Lost in the woods? Injured on a lake? St. Louis County Rescue Squad is on the way
Since 1958, the all-volunteer squad has been finding and saving people, winter and summer, from the Boundary Waters to Brookston and beyond.
DULUTH — At some point this summer, it’s likely a paddler in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness will call 911 on a cellphone or activate an emergency beacon to signal some sort of emergency: a heart attack, a broken leg or maybe a lightning strike. And it’s almost assured that members of the St. Louis County Rescue Squad will be sent to help.
Boating accident after dark? Call the rescue squad. Need a drowning victim found? Airplane crash? Lost child in the woods? Snowmobiler stuck in a partially frozen swamp? Dog fell through thin ice? Tanker truck on fire along U.S. Highway 53? Call out the rescue squad.
It’s definitely like having a second job. In addition to responding to calls as they come in, and as you are available, there is so much training going on, and meetings. It’s a huge commitment. But it’s also very fulfilling.
These folks are our neighbors — mill workers, educators, hospital staff, real estate agents, funeral directors, railroad workers, retirees — and they do this for free. The all-volunteer St. Louis County Rescue Squad has been responding to outdoor emergencies in often-hard-to-get-to places since 1958.
“We have a pretty broad mission,” said Rick Slatten, captain of the squad. “And I think we’re pretty good at it.”
That mission covers all 6,860 square miles of St. Louis County — nearly the size of New Jersey — but also often expands into neighboring counties as well, especially for search-and-rescue missions and drowning victim recoveries.
What started with three guys in August 1958 has grown to 95 members with bases in Pike Lake outside Duluth, as well as Virginia and Ely. The squad is officially incorporated as a Minnesota nonprofit. In addition to grants for equipment and training and a modest budget from the county, it depends on donations for much of its budget.
And they have lots of stuff. From airboats and tracked vehicles, to snowmobiles, ATVs of all sorts, Lake Superior-sized boats, canoes, motorboats, pickup trucks, flying drones, underwater drones and more. It takes money to keep them all gassed up, running and repaired and ready for the next call.
From 10 calls to 500
In 1959, the first full year for the squad, members responded to 10 calls across the county amounting to 100 hours of volunteer time. In 2022, they hit 500 calls and nearly 34,000 hours volunteered.
The number of missions has been increasing nearly every year. Call volume jumped above 100 annually in the 1990s with the move to 911 emergency calling. It then surpassed 300 annually in the 2000s as Enhanced 911 allowed dispatchers to geographically summon the squad whenever an emergency occurs outside a city where local first responders — police, firefighters and paramedics — get the call.
But, even in cities, including Duluth, the rescue squad still gets the call for mutual aid if there’s a search needed or a water emergency.
“Duluth fire now responds very quickly with their fleet of boats if something happens off Park Point or in the harbor, and the Coast Guard as well. But we still get paged out for every water emergency. We still respond if it’s not resolved right away,” Slatten said. “The more eyes you have looking, the more boats you have in the water, the more likely it’s going to end well.”
And as more people trek outdoors for more recreation than ever before kayaking, ATVs, mountain biking, hiking, personal watercraft, paddleboarding — all have increased use of the outdoors in recent decades — the number of those people who need help keeps going up as well. The squad responded to a record 26 emergency calls in the BWCAW in 2020 — the first year the pandemic sent so many people outdoors, many of them unprepared for wilderness — up from 17 calls in 2018.
Since they began 65 years ago, the squad has become nationally recognized for its prowess in recovering drowning victims using not just human divers, but also deploying remote-controlled underwater robots that offer detailed underwater images. They also have teams of specialized K-9 units, including cadaver dogs able to sniff bodies, even underwater.
One of my favorite things about it are the relationships and friends you develop in the squad. Some of my best friends are the people I get to be in a ditch with at 3 a.m. on a rescue.
But the squad, which under state statutes falls under the auspices of the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office, does far more than recover dead bodies. In many cases they are able to find victims of land and water emergencies, render aid and get the people out of harm's way and in for medical treatment before emergencies turn into tragic fatalities.
“Our three core missions are search for the missing, care for the injured and respectfully recover the dead,” said Jenny Schwietz, a three-year veteran of the squad who lives in Duluth.
The rescue squad’s workload has been increasing not just in total calls, but in what squad members are asked to do: rappelling down cliffs, piloting airboats during floods, ropes rescues on fast-moving water and extracting victims from smashed vehicles on rural roads.
