his then-fiancee to a ski race in Biwabik, Minnesota.

"I was too cheap to buy a hotel room so I made us stay out in a tent overnight, and that night it got down to 27 below," Campion recalls. "We were both in sleeping bags and just kind of moaning and looking at each other, and trying to figure out how we were going to warm up. Nice enough she did stay with me, but 27 below was pretty cool to be out in a tent."

Other REI customers have similar memories of suffering and endurance, which some Minnesotans wear as badges of valor.

George Biltz from Minneapolis is picking up glove liners to keep his hands warm for a weekend ski outing. Originally a farm boy from Perham in Minnesota's frozen northwest, Biltz remembers -50 degree weather. The family had just moved north from Kansas, and Biltz was 6 at the time.

You know you're alive when you're cold.
- Arctic explore Anne Bancroft

"My father would have to get up and light a blow torch, and go outside to heat up the copper tubing that ran from the fuel oil to our stove so that it would flow, so we could have a fire inside," says Biltz. "Those were days when you got up and dressed and put on your overshoes and coat before you ate breakfast."

It soon emerges from REI customers that northern Minnesota supplies the most memorable winter weather stories. Douglas Gardner of south Minneapolis is wearing several rabbits worth of fur atop his head. When he unties a string, long furry panels drop down over his ears. Gardner's cold weather recollection is from the north shore of Lake Superior.

"(It was) 1996, Finland, Minnesota, about 55 below. Tower broke the record at 60 below. I was on my way to Lutsen to go skiing. My buddy talked me into going up early to go snowmobiling. My van didn't start for two and half days. Seriously. So for two and half days we didn't do nothing but eat and drink," Gardner recalls.

Other professional outdoor types are even enjoying the current cold spell.

For veteran polar explorer Ann Bancroft of Scandia, who's training for 1,240-mile hike across the Arctic Ocean starting in February 2005, it's been wonderful.

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Image Sundog over Duluth

"It is so astoundingly beautiful when it's cold," she said. "It's a great way to get your mind focused on what you are training for."

Bancroft, 48, skiied along the St. Croix River on Thursday morning, the first day of the cold snap. She had heard the wind chill was 35 degrees below zero, but it wasn't until she felt the burn on her often-frostbitten cheeks that she believed it.

"When they turn this funny, storybook purple and have this tingling, biting sensation - then I know it's pretty cold," said Bancroft.

For Bancroft and rest of the hardy handful of polar explorers training in Minnesota, Thursday and Friday were a perfect combination of thick snow and jabbing cold. It's a time to test their gear and harden their bodies against the cold.

"You know you're alive when you're cold," Bancroft said.

After several mild winters, Minnesotans saw up to 2 feet of snow fall over the weekend followed by a blast of arctic air that drove the thermometer's mercury down into the bulb.

"I love this stuff," said Lonnie Dupre, 42. The Minnesota native is training in Grand Marais for the first summer crossing of the Arctic Ocean. His team leaves in May 2005. "It is perfect training conditions."

He expects lows of only 14 degrees below zero on the trip, but said these times of extreme cold are important for testing gear, including different types of ski boots. "If there is a failure it will happen then," he said of the cold snaps.

The important when out in the cold, he said, to keep his face protected by nearly covering it with the fur trim of his parka's hood. "Your world is limited to about a 2-inch circumference of your hood," he said.

Jeffery Peterson, 29, is familiar with the sensation. The teacher from Wilshire Park Elementary School in St. Anthony has been training for hiking in the Alaskan winter as part of the 2004 Iditarod by jogging in the cold with his pet husky.

Peterson, of Golden Valley, will follow the dogsled race and post his observations on the Internet for classroom use as the race's Iditarod Teacher on the Trail. Although he will fly from stage-to-stage, he's been told to prepare for 4-mile hikes to the nearest Internet connection each night.

He planned to use the cold snap for testing new cold-weather equipment donated by the Cabela's sporting goods chain. "I like this. This is good," he said of the weather. "I wanted some cold weather to try out this gear."

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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