Gunnar Anderson had plans for New Year’s weekend in Grand Marais. Nothing big — just all the usual things and people he loved.
On Saturday, the 22-year-old cut a deal for a used motor to fix his dad’s auger so they could go ice fishing together. His girlfriend was coming up from Duluth to spend New Year’s Eve with him. And in the afternoon, a fresh snowfall enticed him outside to ride his new snowmobile in the woods just north of town with his longtime buddy, Jacob Schroeder.
It was just about dusk when, in the ditch alongside County Road 8, Anderson’s sled struck something under the snow and sent him flying. Schroeder, riding just behind him, hit the same obstacle and was launched into the air as well. The impact broke Anderson’s neck, killing him, according to Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen. He was also struck by Schroeder’s sled, but that did not cause the fatal injury.
Eliasen said both snowmobilers hit crevices in a creek bed that crossed the ditch and were hidden beneath the snow.
It was what every parent dreads — a freak accident, said Kent Anderson, Gunnar’s dad. Neither of the young men had been drinking, he said. Gunnar was a bit of a daredevil, but he was an experienced and responsible rider — he had just spent a week snowmobiling in Montana with friends.
It was just an ordinary Saturday, Anderson said, as he pieced together the last hours of his son’s life. He talked to Gunnar in the morning about the motor for the ice auger. Gunnar was proud that he talked the owner down from $125 to $90.
“He was cheap,” Anderson said, laughing a little at his son’s negotiating skills. “He wouldn’t spend a nickel.”
A few minutes later, he said, he called his son back to make sure Gunnar knew he wouldn’t have to pay for the motor. “He was on his way to town,” Anderson said. Gunnar had broken his grandfather’s funnel and was going to buy him another one.
“He happened to say, when he hung up, ‘See you later. I love ya.’ I said, ‘I love you, too.’ I didn’t know he was planning on snowmobiling.”
Later that afternoon, Gunnar Anderson went over to his grandparents’ house to work on the auger and get the snowmobile ready.
“He put his helmet on and said he was going to ride with a friend,” Anderson said. “He said goodbye to his grandma, jumped over a snowbank and was gone.”
‘He was an amazing child’
Gunnar Anderson was born and mostly raised in Grand Marais. His first name was Wayne, after his grandfather, but he liked to use his middle name, Gunnar. He loved the outdoor life, from hiking and riding dirt bikes in the summer to snowmobiling and ice fishing in the winter.
“He was an amazing child,” said his mom, Jes Rodne, also of Grand Marais, and always put his friends and family first. Last summer Gunnar bought his 10-year-old brother, Rayce, his first dirt bike, and always treated him “like his best little friend.” Her youngest son, she said, doesn’t know yet about Gunnar’s death.
He and Schroeder were working construction for a local builder. Gunnar was skilled at masonry, his father said. But, like so many in the millennial generation, he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, Anderson said.
But he was an adventurer. Last year he spent four months in Asia doing volunteer work for a school in the Philippines and hiking in Vietnam.
“He did what he always wanted to do, which is to help everybody,” said his girlfriend, Breanna Peterson, who lives in Duluth.
On Saturday she’d gotten off work early and tried to call him to tell him when she’d get to Grand Marais.
“I called him and called him but he never answered,” she said.
A hidden danger
Schroeder said he and Gunnar decided to take a ride up to Devil’s Track Lake north of Grand Marais. They were hanging out and talking, he said, the kind of thing they had been doing together for years.
“We decided to head back because it was getting dark,” he said. They took a different route home, riding the ditches along County Road 8 that were covered with a few inches of fresh snow.
“We just came across something — everything happened so fast it’s hard to remember,” Schroeder said. “There was like a creek in the ditch, rocks and stuff, and we couldn’t see it.” Schroeder said he flew off his sled, and when he sat up he saw Gunnar lying deathly still in the snow.
“I called 911 and I tried talking to him,” he said, his voice thick with grief. “I always looked up to him.”
Gunnar broke his neck on impact. But his new snowmobile, Anderson said, was undamaged.
“This accident was so fluky,” he said. “It could have happened to anybody.”
On Saturday night, Anderson said, his family and the Schroeders got together so he could reassure them that there was no blame, no bad feelings. And to share their grief for the young man they all loved.
“Everybody says these things about their kid, but he was different,” Anderson said. “He was a just real uplifting, positive person.”