Search-and-rescue is a huge part of their work, but even that’s changed over time. Thirty years ago, when most hunters walked in search of deer, deer hunting season used to be a busy time for the squad. Now, with most hunters sitting in deer stands, riding ATVs from the shack to the stand and with cellphones in their pockets, lost hunters are a rarity.
“We used to get dozens of calls during deer season for lost hunters. Now, we may get one or two,” Slatten said. “But we’re still doing more search-and-rescues. Now, we're getting more calls for kids lost in the woods, and hikers. Many more people are hiking now. And we get a surprising number of calls to find people with Alzheimer's or dementia who wander away from memory care facilities across the county.”
Squad members are expected to maintain a fully stocked trauma kit in their personal vehicle and are prepared to “dress and go” in virtually any type of wilderness operation in any weather. They are issued uniforms, a pager, portable radio and a limited complement of field gear. While there's no pay, expenses are reimbursed.
In addition to responding to actual emergencies, members attend monthly meetings and intensive training in the field. It adds up to hundreds of hours of time each year for most members, and much more for the captain.
In his blood
Slatten, 60, of Proctor, is a rescue squad legacy of sorts. His father, Kenneth, was a founding member of the squad, and some of Rick's earliest memories are of watching his dad get ready to go out on rescue runs.
Now retired after 26 years at the Lake Superior Paper Industries mill in Duluth (now ST Paper), Rick Slatten has been on the rescue squad since 1986. He became captain, heading the entire operation, in 2014.
“I remember very vividly riding along with my dad for the first time when he responded to a search during deer season in November 1976,” Slatten said.
After that, he was hooked.
In addition to heading the squad, still a volunteer position even though he puts in about 50 hours weekly, Slatten also operates a search-and-rescue consulting business with his wife, Deb (also a rescue squad volunteer), traveling the country to train rescuers, passing on the expertise he’s honed across parts of five decades.
“Our rescue squad has gotten really good at search-and-rescue. It’s not at all like you see on television where people hold hands and walk in a line across a field,” Slatten said. “There’s a whole discipline of search theory that we train in.”
Sense of purpose, camaraderie and adrenaline
Slatten says there is no problem finding skilled people to join the rescue squad. The waiting list to join is now 15 people long. Gen-Xers and millennials are now replacing baby boomers who are aging out of service.
“We’ve had guys up to age 82. I think our oldest now is 67,” Slatten said. “But we definitely have a new generation coming up. … I think the younger people enjoy this. It gives them a sense of purpose, a sense of accomplishment by belonging to a really well-run group,” Slatten said. "It's like being part of a winning sports team. It ‘s just a good feeling to be a part of this organization.”
Younger members often bring special skill sets such as rappelling, paddling and swiftwater rescue tactics. Squad members are trained in specialized skills far above and beyond basic search-and-rescue skills such as first aid, ropes rescues, cross-country navigation, wilderness survival and navigation, diving, operating tracked vehicles and small-boat handling.
Alex Messenger, of Duluth, 35, an avid backcountry traveler and wilderness expert, has been a member of the rescue squad for 10 years. A communications specialist for the University of Minnesota Duluth for his day job, Messenger has been an active member of the squad since he lived in Ely and was involved in wilderness rescues in the BWCAW.
Messenger’s experience in wilderness travel and first aid includes his own incident when, as a teenager on a canoe trip in Canada’s arctic tundra, he was mauled by a grizzly bear. That experience, and the effort to get him to eventual medical care and safety, helped inspire him to work in rescuing others.
Messenger, like all members of the squad, has to respond to as many calls as possible in addition to extensive training sessions. It helps to have an understanding employer and family, he noted.
“It’s definitely like having a second job. In addition to responding to calls as they come in, and as you are available, there is so much training going on, and meetings,” Messenger said. “It’s a huge commitment. But it’s also very fulfilling.”
“You get to do a lot of cool stuff,” Messenger said with a laugh. “But you also feel empowered to make a difference.”
Messenger recalled one mission into the BWCAW when an emergency GPS beacon signal was received from a paddler.
Messenger and another squad member left the trailhead at midnight, paddling into the wilderness in a canoe and not knowing what the person's emergency was. They found the man with a badly broken leg the next morning, administered first aid and called in a Forest Service float plane to evacuate the victim.
“It was an epic 12 hours, a lot of adrenaline, and then we get back into town and have to go to our day jobs and we’re still pumped up from this incredible experience,” Messenger said. “But that person was clinging to hope that their message had gone out, and it was our job to find him. Yeah, it’s a good feeling, for sure.”
