WHEN I WAS a little kid, I was given those absolute rules one needed to know to survive to live to a long and healthy life. I was told to eat my vegetables, to not play in the traffic, and to not mess with the loaded gun in the corner. There was that lecture about not playing with matches and of course I was chastised to not run with scissors, or to ever throw rocks and pencils because eventually, someone would loose and eye. All that was said or implied many, many times. Oh, and there was one more thing, don’t ever go out and play on thin ice. I learned all of these cornerstones of life and somehow, I made it to being 18.
Christmas 2017 was a typical affair for us, except for three things. We went to my family first, enjoying the season with 500 card games, gift giving and overeating, then we went to my wife’s family in Minnesota.
I say three things were different. One was that I went ice fishing with my wife and daughter on both Big Dunham Lake and Big Wood Lake but unfortunately, we didn’t catch any fish.
The second difference was that my family forgot to get out the pickled herring which was truly tragic. It was the third thing that was really different. I got this email late Christmas Day afternoon from my family.
I was looking out the window @ 4:40 today, and a truck came across the lake from the south, & broke the ice. The front end stayed up long enough so who ever should have had time to get out. I called 911, and they sent out ambulances, etc. No report yet! will let you know if we hear anything!!!
The ”whomever” was a man named Harley Meyer and passenger, Keith Choronzy. Neighbors of my family ran out and with ladders and ropes, and rescued the men floundering in the water. I don’t know Keith, but Harley….Harley is just one of those guys. It took almost 30 years for my grandfather, Allwin to be proved correct. You see Harley had a bit of an ice fishing reputation, he was usually the first person each year to drive out on Big Wood Lake. My grandfather’s prediction: Some day, some day, they’re going to go in, because you just never know.
My grandfather knew a little bit about going through the ice. Being about as close to a professional trapper that you could be without being one, he had broken through beaver trapping a couple times on foot near shore. On one cold January day half a century ago on 30 inches of ice on Grimh Lake near Frederic, he put the back wheels of the family logging truck through the ice, right where you’d never suspect you’d ever have a problem.
There have occasionally been big things to happen to Grantsburg, my home town. There were the forest fires of 1959 and 1980. The Grantsburg area invented watercross, the activity of skipping snowmobiles over open water. This lead to the invention of jet skis and since 1977, Grantsburg has hosted the summer nationals races in the sport on its mill pond, Memory Lake. Other races and events have been held at nearby towns. Then there were the Bigfoot sightings of 1985 which led to large scale investigations and then followed by a series of secondary hoaxes. There was the 7-foot four-inch policeman named Big Gust, and there have been bank robberies. Many trophy deer and bears have been killed, and even of course, I chipped in, with the Falun Sucker Club. Everything previously, however, done or seen now seems to be dwarfed by this, but well, it may just be perspective.
So what really happened? Like any event, there is the truth. There is the story that ended up in the newspapers, and then there is what will end up being the legend. When confronted with truth and legend, it is said, believe the legend, always believe the legend. I asked out on the lake, on January 7th, and well, the legend was already well ingrained in the local lore.
There is a reason I don’t know Keith Choronzy, one of the victims in this event. He could be the luckiest and unluckiest man around, as it turns out. He isn’t a local guy, having just moved to my hometown from Michigan. It even turns out he works at a local company with my uncle Dennis and this story begins with him. It turns out his wife decided to go visit her relatives in Michigan over Christmas and he, for whatever reason, decided to stay home.
It is Christmas Day, and well, he gets bored and for want of something to do, he ends up in the Rendezvous, Grantsburg’s infamous tavern. A somewhat seedy place that has been the subject of far too many damnation sermons at the many local Swedish Baptist and Swedish covenant churches over the decades. In the eye of the holier than thou crowd, that dominated the western Burnett County landscape for the last century, drinking alcohol equals hell, and the ending of Prohibition was the beginning of Revelation, and the center of it all was this single bar located on Madison Avenue in downtown Grantsburg. I’ve heard so many sermons and comments overt he years that you think the words “sin” and “rendezvous” were synonymous.
It is a lonely and sad situation to be hanging out at a bar on Christmas but well, it happens. Keith starts chatting with the other bar flies and shares that he is apparently in the market for a fish house. One thing leads to another and he ends up in a conversation to one of the biggest bar flies, a man named Harley Meyer. Harley, you see, has a fish house he may be in the market to sell, and well, after a while he offers to drive Keith over to his place to show it to him, and then after that, they end up going for a drive.
How this unlikely pair actually ended up out on Big Wood Lake at dusk and what the blood alcohol level was of the driver was something you can only imagine, but certainly the standard comment about the lack of common sense was plainly involved. They had been driving a fair distance out on the lake, but went in and apparently the electric windows shorted out on the older GMC Yukon XL. They also couldn’t open the door. Keith couldn’t swim but as they were doing 40 mph by witnesses out there, they made a huge hole when the car created a wave and and the ice finally snapped. Harley now a big 65-year-old retired guy had a hard time climbing backwards in the vehicle towards the end that remained above water. The only thing they had to break the rear window was Harley’s ice auger, so they used it to smash the window and exit the vehicle, reminding me of why all of our vehicles all have window hammers. Now a couple hundred yards from the nearest shore, surrounded in ice, the two men were soon floundering in the water. They were unable to pull themselves out of the ice as the Yukon finally sunk, engine down torpedoing down the 28 feet of water burying itself into the muck of the bottom.
