A 47-year-old Brainerd man drowned on North Long Lake Saturday after his four-wheeler went through the ice.
Ronald Piekarski went through the ice on the Highway 371 bay about 1:36 p.m. Emergency personnel pulled his body from the lake about a half-hour later and attempted to revive him.
Piekarski was pronounced dead at 3:15 p.m. at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd.
Sgt. Neal Gaalswyk, Crow Wing County sheriff's boat and water safety supervisor, said today Piekarski drove his four-wheeler into a large space of water that opened recently on the bay. An aerial photograph of the open water appeared on the front page of Thursday's Dispatch.
"He drove right into the big crack in the lake," said Gaalswyk, adding it was unclear why the man didn't see the open water. "It was a pretty big area of open water. It was a bright shining day, no blowing snow and good visibility."
A DNR pilot told Gaalswyk that the four-wheeler's tire tracks appeared to be heading toward Iven's On the Bay on the south side of the Highway 371 bay. Gaalswyk also said there was speculation Piekarski was going to Merrifield -- the quickest route would be across the three bays of North Long Lake -- but he couldn't confirm that.
While it was unknown how much experience Piekarski had, his wife told Gaalswyk that Piekarski was familiar with the lakes, the ice conditions and he was safety conscious. The man kept the four-wheeler at a friend's house in East Gull Lake.
Piekarski drove into about 10 feet of water. Though awaiting autopsy results from the Crow Wing County Coroner's Office, Gaalswyk said the death is being investigated as a probable cold water drowning. The Crow Wing County Sheriff's Department was attempting to recover the four-wheeler from the bay today.
The sheriff's department is urging people to use caution when driving on ice. Conditions can vary on a lake, with ice thickness ranging from 20 inches to open water, and changing from day to day.
No ice should be considered safe. And Gaalswyk said snowmobile, four-wheeler or even automobile operators should avoid the ice if possible.
"That's the advice I use in my own actions," said Gaalswyk.
The open water wasn't marked, said Gaalswyk, and the sheriff's department is not planning to mark the ice. A sign would be placed at the Highway 371 bay public access about the open water.
Gaalswyk said efforts to mark or fence open water in the past hasn't worked because fences rarely stay up for more than a day. Instead, he said, people need to assess ice conditions on a daily basis for themselves.
"It's the position of the sheriff's office that, with 417 lakes in the county and a number of them have open water on them, people need to use extreme caution," said Gaalswyk, opting instead to inform people through publicity and the media. "And we don't want to give a false sense of security to people, who don't see signs, that the lake is secure.
"At any given time, on any given say in any conditions ice can be unsafe."
Saturday's drowning was the year's second ice-related drowning in the state.
Despite the two ice-related drownings this year, Tim Smalley, a water safety specialist with the DNR in St. Paul, said it has been a below average year for such fatalities. For the 2001-2002 ice season, there have been only three ice-related deaths in the state.
"It's half the average of six or seven people per year the past 10 years," said Smalley. "People are a lot smarter around the ice." During the 1982-1983 ice season, 22 people died in ice-related accidents.
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