Caribou marches into toughest weather tourney final four, takes on Fairbanks next

Posted March 30, 2013, at 3:52 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — It’s on. The gauntlet has been thrown. Hannibal is crossing the Alps, or in this case, the Rockies, and the communities of Caribou and of Fairbanks, Alaska, are feeling the heat.

Actually, it’s more like feeling the cold as residents from two sides of the country square off for boasting rights in the The Weather Channel’s 2013 “America’s Toughest Weather City” tournament.

The competition is based on the annual “March madness” college basketball 64-team bracket, with 64 cities split among four geographic regions in the country and winners decided by public online voting.

On Thursday Caribou beat out Syracuse, New York, in a stunning victory, receiving 1,807 votes to Syracuse’s 420, claiming victory in the Northeast and securing a spot in the weather tourney final four.

It could be argued that Syracuse’s population of 145,000 was too busy watching their college basketball team advance into the Elite Eight Thursday night to take the time to vote on a weather challenge.

Other cities in the Northeast bracket included Boston, Buffalo, New York, Washington, D.C., Nantucket, Roanoke, Philadelphia and Cleveland.

Caribou now faces Fairbanks, Alaska, which pulled out a squeaker of a victory over Juneau on Saturday, 327 to 315.

There is little doubt among people who live in northern Maine that the weather can tough, but is it tough enough to win against a city north of latitude 64 and make it into the finals?

“We are going to win,” Caribou City Manager Austin Bleess said Friday. “We are scrappy up here [and] we beat Syracuse handily [and] I think we can handle Fairbanks and win the title.”

Thousands of miles to the west and north, Fairbanks Mayor Jerry Cleworth said folks in his city deal with tough conditions, but love the lifestyle.

“Based on this March alone, I think we should win,” Cleworth said Friday. “Normally March is a beautiful month but we had a real cold snap with nights down to 20- and 25-below zero and daytimes the sun warming us up to zero [and] this went on for several weeks.”

Friday, he said, it was finally up in the 30s.

According to information provided on the Weather Channel’s tournament Web page, Fairbanks averages 114 days of subzero cold and 65 inches of snow a year. Temperatures rise above 90 degrees once every two years.

Down in Caribou residents see an annual average of just over 110 inches of snow, 41 days of subzero cold, and typically see their last freezing day May 15.

“I have been going back and forth on how I feel about this,” William Tasker, director of the Caribou Chamber of Commerce, said with a laugh this past week. “Public Relations 101 says anytime you get your name mentioned it’s a good thing, but we don’t want people around the world to think everyone in Caribou wears parkas all year round in wind and snow.”

Maybe not all year, but winters can be long in northern Maine.

“It can be brutal,” Tasker said. “My wife jokes we live in Alaska and now that’s who we are up against.”

Bleess acknowledges the title of “Toughest Weather City” may be a dubious one, but said it is all in good fun.

“This is not necessarily a title you want but it’s a fun competition,” he said. “And we definitely get a lot of snow here and there is a fair amount of darkness as well.”

When it comes to darkness, however, there is no competing with Fairbanks.

“Our shortest day of the year on the solstice we have three hours, 40 minutes of possible sun,” Cleworth said. “And even then the sun just scrapes over the horizon.”

Corey Bogel, forecaster with the National Weather Service office in Caribou, is a man who can compare both cities.

Stressing he is not a spy and his move south is only a coincidence, Bogel moved to Caribou late last year from the NWS office in Fairbanks.

“It really is subjective on who has the toughest weather,” he said Friday. “It really boils down to a person’s opinion.”

And Bogle’s opinion?

“I really have to say it is a little more brutal up in Fairbanks,” he said. “Mostly because of the extreme cold and the duration of those colds.”

When it comes to snow, Bogel said, Caribou tends to get slammed with heavier snowfalls in single storms whereas Fairbanks typically receives a couple of inches of light powdery snow.

“So as far as snow goes,” he said, “it is more brutal here.”

In the end, it is up to the public to determine who will advance to the finals next week and meet the winner of the southern and midwest match-up between Fargo and Lubbock.

And when it comes down to the battle between Caribou and Fairbanks, there could be a little more than civic honor at stake.

“There has been some talk of some side bets,” Bleess said. “Maybe putting up some Aroostook County potatoes or maple syrup against something from Fairbanks.”

In Fairbanks, Cleworth was not sure how to match that bet.

“We have plenty of ice fog,” he said. “We’ll give you all of that you want.”

Online voting in the Caribou vs. Fairbanks challenge begins Tuesday morning at http://www.weather.com/sports-rec/march-madness/Toughest-Weather-City-Tournament-20130315 with the finals on April 4 and the winner announced on the fifth.

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