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Volunteer divers passionate about helping others

Greg Moen of Bemidji, a member of the Lakes Area Dive Team, works to free himself from rope netting during an underwater scuba diving training exercise Saturday in the Bemidji High School pool. Behind Moen, on the pool floor, is a remote-operated underwater camera. Photo courtesy Lakes Area Dive Team

Those unfamiliar with members of the Lakes Area Dive Team may have read about them and not even realized it.

They were at Island Lake in November and at the Third Crow Wing Lake in January, where at both sites they were called in to assist rescue workers with individuals who had fallen through ice. They were also at Blackduck Lake in July 2009 where they recovered the bodies of two missing boaters who fell into the lake.

The LADT is a nonprofit, volunteer public safety dive team serving Beltrami, Cass and Hubbard counties.

For 10 years it has provided the tri-county area with highly trained diving professionals.

The team, made up of 19 men and two women, is funded entirely by donations from the public and the counties and townships they serve. They individually provide their own scuba gear and often their own transportation. Last year the team averaged a total of 1,200 volunteer hours.

LADT president Kevin Krueger of Walker was one of the founding members.

"At that time it was almost like a good old boys' club," he said, referring to when the LADT formed a decade ago.

As the group expanded and began to respond to more incidents in the area, its focus changed.

"We had to enforce standards and regulations. We were getting serious," Krueger said.

Krueger worked with eight of the original members in getting them certified in open water diving, advanced diving, ice diving and recovery diving. All that work was worth it, he said. He is proud of how far the group has come.

"It's a band of brothers and two sisters that formed this team and I am very close to all of them," he said. "Because of what we have to do, our lives are on the line. We all have to rely on each other. It is serious business, but we have good camaraderie."

Before the dive team was started, Dan Carlson and his wife opened up The Dive Depot in Bemidji in 2001. At the time, Carlson said, there was some interest in having a dive team in the area.

"We had a couple of incidents in this area where dive teams were coming from Fergus Falls, Grand Rapids or from Duluth," he said.

Carlson met up with Krueger and others, and in time the LADT was started.

The mindset of a public safety diver is different than leisure divers, Carlson said.

"We are not diving for fun. You have a mission, goals, leadership and structure. You are following orders," he said.

Ten of the divers on the LADT are certified diving professionals. Four are master scuba divers who have achieved the highest nonprofessional rating.

"We've got a particular set of skills we can put to good use," LADT member Greg Moen said. "I think that's the most rewarding. We laugh and joke sometimes, but when it's 'go time,' it's 'go time.'"

According to Carlson, LADT divers must be dedicated and there for the right reasons.

"We are not a rescue team," Carlson said. "This is a big reality for people who want to join because they want to rescue somebody. We are a recovery team."

Theo Ringle of Walker joined the team when it first started. He joined for personal reasons.

"I had two fellow high school mates that drowned in Leech Lake in 1985," he said. "It inspired me to join the team."

The LADT responded to its first ice rescue mission of 2011 on the Third Crow Wing Lake south of Nevis.

Sgt. Erick Hoglund with the Cass County Sheriff's Office, and liaison for the LADT, said ice conditions were more perilous this year because of the late freeze-up and heavy snow.

The LADT was one of more than 30 agencies from Minnesota that participated in the annual winter ice rescue training held in January on Cass Lake. Throughout the year, the LADT works with various agencies in skill building.

Chad Ihrke of Walker has been an LADT diver for two years. He has come a long way since he started, especially since he did not even know how to swim before joining. Typically, LADT divers are not allowed to join unless they have diving experience.

Ihrke took swimming lessons on his own before joining the team. He found diving equipment in a junkyard and took his first class to become certified in open water diving.

"After I took classes, I joined the dive team," Ihrke said. "They have taught me tons of things since then."

The first question Ihrke said people ask him when they learn he is a member of a dive team is, "Have you dealt with a dead person?"

"I say 'Not yet,' and I hope not to," he said.

Ihrke said he enjoys the camaraderie of the dive team and the challenge of diving.

"Every time you go in, there's something new to learn and there's more equipment to learn about," he said. "You have to be proficient to be safe."