For an hour and a half, Skip Wick had been trying to stay upright on a chunk of ice in Lake Superior's 8-foot swells.
The 80-year-old ice angler, stranded on the lake Saturday after big waves undermined the ice in Saxon Harbor east of Ashland, knew his options were limited.
"As I was standing there, the ice kept breaking up," said Wick, a retired shop teacher from Hurley, Wis. "There was a big roar, like a jet going over, and here would come a wave."
The roar was the sound of the waves, later estimated by Ashland firefighters at 8 to 12 feet, lifting and grinding chunks of ice as far as Wick could see. The chunk he was on was about as long and wide as a car, he said.
As it turned out, Wick and fishing partner Mike Popko of Saxon, Wis., were plucked off their respective ice pans after a harrowing two hours by the Ashland Fire Department using an air boat, or wind sled, called an Ice Angel.
"Those were the worst conditions I have ever been in for an ice rescue," said Lt. Tom Walters of the Ashland Fire Department.
Popko, riding a chunk of ice 30 yards away from Wick during the ordeal, feared the worst.
"It was awful," said Popko, 61. "It was like a bowl of Jell-O with all this busted-up ice. He (Wick) and I would be in troughs between the waves, and we couldn't see each other. ... I really didn't think I was going to make it."
Walters said it was surprising Wick and Popko could remain on their ice chunks.
"How they were able to maintain their balance going that high up in the air and back down is beyond me," Walters said.
AN ICE PUZZLE
The day had begun like many for the 50 to 75 ice anglers fishing on 12-inch-thick ice out of Saxon Harbor near the Michigan state line. Then, without warning or big wind, the ice began to fracture, Wick said. He was about 500 yards from shore, he said.
"The first crack was to the north," he said. "The second one went through my tent."
These were fine cracks, Wick said, giving the ice the appearance of a puzzle.
The wind was not blowing hard at that time, Wick said. But a front was moving into the area and the waves may have been pushed by winds farther down the lake.
When he saw the cracks form, Wick yelled to his son, Richard Wick, also of Hurley, and grandson Cal Wick, 8, fishing nearby. They threw all of their fishing gear into a 12-foot boat they had towed onto the ice on a trailer behind a snowmobile. But as they and other anglers headed for shore, the swells began to further fracture the ice.
The trailer's wheels became lodged in a crack between ice chunks, so Richard and Cal continued to shore on the snowmobile. Skip Wick and Popko kept moving toward shore, jumping from one ice chunk to another.
"We got to the point we couldn't go from cake to cake," Popko said.
The ice ahead of them had broken into pieces too small to support them. Other anglers, who hadn't been fishing as far out as Wick and his companions, were able to reach shore safely.
From that point, and for almost two more hours, Wick and Popko were alone on their respective floes. They couldn't communicate over the gnashing and grinding of the ice. They both managed to stay dry and warm, but the ride was terrifying.
"I looked at the situation and thought, 'Am I going to drown or get crushed to death?' " Popko said. "When a wave would crest, the chunks would separate. Then, in the troughs, one big chunk would crash into another one. It would about knock you on your rear end."
Wick had been on ice floes four or five times previously in his life.
"This isn't my first rodeo," he said.
But all of those had been clean breakaways. He would just get in his boat or canoe, which he'd brought along for just that purpose, and row or paddle back to landfast ice.
On one occasion, he had to paddle a floe back to solid ice using only his ice chisel, he said.
But this was different, because waves were pushing all of the broken ice toward shore.
Reflecting on the incident, Popko thinks the men made a mistake.
"We should never have left the boat," he said.
A LONELY FEELING
Wick recalls feeling "isolated" on his ice chunk and realizing he was on his own. He knew nobody on shore could get a boat or snowmobile out to them on that heaving ice.
"I had no control over my survival," he said. "(But) I was never fearful. I was hoping I would be rescued by something. A chopper (helicopter) was my number-one thought."
Firefighters from Ashland, the only fire department in the area with a wind sled, received the rescue call at 12:50 p.m. and then had to drive about half an hour to Saxon Harbor, Walters said.
"It was nearly a white-out," Walters said. "You could hardly see the piers out there."
He and his crew of three launched their 20-plus-foot airboat, powered by a single large fan, and began venturing out to Popko and Wick, whom they could see from shore.
"I gotta be honest with you," Walters said. "My whole crew, we were pretty worried. We didn't know that the craft could handle that situation. We had never had it in water like that."
Bouncing across the ice chunks, the firefighters reached the men in about 10 minutes, Walters estimated. They threw a weighted rope to the men, first Popko and then Wick. In each case, the watercraft was then able to get close enough that the men could clamber aboard. They reached shore about 2:30 p.m.
Both Wick and Popko expressed their gratitude for the firefighters' efforts.
Now Wick just wants to get his boat, and his fishing gear, back. He has been to the lake nearly every day since the incident and has seen the boat bobbing on the ice at least once, he said. He planned to contact a pilot to see if the boat could be located from the air.
The Iron County Sheriff's Department has not received charges yet for the rescue from the Ashland Fire Department. If charges are received, they will be forwarded to the Iron County Board to see if Wick and Popko will be charged for the rescue, according to a Sheriff's Department spokesman.
Wick said Saturday's incident will not change his practice of ice-fishing on Lake Superior, which he's been doing for almost 60 years. Popko was less sure about that.
"My wife said, 'You gotta promise never to go out there again,' " he said. "But fishing is one of my favorite pastimes."