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Northern Minnesota effort: Search for Kory Kelly brought out hundreds of volunteers

From a day care owner who cooked for searchers to emergency personnel, K-9 partners and the Canadian Air Force, the effort last fall to find a lost grouse hunter showed the northern Minnesota spirit.

Kory Kelly, 39, went grouse hunting a year ago today in the Red Lake Wildlife Management Area in a wilderness northeast of Fourtown. He was armed with a shotgun and carried a compass. He was accompanied by Sammy, the yellow Lab he borrowed from his hunting partner.

On Oct. 17, he was reported missing and a search commenced, which eventually resulted in the activation of 62 agencies, hundreds of volunteers and 6,500 person-hours.

On Monday, the Bemidji Area Natural Resources Continuing Education Consortium sponsored a review of the emergency operations presented by Beryl Wernberg, 911 communications supervisor and emergency management director for the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office of Emergency Management.

The presentation detailed the emergency responses and lessons learned in a remote area of Beltrami and Lake of the Woods counties.

The search continued daily from Oct. 17 to Oct. 22 and picked up again from Oct. 28 to Oct. 30. Searchers went back to the area Nov. 7, Nov. 9 and Nov. 22 working in dense forest and swamp. The dog was found Oct. 26. Kelly's body was found less than two hours after the search resumed in the spring. At 10:20 a.m. April 27, Lake of the Woods Sheriff Dallas Block was flying over an area searchers had covered in the fall and saw Kelly's body. Searchers had walked within 15 feet of the spot the fall before but missed seeing anything in the 8-foot tall swamp grass. Kelly had apparently died of hypothermia. His body was cared for by the Helgeson Funeral Home of Baudette, and his brother, Brian, who was on the scene for most of the search was able to accompany Kelly's body.

One of the lessons searchers and professionals alike learned is how much courage is required to hike every day for 16 hours through nearly impenetrable forest, swamp and brush and at the end of the day face defeat.

"This was a gut-wrenching thing," Wernberg said. "I tell you, toward the end of this thing, it took a lot of courage just to get up and go."

Briefings in the morning and debriefings at night are important, Wernberg said, to find out what everyone saw. But the debriefings are also important from an emotional point of view.

"This becomes very, very personal for people," she said.

Keeping the family of the lost person in mind is also crucial, she said. In the case of the Kelly family, Department of Natural Resources officers built a campfire to comfort them as they waited for news. Volunteers would come by and sit with Kelly family members. DNE Officer Warren Thompson carved diamond will walking sticks for Kelly's parents.

"You don't want people to feel alone or isolated," Wernberg said.

Another lesson is that high-tech equipment has limitations in a wilderness search.

"We always carry our own generators," Wernberg said. "There's no place to plug in out in the middle of nowhere."

She said the tragedy also showed the neighborly spirit and willingness of people to give their all to help others, even strangers.

"Polaris paid the wages of their employees to come and search for us," she said. "Marvin Windows did the same thing. Many volunteers took the day off without pay. Every day, the people in Grygla would bring food driving 32 miles each way. You talk about generous -- the generosity was unbelievable. I don't think you can ever say thank you enough."

Wernberg said she was also amazed by the response from the Canadian Air Force. When the emergency was reported, the weather was socked in and no planes were flying. Wernberg called the Canadian Air Force stationed in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and received an immediate OK. But Langley Air Force Base, where such international flights must be approved, balked saying no one in the United States was flying.

"I said, 'I don't care. The Canadians will fly,'" Wernberg recalled.

So, she called various sources to get permission for the Canadian pilots to land.

Another lesson: Make sure to maintain contacts and know the officials who will cut through red tape in emergencies.

Kelly went missing half a mile within Beltrami County. His body was found 12 miles into Lake of the Woods County. He died 1.25 miles from a road. When he realized he was lost, if he had headed northwest, he would have soon hit a road. But he turned southeast. Over the path Kelly took, searchers found his hat, sweatshirt, coveralls, cigarettes, lighter and a shotgun shell from the type of gun he was carrying. (People suffering from hypothermia often develop the illusion they are overheating.) They never found his gun.