PHOTOS: Casper Man Rescues Fishermen After Ice Sheet Breaks From Shoreline at Pathfinder Reservoir
Rebecca Pearson once told her daughter that nothing bad ever happens on Christmas Eve. While that may or may not be true (Rebecca Pearson is, after all, a character on a fictional television show called 'This is Us'), it's still a nice thought to have during the holidays. And when stories like this take place, it's kind of hard to argue. Christmas Eve has come and past. So, too, has Christmas day. But the magic from the holiday is still in the air, as evidenced by the following story.
It's about the scariest thing that could happen to an ice fisherman, short of falling through thin ice.
Jay Fountain began the day with nary a care in the world. He'd spent the last three weekends at Pathfinder Reservoir, ice fishing. On this day, his friends were with him and the group was looking forward to, more or less, a routine day out on the ice. Fountain runs a Facebook page called Wyo Hunters & Fishermen, where people are able to share their experiences and adventures, and he and his friends were spending the late morning swapping stories and trying to catch fish, when they saw a storm moving in. He thought the atmosphere would make for some good photos for his page, so he walked back to his truck to grab his camera and snap a few shots.
If he hadn't done that, this story could have ended a lot differently.
Fountain stated that he turned his back to his friends for a few minutes, looking for various items in his truck. When he turned back around, he saw that the entire ice sheet that his friends were stationed at had separated from the shoreline and was drifting further and further away.
"As soon as I saw it start separating, I yelled at everybody, trying to tell everybody to get off the ice," Fountain told K2 Radio News. "At that point, it had been like, maybe three minutes and it was already way too far. Nobody could get off."
Fountain said that by the time he noticed the ice had separated, it was "well over 50 yards" from the shoreline.
He had to think quick. Luckily, Fountain had left his ice hut in his truck.
"I don't know, something just told me to leave it there," he said. It's a good thing he did, because that would be the mechanism that would bring his friends to safety.
Fountain said that another friend of his also happened to be on the dry land, getting equipment from his own truck. When he got the equipment and began heading back to the ice, he saw that it had separated from the bank and, immediately, realized a parent's worst fear.
"Steve just happened to be getting the rest of his and his buddy's stuff and was getting ready to go out there when he turned around and saw his son stuck way out there on the ice."
Immediately, the two men worked together to rescue their group.
"It just popped into my head, you know? I've got some tow straps, I've got some straps that were tossed out from work that we could no longer use, and I've got extension chords. That's all I've got in my truck. So I tied everything together and made it long enough to where I could make it to the other side, and then I tied it off to my truck. I put a life jacket on and tore everything out of my ice hut, tied the chords to it, and started paddling across the lake to try to go get my friends."
Riley McDowell was another fisherman who found himself separated from the shore after the ice broke. He and his partner had just started traversing across the ice and prepping their spot when the weather conditions quickly changed.
"We went out to do some ice fishing," McDowell stated. "We thought the ice might be a little sketchy, what with the warm weather we'd been having, so we were super careful using the spud bar (a tool used in ice fishing) We didn't go out very far. And we got about 30 yards out and started popping some holes, getting some lines in the water. Then, what I know now as a squall came through and it was just super windy and blizzardy for like, I don't know, three minutes maybe. But when we looked up from there, we saw that there was open water between us and the bank."
Luckily, McDowell said, they weren't very far from the shore but they knew they needed to leave immediately.
"We weren't very far out at all, so we picked up our stuff as quickly as we could and started making our way back to the bank," he said. "And by the time we got there, we were hoping we'd be able to just jump across, but we got there and it was probably about 10 feet from us to the bank. So we knew we were gonna have to swim. We threw our gear across and then I lowered myself into the water."
McDowell said he was, fortunately, able to touch bottom so he and his partner simply waded across the water back to the shore. But when they got back on land, they saw that the other group had also drifted.
"There were some other guys stranded up further from us and we went up that way to see if maybe we could help out," McDowell said. "Their bit of water was probably like three times as much water to cross to get to the shore. But there were some fellas there and they had an ice sled which is...just picture a kid sled, but a lot bigger and a lot deeper; like a giant Rubbermaid tilt."
He was talking about Fountain's ice hut. By the time McDowell and his friend reached the other group, the rescue effort was already underway.
"The ice kept drifting a little bit further and a little bit further," Fountain stated. "Luckily, the guys on the other side of the ice had some more rope. So we made it to the group and we took my friend's son, put him in the sled first, and towed him back across the water and got him put in the truck and just went back and forth, back and forth until we got everybody off. It was pretty hectic, but it was the fastest solution I could think of, just being in the moment."
Fountain was able to help all of his friends back to the shore safely, with no injuries or even any cases of frostbite. The Natrona County Sheriff's Office arrived on the scene for assistance, but the worst of it was over by the time they got there. It was a team effort to bring everybody back to shore, but it was the quick-thinking actions of one man, and maybe just a little bit of luck, that allowed this story to have its happy ending.
Both Fountain and McDowell consider themselves to be competent ice fishermen. They know when to get on the ice and when not to. They also know how to measure weather conditions and act accordingly. They know how to be safe. Both men agreed that this situation was an anomaly; something that happened seemingly out of nowhere.
"I've never seen anything like this," McDowell said. "Not around here, anyway. It does happen like on the big lakes over in Michigan and places like that. Basically, it's just this giant sheet of ice broke away from the bank, and I've never seen it happen here. I mean, you go out there and you're worried about falling through, or about slipping and falling. You don't ever expect the whole piece of ice to just start moving away from the bank. Not when it's like, 6 inches thick."
"As skilled a fisherman as I'd like to think I am, this was a first for me," he said. "I felt very confident in going fishing this morning. I felt confident going out on the ice. This is the third weekend that I've been able to fish that ice and it's cold out there. It was 32 degrees, probably less with the wind chill, but it didn't matter. Mother Nature is very unpredictable and it doesn't matter what skills you have; it will test you."
This was the test of Fountain's life, but it was nothing he ever could have studied for. He said that he had to think and act quickly, so he and his friend devised a plan and, without thinking, Fountain immediately got into the freezing cold water. It was the biggest, scariest, most important test of his life. And he passed with flying colors.
"I didn't even put my coat on, man," he said. "All I had on was my life vest, my hoodie, and bibs. My first thought was, 'I'm gonna lose my friends.' I was just looking out for my people, you know? I could give a crap about my gear. I'd rather have my friends than my equipment."
The irony of it all, is that his equipment is what saved his friends' lives. If he hadn't gone back to his truck to get his camera, if he hadn't left his ice hut behind, this story could have had a much more tragic ending. But, this is Christmas time. It's a time for the impossible; for stories of virgin births and redemption and joy and love and warmth.
It's a time for miracles. Casper is prone to miracles that happen around Christmas time and, while the events of this afternoon took place a day later, it still proves one thing:
Nothing bad ever happens on Christmas.