Two Minnesota duck hunters likely are alive today as a result of good choices they made before and after falling into cold water, and because rescue personnel worked quickly with the tools at hand to ensure a positive outcome.
In both situations – one occurred in Crow Wing County on Oct. 3, the other in Itasca County on Oct. 11 – hunters found themselves in life-or-death struggles after their duck boats capsized. The close calls come amid a year in which 15 people to date have died in boating accidents, the highest number in more than a decade. While most boating-related incidents occur during the summer, a higher percentage of those that occur during the cold-water season are fatal.
“Since this spring, we’ve seen more people participating in outdoor activities than usual, and that has continued into the fall,” said Rodmen Smith, director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Enforcement Division. “Proper precautions are absolutely critical on the water this time of year. Anyone who goes out must be prepared to prevent a mishap from turning into a tragedy.”
DNR safety officials say anyone who boats during the cold-water season should wear a life jacket (foam is better than inflatable), file a float plan so other people know where they’re going and when they plan to return, carry a communications device to call for help, and understand how they can increase their odds of surviving a fall into cold water.
Following are descriptions of the two incidents – which involved close collaboration between the DNR and its valued county and local public safety partners – and what conservation officers say made the difference in positive outcomes:
Oct. 11 – Bowstring Lake in Itasca County
The wind was howling and the waves were pounding when conservation officers Thomas Sutherland and Charles Scott responded to a call about a duck hunter who was bobbing in the water next to his boat.
The hunter reported he was trying to retrieve a duck he’d shot when waves overtook his small boat and caused it to capsize, sending him into 55-degree water. He was in the water for 15 to 20 minutes before members of his hunting party rescued him. The hunter was being treated for hypothermia when Sutherland and Scott arrived to provide assistance.
“That life jacket saved his life,” Sutherland said. “The conditions were really rough and it’s easy to imagine a sad ending if he would have gone into the cold water without it.”
Oct. 3 – Rice Lake in Crow Wing County
A duck hunter who fell out of his boat in Rice Lake lived to hunt another day thanks to equipment and people who were in the right place at the right time: the person who called 911; the Crow Wing County sheriff’s deputy with a drone; the helpful and quick-thinking landowner; and the conservation officers who made their way through shallow, swampy water to where the man clung for life.
But none of that may have mattered had the hunter not worn a life jacket, hung onto the boat even after it capsized, or yelled for help for the more than 2 hours he was in the water. As it was, conservation officers Pat McGowan and Bob Mlynar reached the man as he was struggling to keep his head above water.
“When we got to him, I couldn’t see him at all and thought he was underwater,” McGowan said. “The biggest thing is he had on that life jacket, which helped him keep a little heat in and made it easier for him to stay above the water and hang onto the boat.”
Said Mlynar: “You have to be prepared for situations like this, and he pretty much was. That’s why he’ll be duck hunting another day."