Some 27 ice anglers were rescued Tuesday morning off a sheet of ice that broke away from shore off 21st Avenue East in Duluth and was floating in heavy winds out into Lake Superior.
Duluth Fire Department officials said a passerby on shore first noticed the crack forming and called 911 just after 11 a.m.
The first fire crews responded within 15 minutes with small boats from multiple stations, and the St. Louis County Sheriff's Rescue Squad joined the effort.
Some of the anglers were able to escape across ladders that fire crews brought out to them. But the chasm of open water quickly grew larger in stiff winds and boats had to be used to bring the others back to shore safely.
One angler walked off the ice toward Park Point and Duluth’s downtown and was at first unaccounted for, but crews eventually got to him as well.
All of the anglers were safe and uninjured, Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj said, brought to shore within an hour of the 911 call.
Most of the ice anglers' gear, however — fishing shelters, depth finders, rods, tackle boxes and sleds — was last seen floating east on the drifting sheet of ice. As of 3 p.m. the gear was spotted floating down near Brighton Beach.
The sheet of ice at that point had deteriorated and the fire department deemed it "unsafe and dangerous" to attempt to intercept it, according to city spokesperson Kate Van Daele. Van Daele noted that several anglers were able to intercept the sheet close to Lester River and managed to retrieve electrical equipment such as augers and heaters, but not the pop-up tents.
The crack seemed to happen just as winds not only increased but also changed direction. At 10 a.m. at Sky Harbor Airport on Duluth's harbor, the wind was northwest with gusts from 15 mph to 22 mph. But by 11 a.m., the wind switched to the southwest and gusted to 25 mph, according to data from the National Weather Service office in Duluth. Within 45 minutes, the chasm of open water had increased to about 200 yards.
“You could feel the wind switch and then pick up,’’ said Tyler Jasan, of Duluth.
Jasan and Alex Butler of Hines, Minnesota, said they were set up a quarter-mile off the shoreline catching fish when they noticed the wind blowing harder.
"I could feel the crack when it opened and we could see water gush up in the air," Butler said.
The two decided to pick up their gear and head back to shore. That’s when they heard sirens and realized something was not right.
"By the time we got close to the crack, the fire department was already there," Jasan said.
Butler left all his gear while Jasan managed to hang on to his expensive depth finder.
Jasan and Butler said the ice was 10-12 inches thick where they were fishing, but they knew they were taking a chance venturing out on the ice during periods of heavy wind.
"We knew what could happen on Lake Superior," Jasan noted.
Both said they feel lucky to be alive and unhurt. Any time spent in a frigid Lake Superior with air temperatures hovering near zero could have been deadly.
"It was definitely the biggest … puckering moment I’ve ever had," Jasan said.
"We will now be known as one of the stupid 30 guys on the ice," Butler added.
While they concede it wasn’t worth the risk, the anglers noted they did have great luck fishing. They caught coho salmon, lake trout and herring before the incident occurred.
Krizaj said the fire department keeps boats ready for such ice and water rescues all year long.
"We anticipate something along these lines every winter," he said, noting similar rescues in recent years in the harbor. Krizaj said Tuesday's incident was probably the most people stranded in recent years on Lake Superior.
The News Tribune on Saturday published a story warning anglers to avoid the tempting lake ice, noting even if ice is safe in thickness that high winds can dislocate it from shore and strand them.
A similar rescue occurred over the weekend near Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, when 66 anglers had to be rescued from an ice floe.
This story was updated at 8:10 p.m. Feb. 9 with additional information from the city of Duluth. It was originally posted at 1:44 p.m. Feb. 9.