Man rescues 3 hunters, 2 dogs after boat capsizes in frigid waters of Minnesota lake
GARRISON, Minn.—Little did 71-year-old John J. Pufahl know when he woke up the morning of Friday, Oct. 12, he would be called a hero.
But that is exactly what the Garrison man is—a hero—after rescuing three hunters and their black and yellow Labradors after their hunting boat capsized on Camp Lake, a lake southwest of Garrison in Crow Wing County in east-central Minnesota.
Pufahl was minding his own business, drinking coffee just after 8 a.m. He looked outside to view the lake and saw something. At first he thought it was a bog floating around. He looked again and saw a man waving his gun in the air. He knew there was trouble. He grabbed the keys to his pontoon and went as fast as he could to reach the man. He realized once he was out on the lake it was more than just one man. There were three and two dogs.
Capt. Scott Goddard of the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office said two of the men stayed with the boat—hanging onto the capsized boat and a gas can—and a third person tried to swim to shore with his waders on.
"He was bobbing up and down in the water," Pofahl said, so he grabbed that man first, pulling him into the pontoon. "He was trying to swim to shore."
Pofahl then went to the other two men and rescued them. The dogs also got onto the pontoon. Pofahl said when he was on shore he at first thought the dogs' heads were ducks.
The sheriff's office said one of the dogs swam with the man trying to get to shore and the other one stayed with the two men by the boat. The boat was found in about 15 feet of water.
"This time of year with the cold water, the body only has minutes until it loses the use of arms and legs. The hunters in this case probably would not have lived if it weren't for the quick action of the lake resident," the sheriff's office stated in a news release.
Pofahl said he is glad he still had his pontoon boat in the lake so he was able to rescue the hunters. He said most of the people who live on the lake are snowbirds and are no longer around.
"I like to fish," Pofahl said as to why his boat was still in the water. The lake covers 520 acres and has three distinct bays.
"It didn't bother me until I got home," Pofahl said of the rescue and what had just happened. "It is scary. Once I saw it, I was like, 'Oh my God.' I'm glad I was able to help these kids, lucky I was here."
And the lake had to be cold for the hunters and dogs. Pofahl said there already is ice on the lake along shore with an inch of snow.
When deputies arrived on scene at 8:39 a.m., they observed the pontoon with the individuals on board. All three hunters were treated by Garrison firefighters for possible hypothermia. Five firefighters responded. The hunters declined to go by ambulance to the hospital.
The hunters were Jason Worlie, 39, of Bowlus; Jayme Doucette, 43, of Becker; and Andrew LeBlanc, 30, of Little Falls. A call was made to one of the hunters, but was not returned.
Goddard said he is glad everything worked out and the hunters are safe.
The water temperatures are continuing to plummet, Goddard said, and guidelines prove a person has about 10 minutes of "meaningful" movement—with or without a personal flotation device—if they fall into the water.
"This doesn't give a person much time to do much and that is why it is critical to have a life jacket on," Goddard said. "In today's incident, the No. 1 thing is having a life jacket on and second thing is to stay with the boat. In this instance, two stayed with the boat.
"The good news for them and their families is they will see everyone safe tonight."
Goddard reminded the public the same rules apply on the water whether a person is hunting or doing other recreational activities.
Why cold water is dangerous
The National Center for Cold Water Safety explains why cold water is dangerous.
• Sudden drowning: With very few exceptions, immersion in cold water is immediately life-threatening for anyone not wearing thermal protection like a wetsuit or drysuit.
When cold water makes contact with a person's skin, cold shock causes an immediate loss of breathing control. The result is a high risk of suddenly drowning—even if the water is calm and a person knows how to swim. The danger is even greater if the water is rough. Inability to coordinate breathing with wave splash greatly increases the danger of inhaling water.
• Gradual drowning: Cold water drowning can happen immediately, but it may also take a fairly long time—a gruesome, drawn-out process in which small amounts of water are inhaled, over and over again, until a person's lungs become so waterlogged the person suffocates. Inhaling about 5 ounces of water is enough to cause drowning.
• Heart failure and stroke: Because skin blood vessels constrict in response to sudden cooling, cold water immersion also causes an instantaneous and massive increase in heart rate and blood pressure. In vulnerable individuals, this greatly increases the danger of heart failure and stroke.
All of these things happen long before hypothermia becomes an issue.
Stages of immersion
To understand why some cold water deaths happen instantly, while others take hours, a person needs to be familiar with the four stages of cold water immersion, what happens during each of them, and why it happens.
The four stages are cold shock, physical incapacitation, hypothermia and circum-rescue collapse, the website states. Cold shock is over in a relatively short period of time, generally within five minutes, however breathing problems may persist for a longer time while a person is in the water.
If a person survives the cold shock phase, the threat shifts to physical incapacitation, the website stated. It's quite possible to lose the ability to use one's hands in 60 seconds, and use arms in minutes. It takes at least 30 minutes for an average adult to become hypothermic, even in freezing water. A very large person with a lot of body fat can delay both physical incapacitation and hypothermia, sometimes for hours. Size does matter.
The final stage, circum-rescue collapse, derives its name from the fact the collapse can occur before, during or after rescue.