UPPER RED LAKE -- Zach Werner has been fishing on Upper Red Lake for decades. When he recently heard the lake already had 8 inches of ice, he grabbed his gear and headed up with a friend. They got to the lake and walked out roughly half a mile.
Later on, Werner, 31 of Pine River, would be one of the stranded people rescued after the ice broke and separated from the shore on Tuesday. A press release from the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office said “strong south winds” were to blame.
“Social media accounts are being used to exploit how safe the ice is, when it isn’t,” Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beitel said in the press release. “It is absolutely unsafe this early in the winter fishing season.”
Although some areas of the lake registered thick enough to venture onto, Beitel said there were mixed reports regarding the ice thickness. The release didn't give a timeline for the incident, but the daily activity report from the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office includes two search and rescue entries from the Kelliher and Waskish areas at 12:30 p.m.
Werner said he’d been in contact with one of the businesses on the lake, which, in turn, reportedly had received the “all clear” about the lake. Werner said around 20 people were rescued from the lake. Although Kelliher Fire and Rescue helped 11 of the people, the press release from the sheriff’s office said local resorts rescued “many others.” The release said the exact number of people rescued is unknown.
“There was a pressure ridge on the lake,” Werner said. “When the wind picked up yesterday, it moved the ice so much that that ridge broke open, and then we basically just floated away from it.”
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, there has to be at least 4 inches of ice to walk on. A snowmobile or an ATV can traverse ice that is at least 5 to 7 inches thick. At 8 inches, the ice is technically strong enough to support a car.
“I hadn’t been up this early before, but when we heard there was 8 inches of ice, there was nothing stopping us,” Werner said.
Although area resorts began letting anglers on the lake prior to the recent rescue, the sheriff’s office has contacted the resorts in the Red Lake area and has asked them not to allow anglers to go out on the ice.
On top of emphasizing the fact that it’s too early in the season to go out on the lakes, Beitel took issue with the way people contacted first responders in the wake of the ice breaking off and stranding the anglers. The press release said that instead of contacting the 911 Dispatch Center, rescue personnel were contacted directly. It also said the sheriff's office received several "official and unofficial reports."
“This circumvented the safe procedures put in place that keeps all first responders as safe as possible during these rescue missions,” Beitel said in the release.