An enormous, thick sheet of ice broke from the shore of one of Minnesota's most popular and largest ice fishing lakes Wednesday night, leaving at least 30 people stranded for hours in the middle of the dark lake while dozens of rescue workers and citizens helped bring them back to shore on Mille Lacs Lake.
A State Patrol helicopter circled above, a spotlight shining down into the darkness. Nobody was hurt, but it was the second time in less than a week that unusually warm weather has forced the rescue of anglers stuck on breakaway ice chunks.
Mille Lacs Lake has never been deterred by winter. It draws thousands of anglers every winter, and more than 5,500 plopped houses on the ice each of the last couple of years.
But this year's barely winter weather has created a different hazard as chunks of ice split from the shore. The ice was thick enough to support ice houses and all-terrain vehicles, but open water and wind sent waves that weakened the ice, said Aitkin County Sheriff Scott Turner.
Because it was dark, many fishermen didn't know they were floating away Wednesday night, he said.
"One man felt like he was trolling," said Brainerd Fire Chief Kevin Stunek. "Then he stepped out of his fishing house and saw he was on the move."
The ice was only 4 inches from shore Wednesday when Will Barneveld stepped over the crack to help some friends get their fishing equipment off the lake.
That gap grew several hundred yards within the next half-hour, sending Barneveld and at least 30 others floating toward open water in the middle of the lake. Feeling helpless and a little panicky, people scrambled to figure out how they would get their houses and all-terrain vehicles back to shore. Some people were fishing more than one-half mile away from Barneveld, and hunks of ice could have flown dangerously onto the ice sheet.
He was able to call his father, who rowed a boat to the ice island. He helped six people to safety while other lake residents revved up small boats and pulled out canoes to bring several more people to shore.
The remaining fishermen were rescued by more than two dozen fire, police and conservation officers using two Hovercrafts, banana boats and other watercraft.
The open water made it difficult for officers to use the Hovercrafts because ice chunks could tear the bottom of the boats, said Turner.
He saw residents taking watercraft into the water, but he wouldn't advocate people putting themselves in harm's way.
Barneveld knew several of the people he rescued, but others entered the lake on a nearby public access. Nobody was in immediate danger, he said. He joked that he could have relaxed in the heated comfort of one of the fishing houses for hours.
"This is something that can happen, but it's pretty rare for ice so thick to move so much," he said of the 7- to 10-inch-thick sheet. "I'm glad it didn't happen on a Saturday because there would have been a couple hundred people on the lake."
Neither Turner nor Stunek could recall so many people needing to be rescued off a single ice sheet.
"It was just a great effort," said Stunek, whose firefighters were 18 miles away from the lake. The Mille Lacs and Aitkin county sheriff offices, Garrison Fire Department and the Department of Natural Resources were also involved in the rescue effort.
Last weekend, at least a dozen people were rescued in three separate incidents on Mille Lacs Lake. They happened in three different areas of the lake, and some of those stranded were on ice chunks no bigger than 60 feet, authorities said.
Mike Lee, one of a trio of DNR conservation officers who helped Wednesday, said there might be a need for additional rescues in upcoming weeks depending on the temperature and "whatever Mother Nature will dish out," he said. Authorities continue to warn people to check weather and ice conditions.
Abandoned ice houses and vehicles still littered the lake Thursday as people tried to figure out how to get their property back to shore. Maybe a shift in the wind would move the massive ice sheet, Barneveld speculated.
He was glad he made it safely to shore Wednesday, but he wasn't going to let a few hours of drama stop him from going back out on the lake Thursday. "I fish every winter, and I really enjoy it."
David Chanen • 612-673-4465