Four snowmobilers went into the icy waters of North Long Lake Friday night, but all made it out alive.
The snowmobilers and law enforcement authorities credit their survival with an ability to remain calm in a life-threatening situation. The Crow Wing County Sheriff's Department reported four sleds went through the ice about 9:23 p.m. in the same open water that claimed the life of a Brainerd man about a week ago.
They were riding across Merrifield bay heading across the lake for Highway 371. Misting, light rain soon turned to snow. There were seven sleds in the group, but one had broken down and another stopped to help. The other five continued on in the dark unaware they were approaching a large section of open water on the Highway 371 bay.
"We weren't going that fast," said Jason Evanson, 29, Brainerd. "When everybody saw water there was no stopping. ... I was the first one in."
Terry Metzger (front) and Troy Lund, both of Brainerd, came off North Long Lake at the Birchdale Road access Saturday morning. Metzger was retrieving his snowmobile, which stalled on the lake Friday night. (Dispatch Photos by Clint Wood)
Evanson moved to Brainerd from Fargo, N.D., about six months ago. The snowmobile group was a mixture of Fargo residents and area snowmobilers. When Evanson saw the open water and realized it was too late to stop, he tried to hit the throttle to skip across. He made it about 80 feet from the ice before sinking. Three of his friends went into the water behind him. Another was able to stop in time about five feet short of the water.
"They said they couldn't see me," Evanson said. "They could just hear me splashing. They were yelling for me so I just kept swimming toward their voices."
Evanson could not get his helmet off. His snowmobile suit took on more water and grew heavier. Evanson said he wasn't sure he was going to make it.
"I wasn't sure," he said. "I just tried to stay calm and keep swimming. A lot of things go through your head."
Rick Duvall, 41, Fargo, said they were all riding close together when they came to the water.
"I saw Jason go in first out of the corner of my eye," Duvall said. He was in the water himself within seconds. "When I was trying to swim back I saw the last guy go in. ... We weren't going all that fast. You just go down right now and you are down before you know it."
'They said they couldn't see me. They could just hear me splashing. They were yelling for me so I just kept swimming toward their voices.' -- Jason Evanson Brainerd
Duvall said he was in the water for what seemed like a long time but it was probably only two minutes. He said someone mentioned a four-wheeler had gone through the ice, but Duvall did not know on which lake.
"I was thinking, 'Just stay calm,'" Duvall said. He could not get his helmet off and it was difficult to see. "You gain weight real fast with every stroke."
As he was swimming, Duvall said he could see someone running on the ice above. The first handfuls of ice Duvall reached broke off before he found firmer grips.
"I had my hands dug into the ice," he said. Then Mike McCormick, Fargo, who was able to stop his sled before the water was there and pulled him out. "It's a good thing one guy didn't go down."
When Evanson finally reached the thin ice at the water's edge, he kept breaking through. He said he just thought to keep moving. His friends were unable to reach him across the thin ice but they came up with another plan. They threw a jacket toward Evanson and one of them laid on the ice grabbing one sleeve while his friends grabbed his heels. Evanson, now atop the ice but running out of energy quickly, took the other sleeve. His friends pulled him to safety.
Duvall said the group was worried others would follow their tracks right to the water and they were not sure how many sleds had gone down. Then law enforcement located their other friends who dropped back earlier. Residents along North Long Lake saw the snowmobilers take to the ice and head directly toward the open water and called 911. Evanson said residents told him they could see their snowmobile headlights disappear. The snowmobilers used their remaining sled to transport those who fell through the ice to a warm house and waiting coffee.
"You have one little single thought go through your mind, that you are not going to make it, but you are not going to let that happen," Duvall said. "We were happy to get everyone out of the water. It was a good feeling."
Evanson said there were no signs of thin ice or open water on the Merrifield bay.
Snowmobiler Tim Meierding, Nisswa, also went into the water. Saturday their sleds remained in 10 to 14 feet of water.
"I'd hate to see a few more people go through the water because it's not properly marked," Evanson said. "... Without a sign we are not the first or the last to go through this lake. ... We had a bunch of smart and conscious riders with us. ... We probably wouldn't have been on the lake if we had know there was open water."
Crow Wing County Sheriff Dick Ross said there are warning signs on both public accesses and near Iven's on the Bay restaurant. Saturday Ross said he is planning to close the entire end of the lake to any vehicle traffic in the area where the snowmobilers went into the water.
"They were extremely lucky," Ross said of the group. "They kept their wits about them and pulled each other out."
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