Family fishes for sister lost to ALSKelly Kowarsch loved fishing so much her Iron Range family would lift her wheelchair into the boat so she could be out on the water — even if her sister had to reel in any fish that bit.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
ISLAND LAKE — Even when Kelly Kowarsch of Ely was too weak from ALS to cast or reel in, her sister remembers laying a fishing rod across her lap.
Kelly loved fishing so much her Iron Range family would lift her wheelchair into the boat so she could be out on the water — even if her sister had to reel in any fish that bit.
“She loved to be outside. We had great times together fishing and camping,’’ Kelly’s sister, Krissy Kishel of Gilbert, said Saturday at Island Lake during the 17th annual Kolar Toyota Island Lake ALS Walleye Tournament, which raises money to find a cure for the disease.
Kelly died Nov. 1, 2006, less than five months after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease made famous when baseball player Lou Gehrig died from it 71 years ago.
After all those decades, scientists and medical experts are zeroing in on the cause, but they still can’t stop ALS. It’s still always fatal.
And that’s exactly why Kishel was fishing Saturday on the big reservoir north of Duluth.
“I think Kelly was out there in the boat with us today,’’ she said at the landing.
Kishel piloted one of three Kowarsch family boats in the tournament. She and her fishing partner, Kim Puzel of Ely, didn’t win the contest. But they dedicated the day to Kelly and to the hope that, someday soon, no one else will be struck down in their prime by such a horrible disease.
In another boat were Kevin and Heather Kowarsch, Kelly’s brother and sister-in-law from Kelsey, and in a third boat were brother Jessie Kowarsch and sister-in-law Kory Kowarsch of Eveleth.
Last year it was just Krissy and Heather who entered their first ALS tournament on a whim at the last minute. That trip was marred when all of their fishing tackle was stolen out of their boat parked in a motel parking lot. But they came back this year with more family members, and plan to return with even more Kowarsch boats in 2013.
“Our goal was to raise $2,000 and we went over $3,000 by the time it was over,’’ Heather said of the family’s efforts to raise money for the battle against ALS. “Next year our goal is going to be $2,000 per boat.”
“We held garage sales, a bean bag tournament and people just donated money. We wanted it to be enough to matter,’’ Krissy said.
Kelly was just 37 when she died of the disease. She left behind four children.
The Kowarsch family talks of how Kelly’s laugh was infectious and how she brightened everyone’s day when she was around.
“Even when we would be moving her around or carrying her and maybe we’d bump her foot … she would still be laughing. She never lost that right to the end,’’ Heather said.
But on Saturday they talked most about how she loved to fish.
“When we’re out there during this (day of fishing) we’re talking about her all the time. And we talk with other people who have gone through the same thing we did, who lost a sister or their dad or a friend,’’ Krissy said. “The goal of this is to get a cure so no one else has to go through what Kelly did and what we did.”
ALS weakens and eventually paralyzes muscles, making it impossible to move and, eventually, to breathe. It does not affect the mind, which makes the disease even more insidious as its victims’ bodies fail. And Heather noted that the disease can be devastating to caregivers and loved ones as well.
Saturday’s fundraising event saw 165 two-person teams head onto the lake on a dazzling, sunny summer day, each paying at least $350 per team — either out of their own pockets or through contributions raised — with an estimated $140,000 total raised in one day. The 17 tournaments have raised nearly $2 million combined.
The money is used by the ALS Association’s Minnesota Chapter for medical research toward a cure and to make life more comfortable for victims and their families, such as buying wheelchairs, vans and even computerized voice machines that allow victims to “talk’’ by spelling out words on a keyboard.
Nearly 100 volunteers help each year, from packing lunches to launching and landing boats to cooking a spaghetti dinner for the tournament night dinner. Several local companies offer free meals, snacks and fishing tackle to the participants. Several businesses offer prizes for contestants, and some even buy employees entries into the event.
A companion winter event held in Duluth, the Blackwoods Blizzard Tour, is a snowmobile tour in which riders raise money for ALS Minnesota. This year’s event, held in early February despite poor snow conditions, raised $782,000 to battle ALS. The Duluth events are by far the largest for the statewide association and among the largest fundraisers of any kind in the region.
“Kelly prayed for a miracle right until the last day,’’ Heather Kowarsch said. “We’re doing this now so maybe we can make a miracle come true for someone else.”