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Snowmobiler Rescued From North Long Lake

A rescue -- complicated by darkness and difficult conditions -- pulled snowmobilers from North Long Lake Friday night. The first sign of trouble came about 5:40 p.m. when a snowmobiler traveling west from Merrifield Bay broke through the ice and found himself in 2 feet of frigid water. He was able to place a call to family members from the narrows near the Birchdale Road access. The other snowmobiler with him, a relative, was unaccounted for in the dark, reported Sgt. DJ Downie of the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office. Family members were reportedly waiting for the group at Northern Cowboy Flame ‘N’ Brew, the restaurant along the lake’s Highway 371 Bay. Rescuers, Brainerd firefighters and county law enforcement began the search looking for indications of open water or snowmobile tracks on the fresh snow. A staging area was set up by Brainerd International Raceway with emergency responders gathering at the Birchdale Road access to the lake. Rescuers checked the lake from each of the North Long Lake’s bays along Highway 371 and Merrifield. For a brief time, it was unclear if the snowmobiler was missing or indeed on the ice. A short time later, a deputy reported he was with one of the snowmobilers at the Birchdale Road access, but the fate and exact location of the other was unknown. While rescuers were working to find the person initially reported missing, a third person -- a family member at Northern Cowboy Flame ‘N’ Brew -- drove a snowmobile east toward the open water and also fell in, Downie reported. Rescuers were trying to determine if there were more victims or even unrelated groups on the lake, or if the three snowmobilers were all connected to the first call. It was determined the initial missing person had returned home and was not in the water. The rescue was a prolonged extraction, with a snowmobiler in waist-deep water and rescuers trying to reach him in tricky ice conditions. Firefighters used their cold rescue gear, known as Mustang suits, and deployed a banana boat, a rescue boat intended for use in dangerous ice situations. Downie said the man suffered no injuries and was not transported to the hospital after he was pulled from the frigid water. At 6:55 p.m., rescuers were still trying to determine whether there was a third victim, as firefighters reported hearing someone call out while traversing the open water. After conducting a cursory search of the area, no other people in need of rescue were located. Downie said it was likely someone’s voice from shore. “Give the firemen all the credit. They were the ones fighting a fire all day (before this),” Downie said, referring to a Brainerd house fire earlier Friday. The air temperature was about 17 degrees with a wind of 9 mph creating a night that felt more like 6 degrees. The holiday weekend is expected to bring dangerously cold wind chills up to 45 degrees below zero. Ice conditions have been unpredictable so far this winter and have proven deadly in the lakes area and across the state so far in this young winter. Five people have died after falling through the ice on Minnesota lakes as of Dec. 19, the most since five died over the entire winter of 2014-15, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Fluctuating temperatures have not created solid clear ice, the DNR reported, noting ice is never 100 percent safe. All the fatalities involved an all-terrain vehicle or a snowmobile. The deadliest winters this century saw 10 people die on the ice in 2002-03 and eight people die in the winter of 2006-07. The area on North Long Lake where snowmobilers went through Friday night is one known for open water. Downie said it was listed on a news release issued by the county earlier this week, warning of dangerous ice conditions. “That’s always open because it’s shallow and the water flows through there,” Downie said. Downie said he wanted to remind people there is no safe ice. “We would prefer that people do not drive on the ice until they can prove otherwise,” he said, “where they’re pre-drilling and knowing what your ice is that you’re driving on.”