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Dokken: Common sense is only way to avoid incidents like Upper Red Lake ice rescue

Law enforcement and natural resources agencies such as the DNR all have issued numerous news releases urging people to put safety first on the ice. Unfortunately, you can't legislate common sense.

Ice rescue.jpg
A temporary land bridge is pictured between a chunk of ice that detached from the mainland Monday, Nov. 28, 2022, on Upper Red Lake, forcing the rescue of about 200 anglers stranded on the wrong side of the open water.
Contributed/Beltrami County Sheriff's Office
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Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

GRAND FORKS – Last Saturday – Nov. 26 – I received an email from a lifelong resident of Upper Red Lake, whom I got to know in the late ’90s while reporting on the Red Lake walleye recovery.

To this day, the fall and rise of Red Lake’s famed walleye fishery remains perhaps the most rewarding story I’ve covered since I began reporting on the outdoors full-time in 1998.

The subject line in the email I received last weekend was “ice fishing excitement.”

Specifically, the email referred to a photo that popped up last week on social media showing a small plane that landed on Upper Red in an area where the ice was 2½ to 3 inches thick.

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I’d be scared to walk on ice that thin – much less land on it with a small airplane.

“Some people get a little too excited,” he wrote.

Boy, did that turn out to be an understatement.

Uffda.

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In my reply, I asked him how long he thought it would be before the first ice rescue of the season, an event that has unfortunately become all too common on Upper Red in recent years.

Turns out, it would be two days.

The rescue of more than 200 anglers Monday on Upper Red was all over the news earlier this week, and it wasn’t a situation of someone falling through thin ice. As Maggi Fellerman and Annalise Braught of the Bemidji Pioneer – also a Forum Communications newspaper – reported, “It all started when a strong gust of wind separated a large section of ice from the mainland along the southern shoreline.”

Fortunately, there were no casualties, and the rescue reportedly went smoothly, but the incident undoubtedly put the lives of dozens of responders – including personnel from the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officers, Kelliher Fire and Rescue, Red Lake Nation Fire, Lake of the Woods Sheriff’s Office and other water rescue agencies – at risk.

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I don’t know what the answer is, but these early ice rescues on Upper Red are happening much too frequently. Law enforcement and natural resources agencies such as the DNR all have issued numerous news releases urging people to put safety first on the ice. Unfortunately, you can't legislate common sense.

As DNR conservation officer Nicholas Prachar told the Pioneer, it was only a matter of time before an incident such as Monday’s happened. Upper Red is shallow and among the first lakes in Minnesota to freeze, but several days of warm temperatures made the ice unstable.

Not everywhere, of course, but definitely in the area where the sheet of ice broke loose Monday.

“When you get a strong south wind on a very early sheet of ice, this is very commonplace,” Prachar told the Pioneer. The ice on Upper Red was anywhere from 4 to 7 inches thick last weekend, he told the Pioneer.

That’s enough for walking, but when cracks form, conditions can deteriorate in a hurry.

I was talking about Upper Red and the early ice rescues that have occurred out there in recent years with another friend Monday afternoon. The two of us have shared more than one memorable adventure over the years.

We’re older now – how much wiser is questionable – but when we pushed the envelope in our younger days, we weren’t sharing it with potentially thousands of other people on social media.

In this day of YouTube fishing channels and social media influencers who feel compelled to share their every move with the world, it’s inevitable that others will follow suit and head out on ice where they probably shouldn’t, he said.

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He’s right, and the rush to get out there can cloud people’s judgment – especially if the walleyes are biting, as they usually do on Upper Red this time of year.

“I tell people to use common sense, and if you’re questioning it, don’t go out,” Prachar said, quoted in the Bemidji Pioneer story. “It’s ultimately up to the person going out there to make sure they’re doing it safely.”

The Minnesota DNR, on its Facebook page, issued a follow-up reminder Tuesday, urging people to think before heading out on the ice. They also posted a video clip of DNR conservation officers using an airboat to reach anglers stranded on the wrong side of the open water during Monday’s rescue on Upper Red.

“This is an important reminder that ice conditions can change very quickly, particularly in the early ice season,” the DNR said in its Facebook post. “Even though you may be fishing on 4 inches (or more) of ice, strong winds can quickly break up a sheet of newly formed ice. If you choose to go out on early ice, always keep an eye on changing conditions, wear buoyant gear and have ice picks accessible.”

As for me, I’ll wait until ice conditions are safer, preferably on a day that isn’t windy. And with the return of colder weather now upon us, the wait shouldn’t be long.

The moral of the story: Be safe and be smart. It’s worth the wait.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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