Rescue on Red Lake: About 50 people taken off ice after high winds, cracking ice leave them stranded

UPPER RED LAKE -- Witnesses say it happened in about five minutes, too quickly for anyone to do anything about it. They say it has happened before but never quite like this, the cracking and twisting of ice that stranded about 50 people Monday on...

Devin Rennemo followed by Steve Geerdes, both of Kelliher Fire and Rescue, drive off Upper Red Lake after rescue efforts were complete on Monday near Roger's Resort. Nearly 50 people were stranded after several sheets of ice broke up on the lake stranding them with their ice houses. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

UPPER RED LAKE - Witnesses say it happened in about five minutes, too quickly for anyone to do anything about it. They say it has happened before but never quite like this, the cracking and twisting of ice that stranded about 50 people Monday on floating sheets here at Upper Red Lake, where no one was hurt.

Emergency calls started coming in about 9:50 a.m. from people stranded on the south side of the lake near Rogers’ Resort and Campground.
Chris Freudenberg, who co-owns the resort, said the cracks formed last week and then closed, covered by wooden bridges as a precaution. The ice buckled and the cracks reopened Monday from warmer-than-average weather and a south wind.

“This,” Freudenberg said from the resort’s lodge, where people gathered to drink hot chocolate and watch news stories about the emergency after rescuers had removed everyone from the lake, “is pretty extreme.”
Chris Hachey of Cloquet said his group of four anglers first noticed something was going on at about 10 a.m. when their fishing lines were at an angle and not straight down.
“I thought that was odd because Red Lake doesn’t have any current. Then we looked toward shore and we could see the big crack opening up,” Hachey said.
Northeast winds at the time were gusting to 30 mph at the Waskish airport, according to the National Weather Service. The chasm of open water eventually widened to about 300 yards.
Hachey had driven onto the ice with a 4-wheel ATV Sunday night and found the ice to be 5.5 inches thick. “And we caught a bunch of walleyes so we decided to try it again (Monday) morning before we went home,” he said.
Hachey said a resort charged anglers to access the lake promising ice conditions were safe. He was unaware that parts of the lake - the largest lake entirely within Minnesota - remained unfrozen.
“Now I don’t think I’ll ever go early ice fishing again,” he said. “We had no idea there was any open water out there.”
Rescue personnel in cold-water survival suits arrived with a snowmobile and a rubber raft and found a safe route for the stranded anglers to walk off. Boats and a hovercraft were on standby but not needed, Hachey said. Rescuers eventually went back and recovered the angler’s ATV and other gear.
“It’s a good thing we got off when we did because right after we crossed one crack it opened up to 40 feet wide,” Hachey said.
Rescuers from the resort responded first in rowboats as the cracks widened.
Also responding were the Kelliher Fire Department, Blackduck Ambulance, the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office, the Minnesota DNR and the Bemidji Fire Department.
Some came in yellow, water-resistant suits made of “warm stuff,” one of them said and shrugged.
Some brought a hovercraft that never had to see the water.
Travis Mauer and his friends - Dan Clark and Mike Schmitz - from Oakdale were rescued after their sheet began drifting toward shore. They used a three-foot by three-foot block of ice, he said, as a stepping stone to the other side.
“We went one by one,” Mauer said. “You could feel it sink.”
Everyone and their equipment were off the ice by the early afternoon as authorities continued sweeping the shore, warning people to stay off the lake.
“The Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office advises at this time no one should be on the ice due to the dangerous winds and fissures throughout the area,” a release said. “The next several days will continue to be a dangerous combination for those wanting to fish.”
Some believed the ice to be safe Monday morning, with 7 inches of coverage in some areas. Satellite photos of Upper Red Lake reveal pockets of open water, and cracks winding like veins where the ice is thin.
Freudenberg, from the resort, said this is the worst ice event here since he started tracking conditions at the lake in 2005. He said one of the ice bridges in front of the resort this morning drifted about a mile west.
The rescued who hung around the resort were glad to have made it back, sorry it happened at all.
Mauer and his friends said they would wait a couple weeks before going out again.

Related Topics: RED LAKE
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