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HomeExcursions /  A Brush with Death

A Brush with Death

     On Saturday, January 29th, 2000, three Beaver Islanders, Bud Martin, Ernie Martin, and Rich Gillespie, set out across the ice on snowmobiles to run the trails on nearby Garden Island. It was a nice 20 day, a little windy with the skies greyish blue. On previous years these men had gone to Mackinac, Cross Village, and Naubinway, a few times having to traverse open water on blocks of ice pulled across by ropes, so they knew what they were doing.

     After exploring Garden, the three men decided to scoot over to the east side of Hog Island, where Charlie Martin, Bud's and Ernie's father, had once maintained a small building.  That done, they set off for Hat Island, and from Hat veered northeast. The tracks on Bud's sled were equipped with studs, so he was out in front with Rich close behind and Ernie, on a borrowed older sled, a quarter mile behind.

     Everything was fine for the first five miles, but then Bud hit some thin ice. Because of his enhanced traction he was able to pass over it, but his weight cracked it enough so that it would not support Rich.  Rich saw the problem, but there was not enough time to even veer, and into the lake he went.  His sled disappeared, and Rich wound up in water up to his neck, fighting for his life. From back where Ernie was bringing up the rear, he thought Bud had found a cormorant stuck in the ice.

     Bud sensed what had happened, stopped, and turned around to help as Ernie drew closer. Rich threw off his gloves and clawed into the thin ice, perhaps one inch thick.  He lifted himself up, but the weight was too much and the ice broke off, dropping him back in.  Bud jumped off his sled and began trying to uncoil the 100' rope he always carried, but it was caked with ice and frozen slush. Rich kept fighting, digging his raw and now-bleeding fingers into the ice, but every time he lifted himself up, the ice broke and he fell back into the lake.

     Before Bud freed his rope, the weight of his sled combined with his manic exertions caused the ice where he had stopped to start breaking up, and Bud started to fall through. By jumping on his sled and gunning it for all it was worth, he was able to drive to safer ice, only losing his helmet.  But this was none too solid and it seemed that if he stopped, he might go through. He decided to loop around the main hole, leaving an end of his rope behind so that by circling he could pull the rope over Rich, whose movements were rapidly becoming lethargic.

     In the meantime Ernie had arrived, jumped off his sled, and was quickly approaching his friend in the water. Both Bud and Rich warned him back, but he felt that Rich was obviously fading fast and even if he went in the water, at least he would be able to keep Rich from drowning while Bud got his rope in position.  But Bud started to go through again, and in the attempt to escape dropped the rope where it could not be retrieved.

     At this point Ernie got down on his chest and began crawling forward. He had already ripped off his jacket because he had started sweating from the danger.  He kept crawling forward, and then took off his insulated shirt, tearing the buttons.  He was able to throw an end to Rich, but Rich's hands were so bloodied and numb and his brain was slowing down, and it was anybody's guess if he would be able to grasp it.  But he was able to marshal his last reserves and hold on, and even start to pull himself from the water. Luckily, the ice that supported Ernie was about three inches thick.

     The only problem was, as he pulled, all that happened was that Ernie slid closer to him.  Bud was able to grab Ernie's feet, but it was still a back-and-forth battle to keep Ernie from going in before Rich could be saved.  Finally Rich's chest was out, and then the rest of him came free, dazed, nearly frozen, barely aware of what was going on.  Bud and Ernie wanted to trade clothes, to get Rich dry, but he refused.  So they put him at the front of Ernie's machine for the engine heat, and Ernie got behind him and wrapped him up in a bear hug as they headed for home.  They stopped at one point and Ernie and Bud tried to get Rich to walk some blood back into his extremities, but the effort was beyond him so they set off again.  An hour later they reached Beaver, went right to Rich's home, stripped him down, and got him in a hot tub.  Rich wouldn't hear of calling a doctor.

     By Monday Rich was sufficiently recovered to go back out with Bud to mark the spo t where he had lost his six-thousand-dollar machine. He isn't sure if he'll be able to pull it up through the ice, or have to wait for a barge to retrieve it in the spring.

 

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