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Behind the scenes of water rescue

Mark Turner (left) with Turner Towing and Bill Schultz used a crane to lift a he1 / 2
Turner Towing pulled a fish house out of North Long Lake earlier this winter.2 / 2

EAST GULL LAKE — It takes a lot of work and skills to recover a motor vehicle or a fish house after they’ve broken through the ice and have sunk to the bottom of a lake.

Not too many towing companies in the Brainerd lakes area will take on the daunting task of recovering vehicles or fish houses from the lake. West Brainerd Amoco said they don’t do any recoveries from lakes. Kelly Kohl of Kelly and Sons Towing haven’t done any this winter and have pulled out four vehicles from lakes in the past 10 years. Peterson Towing said they do recoveries from lakes.

Mark Turner of Turner Towing in Nisswa, owned by his father Clarence Turner, said they do several of the specialty towing tasks in the Brainerd lakes area each winter.

“We pull out anything from planes to trucks to snowmobiles, anything,” said Turner. “We even pulled out a horse from a swamp about eight years ago.”

Mark and Clarence Turner, along with Jack and Bill Schultz, Tuesday rescued a heavy duty Chevy pickup from Gull Lake, near the access off Ernie’s on Gull. Turner said the water was 30-feet deep and there was 12 inches of ice at the site. Turner said the truck was pulling a fish house when it went into the lake. He said they took out the fish house about a month ago.

The crew spent a good six hours on the lake getting the truck out with its recovery ice unit — a 4,700-pound military crane that will lift 6,000 pounds at five mph.

Turner mainly helps his father with the specialty tows since he’s a full-time Brainerd fire equipment operator. Turner said this winter has been particularly busy with rescuing fish houses out of the lakes because of a lack of snow and balmy weather. He has taken out five fish houses this winter so far that fell completely in the water. The first fish house broke through the ice Dec. 29 on North Long Lake that Turner Towing rescued.

Turner said the last time they were this busy was in 2000. Turner said they took out a vehicle a day from Jan. 1, 2000, to the end of the month. Turner said 2000 also had a mild winter.

“This winter has been the strangest I’ve ever seen,” Turner said of the fish houses that partially went into the lakes. “All the houses had a gap underneath that must have caused the wind to swirl around them. There also was one foot of solid ice around them and most were in the middle of the lake.”

Turner believes the two main reasons why fish houses and vehicles have been going into the lakes are because of the pressure ridges that have developed on the lakes and from vehicle drivers becoming disorientated when trying to find their way back to shore during the night.

Turner said the first thing they do before pulling sunken items out of the lake is to assess the situation. Turner said they have to check the thickness of the ice and how deep the fish house or vehicle is in the water.

Turner said the most labor-intensive part of retrieving sunken items from the lake is cutting the ice around them. He said they use a hand chisel and chain saws to cut the ice. On average, Turner said that a 20-foot area has to be cut out to allow room for the fish house or vehicle to fit through. Turner said then they have to set up the portable crane and use heavy duty chains to pull out the sunken item.

“It usually takes two to four people to complete the job,” said Turner. “The worst ones to retrieve from the lake are the ones where there is not enough ice to support the vehicles being removed so the ice has to be cut back to better ice.”

The thickness of the ice on lakes in the Brainerd lakes area has improved since the fish houses and vehicles went into the lakes. Large community events, such as the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Gull Lake held last Saturday and the Eelpout Festival scheduled to begin Thursday night on Leech Lake in Walker both received permits from the county sheriffs’ offices to be held.

However, even though the events received permits to be held, both Crow Wing County Sheriff Todd Dahl and Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch agreed that no ice is safe.

“There is no such thing as safe ice,” said Dahl. “People may say it is safe, but you could have one inch in one spot and 12 inches in another spot. Ice is a strange thing. You can’t predict.”

Dahl said this winter has been a strange one and he doesn’t recall any past winters like it. Dahl said the county has had reports of everything from cars to four-wheelers to fish houses that have gone into the lakes.

Crow Wing, as well as surrounding counties, also have had several reports earlier this winter where emergency personnel had to rescue anglers out on the lake because the ice shifted from the wind causing the ice to break.

“We’ve been lucky this year that we’ve had no fatalities,” said Dahl.

And with warmer weather expected Sunday, Dahl wants to remind people who go out on the lake to keep in mind that they’re not only risking their own life but the lives of the people who will be rescuing them if they go through the ice.

“We live in a vacation mecca here and I don’t want anyone to lose their life over a fish,” said Dahl. “The ice is still very poor and people need to proceed with caution when going on the lakes.”

JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at or 855-5851. Follow me on Twitter at