A 56-year-old Pillager woman struggled to shore after the canoe she was in capsized Friday morning, starting a chain reaction that saved her husband's life.
"There wasn't any choice, you know," Patricia Zolowdek said. "It was life or death. You either do your best or you die. There was no choice. No one was going to come."
Patricia and Chester Zolowdek were paddling and fishing in a 17-foot canoe on Crooked Lake south of Deerwood. Patricia was in the back of the canoe. Chester turned in the canoe in front of her and suddenly they capsized.
They were 200 yards offshore. The water was less than 50 degrees. They both tried to get back in the canoe but it overturned and then submerged.
The day was sunny but cool. No other boats were out on the water. But they both were wearing life jackets before they were thrown into the water. They always wear life vests.
A swimming instructor for Special Olympics, Patricia decided to try for shore. The effort was complicated by a foot injury that had her wearing a knee to toe cast on her right leg.
"It was kind of like an anchor," she said. "It would fill with water. I could feel it every time I would kick."
Patricia's fingers were frozen so she could not remove a heavy lined Levi jacket that was under her life vest. The jacket added to the weight as she pushed against the waves. She floated on her back and kicked toward shore. She stopped occasionally and got her bearings only to find a few times she was moving away from shore.
"Every time you stop for just a second, my first thought was, 'I'm going to die if I don't keep going.' And my next thought was, 'My husband is out there. ... I have to go fast and I have to get help for him.'
"I knew it was awful cold and he couldn't last for very long."
Keeping mentally alert was the hardest thing, she said. The temptation was there to give up and go to sleep. Patricia said her upper body strength developed after spending time in a wheelchair during the winter.
"I was ready to quit and rest and be quiet many times and then I'd remember, 'You've got to save Chester. You've got to keep going. God help me.'"
She swam for shore in the cold water and became physically ill along the way. But she did not quit. Once she reached shore, Patricia still had the cast to deal with. She climbed and fell down the rocky embankment three times before reaching the top.
She made it to the Presbyterian Clearwater Forest office and called for help.
"She really had some gumption," said Sgt. Neal Gaalswyk, Crow Wing County Sheriff's Department boat and water supervisor. "She headed for shore and she said it was really an ordeal. ... She would have not made it to shore without a life jacket on and he would never have made it without a life jacket. ... Without life jackets on I'm convinced we would have had a double fatality."
Patricia's 44-year-old husband was still in the water. About 20 minutes had passed since the canoe capsized.
Gaalswyk was in the county's boat garage showing a new employee around when the call came in. He immediately hooked up a boat and started for the scene. Two other officers, one who was already driving on Highway 18 and another in the Crosby school, also responded. Along the way they heard updated reports that the man in the water was still on the surface. The other officers arrived first and directed Gaalswyk to the boat landing.
"They hollered at him to hold on and that help was coming," Gaalswyk said. Volunteer dive team members, who recently attended a rapid deployment rescue school, also arrived on the scene just minutes after the boat rescue began. In cold water, it is possible a person can be rescued after being submerged for 60 minutes.
When rescuers reached Chester, he was semi-conscious. His life jacket had come loose but was still around his neck. Gaalswyk said the response time to the 911 call was terrific, but the boat garage is still 20 miles from Crooked Lake. By the time help reached Chester, he had been in the cold water for nearly an hour. He was hypothermic and lethargic.
An ambulance from Crosby was on the scene and transported the couple to Cuyuna Regional Medical Center where they were treated and then released. Deerwood first responders also assisted at the scene.
"I would say our response time was very good, as good as can be expected," Gaalswyk said. "... It really tells people they need to have a plan to save themselves and this was the way. They had life jackets on before they went into the water. They did exactly what they were supposed to do. They saved two lives."
Gaalswyk said an excellent swimmer has less than a 50/50 chance of swimming 50 yards to safety in 50-degree water.
"Self rescue without a life jacket in 50-degree water, the possibility for that is extremely slim," he said. "If there ever was an incident that loudly proclaims the value of a life jacket -- this is it."
Patricia said her husband later asked her why she did not swim to a closer shore. But she knew where the nearest phone was located.
"I swam to the furthest shore because I knew that's where the office was. It was a choice of going the short way and save yourself or go the long way and save Chester. There was no question about that."
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