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Swamped canoeists saved

Burnett County Sentinel, Grantsburg, Wisconsin USA
5 August, 2011
by Todd Beckman, Sentinel News Editor

Image Hovercraft Neoteric rescue St Croix Tribal Police The tribe's Neoteric hovercraft was instrumental in the rescue.

DANBURY, WI - Reports of swamped canoes on the St. Croix River last Thursday night sent emergency service providers into immediate rescue mode.

According to Burnett County Sheriff Department Chief Deputy Scott Burns, a group of 14 female campers, ages 15-20, and two adult counselors from YMCA Camp St. Croix in Hudson began an overnight canoe trip from the Schoen Park Landing in Douglas County earlier in the day.

The canoeists encountered high water and fast current conditions on the river, causing several canoes to swamp and the canoeists to become stranded along the river banks about one mile south of the CCC Bridge Landing in the Town of Blaine. This area is located approximately 12 miles northeast of Danbury. Rescue efforts were coordinated immediately.

"We were called for our hovercraft at 9:40 p.m. and we were on the river an hour later," St. Croix Tribal Police Chief Frank Taylor said. "Knowing how high and swift the river current is, I knew we had to get that hovercraft in the water immediately."

The tribal police department's hovercraft is the closest such piece of equipment.

"Once the hovercraft was in the water, it took the officers about 30 minutes to find eight of the stranded canoeists," Taylor told. "After confirming their safety and leaving a Burnett County Sheriff's deputy with them, the officers continued down the river, scanning the shoreline until they found the other six canoeists." Taylor said the six were standing on logs next to their overturned canoes.

"The maximum weight allowed in the hovercraft is 800 pounds," Taylor noted. "With the driver and spotter already on board, we could only transport two or three of the canoeists to shore at a time until all 14 were out." He said everyone was off the river by 1:30 a.m.

Taylor said his officers don't make these kinds of rescues everyday — especially going out at night with all the debris in the river from the recent rains plus the storm damage from last month.

He said Sergeant Warren Tuttle and officer Henry Bearheart, the two trained to operate the hovercraft, maneuvered the machine down the river to find the canoeists.

Photo St. Croix Tribal Police hovercraft training Warren Tuttle (left) and Henry Bearheart (third from left), St. Croix Tribal Police Department, receive their Class III Hovercraft Pilot Certification from instructor Chris Fitzgerald (second from left). Neoteric Law Enforcement Liaison Steve Stafford (right) assisted in their training course.

"On one trip down they had seen a tree leaning toward the river and on the way back they weren't seeing it," Taylor described. "All of a sudden, they see the tree in the river coming right at them — they missed it by a mere five feet. Those hovercraft don't just turn on a dime," he added.

"I can't say enough about Tuttle and Bearheart, who did an outstanding job of recognizing the dangers of the river, and helped save those campers," Taylor praised.

North Memorial Ambulance personnel treated and released one camper at the scene who was reportedly suffering from exposure. No other injuries were reported. All campers and counselors were taken back to Camp St. Croix.

"Having the hovercraft is a good resource for us to have and this rescue is a prime example of what can happen when agencies work together," Taylor pointed out.

In addition to the St. Croix Tribal Police, the Burnett County Sheriff’s Office was assisted by the Wisconsin State Patrol, National Park Service, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Danbury Fire Department, and Dairyland Fire Department.

The Burnett County Sheriff’s Office reminds canoeists and boaters that recent heavy rainfall in northern Wisconsin has caused the St. Croix and other area rivers to become treacherous with many downed trees in the riverways, high water levels, and extremely fast and dangerous currents. Extreme caution must be used when on or near these waterways. Individuals and groups can check with National Park Service headquarters for river conditions before heading out on the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers.

The hovercraft was called out again Sunday night for about 90 minutes when a family of five missed showing up at a designated pick-up spot near Thayer's Landing. They were recalled when the sheriff's office received notice the family, uninjured, was located in Minnesota.

 
 
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