Fearing that a snowmobile had sunk in the dark, two Wright County neighbors drove their four-wheelers onto Lake Charlotte on Saturday night, stopping before an expanse of open water, desperately scanning the black surface.
Only minutes before, Gail King of Buffalo had spotted a snowmobile out there. It was too far beyond the fishing houses and too close to open water, King thought. Alarmed, he grabbed his jacket and ran onto the ice for a better look.
The sled cleared the spot and headed toward the north side of the lake, King recalled Sunday evening.
But his fears proved justified.
The bodies of two young men were recovered from Lake Charlotte on Sunday afternoon. Their snowmobile, the one King had seen, had circled back just before 9 p.m. Saturday, for some reason without its headlights on, and plunged into the water.
King heard the loud cracking, crunching ice above the snowmobile engine, and then he saw the tail lights vanish.
"When it came back, it basically drove straight into the open water," he said.
There were no yells, only silence. Thus began a long night, with two young men missing, first-responders on the scene, and families and friends keeping vigil.
About 2:30 p.m. Sunday, the Wright County Sheriff's Office recovered the bodies of the victims, identified by friends and family as Brad Skafte, 20, who lived near the lake in Buffalo, and his friend Adam Patnode, 19, of Corcoran.
Family and friends gathered at the Skafte family home, which is on Martha Lake, just across the road from the bigger Lake Charlotte. On the back deck, Brad's father spoke quietly with other men. Other mourners filled the house. The family declined a request for an interview.
For searcher, too, a close call
Up the road, a fiery red sun set behind Lake Charlotte on Sunday as Lowell Johnson looked out tearfully to where he and King, his neighbor, had tried to help the night before.
They live along Gillard Avenue SE, on the southern edge of spring-fed Lake Charlotte.
In the dark on Saturday, Johnson, 66, and King, 55, climbed on four-wheelers and began looking for snowmobile tracks. Johnson saw some that headed north, then looped around and headed south -- straight into the water, he said.
Then, Johnson's four-wheeler crashed through the ice, too, in an area where the water is about 30 feet deep. King threw his friend a rope and used his own four-wheeler to pull him out.
Authorities called by Johnson's wife began to search for the missing snowmobile and anyone who might have been aboard. Searchers noted the grim fact that the snowmobile tracks led to water, but there was no sign of a sled or any riders.
During the search, family members of two men alerted the Sheriff's Office that the pair were missing and were believed to have been snowmobiling on the lake.
Using sonar, two divers and several boats, authorities found the bodies in 45 feet of water, which residents in that area said is about as deep as the lake gets.
Wright County Sheriff Joe Hagerty said the men were apparently heading to a friend's cabin when they hit the water.
The deaths are believed to be the first ice-related fatalities of the winter season in Minnesota.
From the winter of 1976-'77 through last winter, Minnesota averaged 6.2 ice-related deaths per season, statistics show. The worst winter was 1982-'83, with 22 deaths. The average has been dropping in recent years, and was at four for the past 10 winters, authorities say.
After the bodies were recovered, sheriff's deputies posted a sign warning of thin ice.
Staff writer Bill McAuliffe contributed to this report. Joy Powell • 651-925-5038