Schwietz, 28, was a longtime instructor in the University of Minnesota Duluth's Recreational Sports Outdoor Program. An avid paddler, surfer and outdoor enthusiast, she wanted to keep active after graduating and use her outdoor skills sets. Now working in the lab at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth as her day job, Schwietz found the rescue squad a perfect fit.
“One of my favorite things about it are the relationships and friends you develop in the squad,” Schwietz said. “Some of my best friends are the people I get to be in a ditch with at 3 a.m. on a rescue.”
We are dealing with a lot of people who just aren’t prepared to get into the situations they get into.
Schwietz said her most memorable search so far was for a missing woman in Sawyer County, Wisconsin. The woman had been missing for a week and local crews were unable to find her when they called in the St. Louis County squad to help. Schwietz and another squad member found the woman’s body along a steep cliff of gravel and rock, with a river below it, and squad members were able to recover the body and give the family closure.
“There’s an intensity to what we do. … Yeah, I guess it’s an adrenaline rush, for sure,” she said. “We train for the most difficult situations imaginable so we’re ready for just about anything. … The amount and level of training we do was surprising to me. But it pays off when we need it. Or I should say, when someone needs us to do it.”
911 for a broken paddle?
While it’s clear that more people are heading farther outdoors who are ill-prepared to do so, squad members are reluctant to complain about the increase in caseload that causes for them.
“We are dealing with a lot of people who just aren’t prepared to get into the situations they get into,” Slatten said.
There’s also a wilderness naivete among many newcomers to the outdoors. Even with cellphone coverage across much of the wilderness now, and with the increased use of emergency GPS beacons, help is not a few minutes away.
“We had a guy up on Lake Four (in the BWCAW) who called 911 because he broke his paddle and wanted us to bring him a new one,” Slatten said.
And they did. The squad goes whenever it’s called. And there is no push to begin charging people who are rescued for the cost of the rescue, as is done in many other wilderness areas, especially mountain terrain rescues.
“We don’t want someone with a broken leg to not call because they are worried about having to pay for the trip out,” Slatten said. “If we get the call, we go. No matter how minor the problem might seem, because you never know until you get there how bad it is for the people who call.”
“There certainly should be more self-awareness, and self-reliance. People need to understand their own boundaries and plan around that, and know what they are getting into,” Messenger said. “You need to make sure you have the right equipment. And plan, not just for what you expect to happen, but plan for what might just happen.”
Messenger noted that people from urban areas are accustomed to dialing 911 and having first responders on the scene in a matter of minutes.
“In Duluth, yes. But in the backcountry or in a swamp somewhere, that’s just not going to happen. It's going to take time for someone to get to you,” Messenger said. “So you need to be prepared on your own to deal with surprises that come up.”
St. Louis County Rescue Squad had a busy 2022
- Motor vehicle accidents: 147
- Woods and water searches: 146
- Miscellaneous calls: 77
- Water emergencies: 73
- Medical calls: 57
- Drowning recoveries: 4
- Airplane crashes: 1
Wear your life jacket
The St. Louis County Rescue Squad has recovered the bodies of 489 drowning victims since they started operations in 1958. Of those, 475 were not wearing personal flotation devices.
Other duties of the St. Louis County Rescue Squad
- Victim extraction from accidents: The squad is the primary response unit for townships that have no extrication capabilities, and the secondary response unit for those that do. Extrication involves the use of hand and power tools to free patients and victims who are trapped by wreckage or other obstacles.
- Emergency medical first response: All members are trained in emergency medicine to at least the first responder level, with many holding emergency medical technician and paramedic certifications. The squad is the primary response agency for townships with no first responder network of their own, and is the secondary response unit for those that do.
- Aircraft landing zone set-up: Establish a safe landing zone for helicopters to transport accident victims.
- Training in water rescue/recovery: As with wilderness search techniques instruction, the rescue squad also provides classroom and field training to other Northland agencies such as EMS and EMTs on topics like water and ice rescues and recovery.
- Resort/rental boat inspections: Every spring and summer, rescue squad members visit area resorts and outfitters, inspecting their rental equipment for serviceability.
- Traffic control: Squad members are trained to direct traffic. Besides assisting deputies with traffic control at accident scenes, they provide assistance at special events, such as Grandma’s Marathon, the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon and the Duluth Airshow.