Ice-related incidents continue

By Javier Serna
Assistant Editor

Detroit Lakes, Minn. — Despite a fairly bad season of ice-making, with thaws and refreezes among other setbacks to good ice-making, there have been few ice-fishing-related fatalities this season.

But, a few did have fatal ice-fishing trips, though it could have been worse, particularly in this part of the state, where an airboat owned by the Becker County Sheriff’s Office came to the rescue and other rescue operations saved lives.

Minnesota nearly made it through 2016 with no ice-related fatalities, but on Dec. 28, in Cass County, an 82-year-old Hackensack man drowned, according to DNR reports, when he rolled his ATV after coming too close to the banks of Big Deep Lake. The ATV landed on top of the ice, pinning him face-down underneath the ATV, onto ice that had a couple of inches of water on top of it.

It wasn’t an ice-fishing incident, but on Feb. 28, a 46-year-old Freeport man drowned in an abandoned manure pit in Stearns County. He had been operating a skid loader on the ice of the pit when the ice broke, submerging the man for 25 minutes.

He was removed from the water and CPR was started, but he was pronounced dead at the hospital.

On March 10, in Aitkin County, a 59-year-old McGregor man died after falling through the ice on his ATV on Big Sandy River Flowage, leading into Big Sandy Lake.

Lisa Dugan, DNR boat and water safety outreach coordinator, said there was one other death that was in the process of being finalized in the state’s records.

That person was presumed to be a 31-year-old East Bethel man, who died of complications from hypothermia on March 17.

That man was one of two men who broke through the ice on Coon Lake in Anoka County. The two men were on the lake trying to retrieve a snowmobile that had fallen through earlier, according to Anoka County deputies.

“It was a bad ice season, for sure, and unfortunately it isn’t done,” said Dugan, noting ice farther to the north, in locales such as Cook County, where ice tempting to anglers still existed as of press time.

Reached by phone on Tuesday, Perham-area conservation officer Chris Vinton said he was relieved that most of the ice had melted by now in his area. He noted in this week’s conservation officer reports that a few anglers went through the ice on four-wheelers.

“These are guys that should have known better,” he said.

The DNR also has an airboat, normally kept in Moorhead for potential spring floods, but uses it for ice rescues. But it had been in Wisconsin for training sessions.

That’s why Becker County’s airboat was instrumental in minimizing danger to rescuers.

Vinton noted 50-degree temps and rain in February in his area. He would get calls from anglers asking about ice conditions.

“We’d tell them, if you plan on going, plan on saving yourself,’” he said, reflecting the reality that it can often take too much time for rescue operations to reach ice victims, not that every effort wouldn’t be made.

Todd Glander, Becker County sheriff, said the sheriff’s airboat is stored at the city’s fire department garage, where it can be kept ready to go at a moment’s notice. The sheriff’s department garage does not have the clearance to store the boat.

Nearby, Otter Tail County dispatched the airboat March 29 to West Silent Lake.

According to Fergus Falls conservation officer Troy Richards, the angler had fallen through, called for help, and was heard by a nearby cabin owner, who called 911. The Vergas Fire Department responded to the scene, and rescuers broke ice with a boat to reach the man and pull him to safety. By the time the airboat arrived on the scene, the rescue was complete, but the airboat allowed the victim’s belongings to be safely removed from the ice without further endangering anyone.

The airboat already had been used to saved a pair of lives the day before, on March 28, on Height of Land Lake, when a pair of men broke through the ice and were unable to get out.

One of the men hadn’t fallen through deep enough to submerge his cell phone, which he used to call 911.

Rescue personnel, Glander said, arrived on the scene in 24 minutes, including unloading the boat and driving 15 miles, and quickly pulled both men from the water.

“I commend the firefighters,” Glander said, noting that the airboat, which the department has had for three years now, has come in handy in several situations, including firefighting in wetlands areas.

On Friday, March 31, the airboat was deployed again when there were reports called in about ice anglers on Height of Land Lake possibly in distress.

“With binoculars, we were able to see that they were fishing and not in distress,” said Glander, who said that the cooperation among agencies, rescue squads, and fire departments have been key.

The airboat is a great tool for saving ice victims, quicker than the method of breaking ice with a john boat, said Shane Richard, Becker County deputy.

“Breaking ice is very intensive,” Richard said. “We have the ‘gumby’ suits, but the amount of time you are exposing your victims, and you are giving 110 percent, the chances of a heart attack increase. Then your rescuers can become one of the people that needs to be rescued.”

Richards, the Fergus Falls CO, gave a hat’s off in the weekly conservation officer reports to “all of the local fire and rescue squads.”

Like Vinton, he, too, was happy that most of the ice is gone from his area.

“I don’t think even the craziest would even attempt to be getting on the ice now,” he said.

Richards had guarded the launch on West Lost Lake, northeast of Fergus Falls, where he had noticed that the warm weather combined with river current and wind to open up an area that normally didn’t open up on the lake. Then the temps dropped enough to refreeze that area, but with only thin ice.

A couple of weeks ago, three men on four-wheelers unwittingly ventured onto that thin ice and all fell through. Two of the men got out quickly, while the other man stood on top of the ATV to keep his head above water, he said.

A nearby fisherman used a wench rope and a boat cushion to rescue the man.

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