DULUTH — When Darby Voeks heard the surf was up on Lake Superior, he set the alarm clock early and left his home in Minneapolis at around 4 a.m. Wednesday, March 24, with a pal, plus a couple of boards and wetsuits.
The 26-year-old is a self-described newbie to the sport, but word of a gale advisory proved motivation enough to rejigger his work schedule to accommodate a quick jaunt to Duluth.
After several hours of playing in waves, Voeks was about to call it a day, hoping to keep a 4:30 p.m. date previously made with his girlfriend back in Minneapolis. But he decided to catch "one last wave" shortly before 2 p.m. Voeks planned to swim from the pier out past where the surf was breaking.
As he approached, however, a panicked woman in a wheelchair begged Voeks for help. She explained that her dog had gotten off-leash and fell into the water. Her personal assistant had tried to retrieve the dog but had fallen into the water himself, swept from a ladder by waves as he tried to reach the Australian shepherd.
Duluth Fire Capt. Corey Swartout estimated that waves were cresting at a height of about 6 feet at the time.
"So I dropped my surfboard, and I ran to the end of the pier," Voeks said.
There, he found the woman's personal assistant struggling to stay above water and shouting: "I don't know how to swim! Help! Help!"
The man was dressed in shorts and T-shirt.
Voeks jumped into the water, swam over to the man and began to pull him toward the ladder.
"That was a struggle, because the waves were so extreme, and he wasn't a swimmer," Voeks said.
"He was exhausted. I don't really know how long he had been in the water at that point. I know several minutes at least, and he was spent," Voeks said, explaining that the assistant didn't have the strength to climb up the ladder when they reached it.
"He was trying to hang on, and another wave kept knocking him off the ladder. It was this whole ordeal," Voeks said. He used a life ring with a rope to bring the man back to the ladder and then was able to lift him from the water with the help of two more people who had come over to offer assistance.
Voeks then returned to the water to rescue Ellis, the Australian shepherd. He wasn't sure how he was going to climb the ladder with a good-sized dog in tow.
"But the dog's instinct must have totally kicked in, and it sat kind of on my legs while I tried to pull myself up, pull-up style while keeping my legs flat. I pulled the dog out and then right when we got over the cement wall, there was Coast Guard and the fire department running around. It was completely surreal. It still feels surreal," he said.
Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj said crews were responding to the scene but arrived to find everyone already out of the water. The personal assistant was treated for hypothermia. Meanwhile, Voeks was chilly but fine inside his 6 mm wetsuit.
"There's no ice really out in the canal at this point in time," Krizaj said. "But the water temperature is still 33-34 degrees. It's just above freezing. It's very, very dangerous to jump into that water even to do any type of a rescue. We do rescue people. We do rescue animals. We will get out there as fast as we can.
"But we were happy to have a private citizen who was out there today really in the right place at the right time. It really helped save a life," he said.
Once things calmed down, Voeks called his girlfriend to explain that he was going to be late. And they agreed to push back their dinner plans until 7 p.m.
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Duluth Police Lt. Robin Roeser told Voeks: "On behalf of all the first responders that were there, we are very grateful that you were in the right place at the right time, and that you had the wherewithal to actually step in and do something and render help."
"You put yourself at risk to help somebody else," Roeser said, announcing that he planned to nominate Voeks for a Police Partnership Award, an honor that is seldom bestowed, maybe once a year on average. The award recognizes individuals who go out of their way to substantially assist local law enforcement.
"You saved a dog and a person's life today," Roeser said.