When Alec Stark and his duck-hunting buddies pushed off from shore in the predawn darkness of a brisk Saturday a couple weeks ago, they weren't thinking about much beyond their collective hope the birds would be flying. Their blind was tucked out of the wind, so they spent the next few hours in relative comfort, passing the time chatting and watching the sky over North Long Lake near Brainerd.
Around mid-morning they packed the decoys, put away their guns and started back toward the access. The sky was spitting snow and the wind was howling now, a piercing, 24-mile-an-hour gale that whipped the lake's surface into a frenzy. Rather than cross the lake, the group decided to stick closer to the shore. Even so, their 16-foot boat took on water as the waves crashed over the bow. It quickly became clear if they were going to make it to shore, it wouldn't be in the boat. They threw their decoys overboard, hoping to use them to float, and then jumped in the cold water, kicking hard for shore.
But it was a decision they'd already made that morning – to wear their life jackets – that may have saved their lives.
"Without the life jackets, we wouldn't have been able to swim back. And had we not already been wearing them, there wouldn't have been time to put them on," said Stark, 24. "The shock of the cold water – you can't even think. You're just trying to breathe."
Stark, who also was wearing waders, flipped onto his back when he hit the water and started for shore. As soon he was in water shallow enough to stand, he used his cell phone to call 911. All four hunters exhibited signs of hypothermia upon making it to shore, so the waiting North Memorial ambulance brought them to the hospital. The Crow Wing County Recreational Division and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Eric Sullivan also assisted at the scene.
"This story easily could have had a different and tragic ending," Sullivan said. "Their preparation on the front end likely saved their lives. They wore their life jackets and had a safety plan to deal with the extreme conditions. And when it became necessary to put their plan into action, they executed it by leaving most of their equipment behind and using their duck decoys for additional flotation."
According to the DNR, nine people have died so far this year in boating accidents, which is the fewest since 2010. While most boating-related incidents occur during the summer months, a higher percentage of those that occur during the cold-water season are fatal. DNR safety officials say anyone who boats during the cold-water season should wear a life jacket (foam is better than inflatable), file a float plan, carry a communications device to call for help, and be prepared to deal with an unforeseen incident.