Lake Vermilion rescuer used canoe, hot tub to save snowmobiler
Fred Reichel had just sat down in the living room of his Lake Vermilion home Saturday afternoon to watch a little TV when he noticed two snowmobiles buzzing across the ice at Oak Narrows. Only one of the snowmobiles made it. The other, driven by ...
Fred Reichel had just sat down in the living room of his Lake Vermilion home Saturday afternoon to watch a little TV when he noticed two snowmobiles buzzing across the ice at Oak Narrows.
Only one of the snowmobiles made it.
The other, driven by Ronald Hautala of Eveleth, crashed through the ice.
"I knew, when I didn't see the second one, exactly what happened. I ran outside and from there I could see him in the water," Reichel told the News Tribune on Sunday. "So I ran back in and yelled for my wife to call 911 while I went for the canoe."
It was just before 3 p.m.
Luckily for Hautala, 70, the canoe was easy to grab, under Reichel's house. It had a rope and paddles already inside and Reichel dragged it down to the water's edge, then scooted it across glare ice toward Hautala.
"I had one foot in the canoe, one foot out pushing," Reichel said.
Hautala tried to hang onto the ice but was unable to pull himself out of the water.
The closer the canoe got to Hautala, the less he was floating out of the water, Reichel noted.
"He was pretty calm. But he said he didn't know how much longer he could hold on. I told him not to worry, I was almost there,'' Reichel said.
As Reichel reached Hautala, he managed to pull the drenched snowmobiler across the canoe and then into it, although he's still not sure how he managed that considering how much the soaked clothing weighed.
The added weight caused the canoe to break through the ice, but it didn't tip.
"By then some other snowmobiles had stopped, and my neighbor came out. They got a rope, threw it to me. I tied it to the canoe so they could pull us in" by hand, Reichel said.
The group got Hautala out of the canoe, removed his helmet and jacket and immediately put him inside Reichel's already warm hot tub.
By then, a St. Louis County Sheriff's deputy showed up along with the Cook Ambulance and Greenwood Township EMTs.
According to the sheriff's office, Hautala was taken to Cook Hospital to be checked out for hypothermia, but he didn't suffer any injuries and was expected to recover quickly.
The temperature in Cook at the time was about 18, according to data from the National Weather Service in Duluth.
Reichel said he's just glad he happened to leave his son's pond hockey tournament early Saturday afternoon to bring his sleepy grandson home for a nap, and glad he happened to look up as the snowmobiles went by his house.
Oak Narrows is about halfway between Cook and Tower on the big, island-studded lake. The ice in the current-filled channel there is often thin, even in cold winters, Reichel said. But this winter's mix of 40-plus-degree temperatures followed by cold snaps has made it even less predictable. The narrows had open water last week, then froze over just a little a few days ago. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has thin-ice warning signs at the narrows and an on-land portage for snowmobilers around the danger zone that, by chance, goes across Reichel's property.
Hautala apparently didn't see or didn't heed the signs.
"The ice was maybe two inches (thick) where he went in," Reichel said. The water is "about 12, maybe 13 feet deep there."
There's still 30 inches of solid ice across much of Lake Vermilion, Reichel noted. But the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office is urging snowmobilers, ATVers and others to be aware of thin-ice areas and pay attention to warning signs, especially as spring approaches. Last week a vehicle broke through the ice in shallow waters near Pine Island on Lake Vermilion. Nobody was injured in that incident, the sheriff's office said.