Friends of the young men whose boat capsized on Lake of the Woods say the three were experienced anglers who knew the massive lake’s moods. But in recent days, two of their bodies have been found in that lake’s waters.
The close-knit resort community near the Canadian border has been shaken by the loss of the trio, in their 20s, who worked as fishing guides in Baudette, a city of 1,100 that bills itself as the Walleye Capital of the World.
“There’s a lot of sadness up here right now,” said Retina LaValla, social media and marketing specialist at Wigwam Resort. “Everyone knows everybody, and everybody’s hurting.
“When things like this happen up here, everybody just sticks together.”
The body of Justin Haugtvedt, 22, was recovered in 14 feet of water on Friday, near Oak Island. That night, about 100 residents gathered on the shores of Lake of the Woods and lit lanterns in honor of the three men.
A resident found the body of Cody Ostendorf, 24, Sunday morning, at the northeastern corner of Flag Island.
High winds and rain halted Monday’s search for Keith Ayers, 28, the third missing boater, said Lake of the Woods County Sheriff Gary Fish. If weather permits, teams will resume their search Tuesday near where the two bodies were found. Locating Ayers would “offer closure to everybody,” Fish said by phone Monday.
The trio had left Sunset Resort on Oak Island at 12:10 a.m. Oct. 3, surveillance video shows. They were in a 16-foot boat. It was “extremely windy” that night, Fish said. But what led to the boat capsizing is “all speculation,” he said.
A few friends admitted that when they first heard about the empty boat, their sadness was tinged with anger.
“In the middle of being sad and heartbroken … I felt, at the same time, they all should have known better,” said Josh Hamm, 23. “Leaving the resort at that time, and with that weather …”
Almost three years ago, Hamm moved with Haugtvedt, his best friend “since we were in diapers,” from their hometown of Warren, Minn., to Lake of the Woods. The pair had been coming all their lives to the lake, where Haugtvedt’s father had a cabin.
Haugtvedt, whom many knew as “Huggie,” guided ice fishing tours through Sportsman’s Lodge, Hamm said. “It’s a young man’s job,” he said. “It’s hard, cold, brutal work …
He loved it.”
When Haugtvedt wasn’t working, he was fishing, focusing his recent trips on hooking muskies. He planned to get a captain’s license and start guiding summer fishing excursions, Hamm said.
“He only lived up here for three years, and he made a big impact on a lot of people,” he said. “He’ll never be forgotten by many.”
Ostendorf also worked as an ice fishing guide at Sportsman’s. His girlfriend, Sara Larson, 22, met him there and noted his “gorgeous, gorgeous blue eyes.”
Like Haugtvedt, Ostendorf loved Lake of the Woods and all it offered — especially fishing. He was passionate about history, adventure and laughing.
“He loved life,” Larson said. “Every day was a good day.”
The friends would joke, tease and play pranks, said Wigwam Resort’s LaValla. The three worked at Sportsman’s together, picking up construction work and odd jobs in the offseason.
“Being an ice guide up here, it doesn’t matter where you work; you all tend to be friends and family,” LaValla said. “Everybody looks out for one another.”
Donations pour in
LaValla started a GoFundMe page with the hopes of raising $3,000 so each family could put $1,000 toward travel and funeral expenses. But that goal was quickly surpassed, so she increased it to $30,000. As of Monday evening, more than 350 people had given more than $25,500.
Many contributions came from northern Minnesota or Warren, where Haugtvedt grew up. Some came from as far as Pennsylvania, where Ayers was from. Ayers was an experienced and licensed fishing guide, friends said.
The community will have to “be OK with not knowing” why the three men, with their strong sense of the lake, capsized that night, LaValla said.
“It’s just a reminder that this lake’s not a game,” Hamm said. The loss of these three men will forever change how Hamm experiences Lake of the Woods, he said.
“There’s not going to be a day when I go out on that lake and not think of the day it took Justin and Keith and Cody.”