Kathleen Murphy column: Duluth crumbles during dog days of summer

I like our version of dog days, the short spats of heat when we all briefly wonder if this is what hell feels like.

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Kathleen Murphy

Growing up, I often heard adults refer to the “dog days of summer.” I didn’t have to ask what it meant. Our family dog, Erin, always illustrated the concept nicely, sprawling out on a bare spot of dirt pressed against the house, panting to keep himself cool, refusing to move. Dog days meant it was so hot that even the dogs turned listless and lazy. The phrase actually harkens back to ancient Romans noticing that Sirius, the Dog Star, rose and set with the sun during the hottest days of summer, but I prefer the modern interpretation. It provides a good visual.

Of course, I was born and raised in Duluth, an area of the world that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t experience true dog days. We use the term, but ours is a softer version than what the rest of the country experiences.

I learned this lesson early in my young adult life, when August rolled around, college beckoned, and I prepared to move away from Duluth. I remember how uncomfortably hot I felt as I packed up my belongings and lugged boxes down to the trailer. I would guess that the temperature that day hovered around 80 degrees, the point at which any true Duluthian begins to melt.

We arrived in Madison in the midst of a heat wave. I’d never felt anything so physically oppressive. It was wet and heavy, like a damp blanket draped over my shoulders that I couldn’t shake off. I found myself showering three to four times a day, just to cool off, if only temporarily. To this day, my horrified reaction to the humid heat of southern Wisconsin remains my most prominent memory of going off to college.

Looking back, it is entirely plausible there wasn’t even a heat wave in Madison that summer. It just felt like one to me. How I reacted to the higher temperatures during the rest of my college years isn’t as memorable, nor are the summers I spent in far more southern states later in life. I adapted to my surroundings, as we all do.


I’ve been back in Duluth for eight summers now, and I am undoubtedly adjusting back toward my childhood norm. For example, it didn’t take long for me to fall back into the habit of keeping a long-sleeve flannel shirt in my car, year round. It had been a difficult habit to break as an adult. It took me almost a decade to realize I never wore it in the summer months, I was just stubbornly carrying it around because Duluth had trained me to do so.

There is a flannel shirt in my car now. Even though we just had a long stretch of days that neared 80 degrees, and I joined the rest of the city in cursing the lack of central air in my 100-year-old house. I know the flannel will be needed shortly. It’s not worth taking it out of the car.

I like our version of dog days, the short spats of heat when we all briefly wonder if this is what hell feels like, even though we logically know temperatures are 15 degrees higher a mere 10 miles south. When we slowly trudge through the heat of the day, looking forward to evening when it will cool slightly, or worst-case scenario, the following week, when the lake breeze inevitably drops our days back into more reasonable temperatures. We’re not the most stoic of people during our version of dog days, but at least our suffering is short-lived.

We’ll go back to embracing our hardy personas come winter.

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at

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