Rescue proves value of life jackets

by Joanne M. Haas
DNR Bureau of Law Enforcement

Warden Nick Webster was teaching all about boating and water safety to a captive audience of local grade-schoolers at Lafayette County Rural Safety Days on September 27 when he was interrupted by an enthused boy who had the inside scoop and proceeded to beat Warden Nick to the ending of his story about the two capsized canoeists on the Pecatonica River.

The boy proudly told his peers the two in the warden's boating safety story are his relatives and that was a special day for them. Yes, the pair celebrated their anniversary that day but ended up, so to speak, up the creek without a paddle. Or, in this case, it was a river.

The boy said to Warden Nick in front of the group: “You're the one who pulled them out!”

“It was nice in that the story took on a reality because their buddy had first-hand information,” he said of his goal to teach kids how to stay safe and have fun outdoors on the river or on any water body.

In other words, thanks to Warden Nick and some local emergency responders, the couple lived to tell about it.

But what's the moral of the story Warden Nick was telling the kids?

Go back to Friday, August 5. Warden Nick had just started his day when he got in his truck and turned on the law enforcement radio.

He heard the radio call out for emergency medical services and sheriff's deputies to respond to a capsized canoe on the Pecatonica River. “I literally had just gotten in my truck and I heard it come across,” he said. “They (dispatchers) didn't know I was on duty.”

Only two miles from the river, Warden Nick instantly took off for the river and was first on the scene. He immediately started to unload his Pro-Drive boat. This is a surface-drive boat built to operate in all sorts of conditions including logjams and muddy bottoms — which was what he was about to encounter on the Pecatonica River.

The Pecatonica River is a smaller winding river. It may not have the intense use as portions of the Wisconsin River. However, in the Lafayette County area served by Warden Nick since 2012, the river is getting more popular for canoeing and tubing. He previously served Green County from 2007 - 2012.

Then he discovered he had a problem — a communication problem.

“My radio and cell phone usually work from where I was,” he said. “But for some reason neither would work.” That meant no one would know he was on scene and about to launch. That wasn't about to stop him, though.

At that precise moment, the Blanchardville Fire Department arrived. Warden Nick grabbed one of their firefighters — Travis Leonard — and asked their chief to alert the Lafayette County Sheriff about the plan to launch and who was aboard.

Warden Nick and firefighter Travis didn't have far to go.

“This river is super twisty,” Warden Nick said. “And the river was up — not quite flooded. But it was quite a bit higher and trees were hanging low to the water.”

High water, strong current and low-hanging trees — not idyllic conditions, shall we say?

Around another corner about a mile from where he started, Warden Nick spotted the pair. He saw the man first. The man was hanging on to a tree and about chest deep in the river.

Then, Warden Nick spotted the woman. She clearly was getting tired. Only her head and shoulders were above water. The man and woman were on the upstream side of a logjam. Their canoe was upside down and pinned into the same logjam.

“I yelled to them to explain what I was going to do,” Warden Nick said. This was so they knew he saw them and understood why it would like he was bypassing. “I went by them to circle back against the current so I wouldn't get caught in the trees, too.”

The man and woman yelled back they understood the plan.

Warden Nick maneuvered the boat first to the woman so he could hold the log jam and also assist the firefighter in pulling the woman from the river and into the boat. “She was pretty weak,” he said.

Warden Nick and Firefighter Travis helped her to the rear of the boat and Warden Nick then backed up and repeated the maneuver to drive against the strong current to get close to the man.

“They were pretty glad to see us,” Warden Nick said of the middle-aged pair. “She said a couple of time it was their anniversary.”

Warden Nick got both of them into life jackets for the trip back to the shore where an ambulance and more trained responders awaited to assist the drenched couple.

The man told Warden Nick the canoe got caught in the current and pushed into trees that were hanging low. The canoe flipped and he went overboard while the woman ended up under the canoe for a while in an air pocket.

The man said he had his cell phone in a plastic bag in a high pocket. “He was able to call 911.”

Once the couple was being attended to by emergency responders on land, Warden Nick and Firefighter Travis took the warden boat back to the area to retrieve the couple's canoe and whatever personal items they could find.

Was this a first time for such a water rescue for this veteran warden?

“No, I've done this a couple of times,” he said. And he uses these real life rescues as stories with a moral for teaching purposes. This is especially key since residents here in this southwestern county have a terrific river in their back yards.

Warden Nick says he finds it surprising how many boaters he encounters on his water patrols who have the life jackets with them. However, they have these life-saving vests stored out of easy reach along with the throwables life-savers — in a side cabinet way out of sight.

“It is unrealistic to think you can put on a life jacket as an emergency is occurring, let alone dig it out of a compartment. It all comes down to wearing the life jackets,” he said, adding the couple had the life jackets on board but neither was wearing one. “They recognize that as a poor decision.”

Lafayette County has about 17,000 residents — so the story of the couple has spread as Warden Nick has learned from residents. It gives him a chance to talk about safety while having fun chats with citizens.

So, what's the moral of the story? Wear your life jacket every time you get in a boat or play in water. Kids Don't Float, as the free life jacket loaner program tells us, and it appears adults don't either.

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