Esko resident and fire chief Jeff Juntunen has just one bit of advice for anyone who might find themselves stranded in an ice house.
“Make sure you have enough beer!” he said with a laugh.
It may not have seemed like a laughing matter, however, when Juntunen and his wife, Sheila, found themselves isolated by snow and high winds in their fish house on Upper Red Lake for the better part of four days last week.
It was quite an adventure,” admitted Jeff, explaining they went to Red Lake to fish on Valentine’s Day with five other couples, as they often do, but the two of them decided to stay there all the following week.
“But we ended up stranded there from Thursday ’til Sunday!” he said. “When the outfitter who plowed a road for us dropped us off, he told us all that was expected was an inch or two of snow and a little wind. As he took off, he said, ‘We’ll be back for you!’”
Though Jeff said Red Lake hardly got any of the big snow that the rest of us got back in Carlton County, what they did get was wind — an incessant, 20 mile-an-hour wind, day in and day out, that drifted the snow on the lake and made moving about almost impossible.
“We’re usually able to get help to each other if we need it,” said Juntunen, “but this time it was pretty much impossible.”
In a follow-up story that aired on KSTP-TV in Minneapolis, reporter Jay Kolls stated that dozens of ice fishermen were stranded on Red Lake after Thursday’s storm, possibly as many as 100 people in about 45 ice houses, with drifts as high as four to seven feet high piled up against the sides of the ice houses at times. The ice road was drifted over and the weight of the snow made it nearly impossible for snow plows to break through.
An eye-witness report quoted on KSTP stated some younger children and senior citizens were taken off the ice by snowmobiles during the day, but they were eight miles out on the ice, and once it got dark there was no way anyone could get to them and pull the ice houses to shore.
“To make matters worse,” added Juntunen, “the weight of the snow started to push the water up to the surface, causing cracks in the ice and really making a mess of things.”
Being an emergency responder himself, Juntunen said he just had to pick up the phone and call 911.
“The dispatcher asked if we were in any immediate personal danger, and I said we weren’t,” said Juntunen. “I was mostly worried about those who were in the fish houses beyond us, thinking their cell phones may have died, or they might have run out of food or heat.”
He said a sheriff’s deputy did come out on a snowmobile at one point to swing through the occupied fish houses and make certain everyone was OK.
Sheila said overall they were really very comfortable.
“We had plenty of LP, food and gas, so it wasn’t all that bad,” she said.
In this day and age of social media, through it all the Juntunens were able to keep in contact with the outside world via Facebook.
“OK, we have been stranded on Upper Red Lake long enough,” posted Jeff on Saturday. “Looks like our outfitter does not have the resources to open a road. Need to figure out some options today. Time for Sisu to kick in!!”
Of course, that’s all it took for his friends to sign in with some timely advice.
“First, get several kegs of beer, drink them, then strap to house so it floats and you can pull it to shore on spring opener,” posted one. “BUT, strap it when you are sober so you don’t attach kegs to the roof!!”
“Good luck Jeff,” said another. “I can think of worse places to be stuck, though!”
“Jeff, you need an air drop of booze and minnows?” commented yet another.
In the end, it was what Jeff termed a “Good Samaritan” — a friend of their outfitter who made his way out with a snowblower rigged on the back of his tractor — who saved them on Sunday morning by forging a road out to their fish house. As they headed back for shore, the Juntunens marveled at the wind-whipped symmetry of the big lake.
“We had no real idea just how bad it was,” said Jeff. “We’d been living in a world of 150 feet for four days!”
Though everything turned out well for the Juntunens, there were a couple of unfortunate sidelights.
“We were supposed to be home Saturday in time for our son’s 40th birthday party,” said Sheila, “and we missed our granddaughter’s baptism on Sunday.”
Jeff said although he’s fished Minnesota’s big lakes for many years, he nonetheless came out of this experience with new convictions.
“It’s important to always plan to be self-sufficient and be prepared,” he advised. “You can never rely on the fact that someone else will be able to get you through it.”
And as for the fishing, Jeff said when they first arrived on the lake it was really good but, ironically, after they got stranded and had lots of time on their hands, it got bad! Fortunately for them, however, when the owner of one of the neighboring fish houses found they planned to stay all week, he offered to leave his portable satellite dish for them to use.
“We watched a whole lot of the Olympics!” said Jeff.
When asked how he and his wife got along during all of their forced togetherness, Juntunen just chuckled.
“When you’ve only got 160 square feet in an 8 x 20 fish house,” he said, “there’s not much getting away!”