Keith was going down for the proverbial third time, when, as I said previously, people from a couple house away from my parent’s were running out to rescue this intrepid pair, one of which had just finished a course on water rescues. They arrived and yanked him out before he drowned and then fished out Harley, saving them both from a tragic death and then brought them into a house to warm them up. I guess the rest was history, but they were lucky they didn’t drown. My family still remembers the tragedy of Louis Marek, another local man, who put his car down into Spirit Lake, a few miles away, back in 1962 with his son. His son crawled out onto the ice but he just didn’t have the strength to pull out his father before he drowned on that fateful December day, haunting the poor kid for the rest of his life.
Car Down 2017/18 will be remembered in ice-fishing huts, hunting lodges, and campfires for years to come, maybe forever. Not one to miss out on all the action, I arrived at a little after eight in the morning on January 7, 2018, walked out, drilled holes for tip-ups in front of my parents house and came back in to warm up.
The weather was in a bit of a warming spell, as it even broke 25 degrees, that is -4C for all of you Canadians and Europeans out there. This time of year that is about 2 degrees warmer than average. It was a good day apparently, to go car fishing, as in fishing out a car. You see, Wisconsin allows you just 30 days to extract a sunk vehicle before they start imposing huge daily fines, which will quite quickly exceed your net worth, should you have the fortitude to avoid organizing a recovery operation.
I’ve done a lot of stupid and crazy things in my life but I’ve never sunk a car. Once, on a lake named Upper Clam Lake about 20 miles northeast of here, I was standing by a tip-up hole (too close to the open water) when I felt the sheet of ice I was standing on sinking. Another time in eastern Ontario, having the ice-fishing time of my life, I was walking back to my car with about four inches of water on top of the ice over maybe 24 inches of solid ice. For some reason, I stopped. I looked down and six inches in front of my boot was a six foot hole. I got warned as a kid that if I drove out on the lake, and sunk a car, I’d be paying for it out of my own bank account. I knew that it would be more money that I had. Thereafter, I’ve been pretty cautious, typically fishing from shore, or walking out. That is not to say I’ve never driven on ice. I actually learned to drive a car on ice. It is a great way to learn how to counter steer in a spin. I just never pushed it.
Luckily, Grantsburg is the center of water recoveries. Due to waterskipping and the ingenuity of locals, an apparatus needed to be invented to be able to float out and pull up sunk snowmobiles in open water or through the ice. Carl Anderson of Anderson Towing and Recovery from the north side of my hometown does quite a bit of business with his team of water recovery experts. The FIRM, a float-able ice recovery machine, he invented to avoid the weight of a tow truck to go out on the ice. It is pulled out by a stripped down open Jeep and has four heavy duty winches mounted on each corner enabling it to extract just about anything.
About twenty minutes after I was officially fishing, the recovery crew came out and started getting ready. First they sent down a camera to see if, I guess, the SUV was still there, as maybe a large sneaky northern pike might have moved it.
They set up a divers hut, to have a second hole for them to have access, and put up a food hut to feed and offer hot drinks for the crew and the many onlookers. The lake was a frenzy of activity. Nothing beats sloppy Joes and cider out on the ice.
They cut out the ice for the main hole (actually cutting Harley’s ice sled in half in the process which was floating just under the ice).
They placed the FIRM in the correct location, divers went down, and then began the recovery operation.
Being engine down in the mud, they had no access to anything in front of the doors of the Tahoe so they had to raise it back-end first and then send divers down a second time to attach cables to the front end. As they raised it, fish buckets, coats, and fishing poles started floating upwards, and then a trailer hitch appeared. The growing crowd let out a bit of a celebration.
It took almost an hour to actually turn the vehicle to its normal orientation as the excitement of all of us built watching it, and then up it came, quite a bit worse for wear, and of course now, just a $200 hunk of scrap iron.
Harley’s favorite ice-fishing rod looked salvageable, however clinging to the molding of the back window.
At the end someone asked…”Where is Harley?” Harley was actually nowhere around. It appears, Harley has been persona non-grata and since the event has been hiding in his house and not answering his telephone. A character apparently unwilling to remain part of a play that was now centered about him.
Out on the lake, it was said that recovering a vehicle costs a grand a foot. So this recovery will probably cost between $20,000 and $35,000 depending on how, I guess, they measure the feet. It was almost priceless and that is a lot of money for a vehicle that would only be worth $5,000 before it went in and now virtually nothing. I hope he doesn’t have fine print in his car insurance policy. Somehow, I don’t think the price of the fish house will cover it, and maybe from now one, Harley may not be the man who races out to be the first to drive out on the lake. Possibly he’ll just do a lot of his early season fishing from his bar stool in the Rendezvous, eventually telling his version of the story adding in more of the flavor.
For me, it was the end of a great one-day trip to my hometown, as it isn’t every day you get to watch something like this. It made almost want start to compose a song, at least one popped into my head, at least a parody of one. No, I didn’t actually catch any pike on this crazy day, but I didn’t need to as I already had a great story to share, the tale of the night they drove old Harley down, and the bells were ringing, the night they drove old Harley down, and the people were singin' they went ..La. la, la, la la la... my apologies to The Band
…I guess since it happened on Christmas, the bells were ringing and the people were also singing. Now they just have to write the real song.
Be careful out there and stay off thin ice!
PS The bird count during this was two species, American Crow and Bald eagle