Alexandria DNR officer honored for rescuing heart attack victim in the Boundary Waters
Lucky for Ely ice angler, he wasn't alone on the lake that morning.
BOUNDARY WATERS — If you're going to have a heart attack, you don't want to have it in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, especially when the snow is deep and you've skied in alone along a rugged trail.
But that's the situation Larry Gotchnik of Ely found himself in March 2022. The expert woodsman had skied into the wilderness east of Ely early that morning to fish for crappie. He was intimately acquainted with the area, having grown up in Ely as a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and having worked as a guide. What was unfamiliar was the intense pressure in the left side of his chest. He'd never felt anything like it. He was 65, in good shape, and had never had any heart problems.
Nonetheless, he knew that it could be a heart attack.
Lucky for Gotchnik, he wasn't alone on the lake that morning. A father and a young son were there, too, as were a pair of off-duty Minnesota DNR conservation officers — Mitch Lawler of Alexandria and Anthony Bermel of Ely.
Lawler and Bermel had also skied in that morning to go fishing, leaving while it was still dark and traversing the rugged terrain pulling a sled with their fishing gear. Lawler estimates they traveled two to four miles to get to the lake, which took about two hours because there were places were they had to remove their skis and climb, or repack when a sled tipped over.
They hadn't been fishing long before the father and son approached them and said that Gotchnik appeared to be having some health problems. Bermel knew both men, as they were all local. Gotchnik figures he was about 3/4 of a mile away from them across the lake. He had already called for help on his cell phone. Cell phone service can be spotty in the wilderness area, but he had one bar of service and was able to reach a dispatcher. He also carried a Garmin inReach, a device that can summon help round the clock.
When the conservation officers reached him, they observed his symptoms. He looked OK, but there were signs something was wrong.
"Shortness of breath, no stamina, couldn’t go far without sitting down to rest," Lawler said.
Bermel also had a cell phone and called for help, having contacts among local emergency responders. He helped them pinpoint their location and coordinate the response.
The trail leading to them was too narrow and rough for a rescue snow machine, so Bermel skied back along the trail to meet them. Lawler stayed with Gotchnik, helping him move along the frozen lake closer to the trail entrance and staying on the phone with a dispatcher. Bermel met up with the first responders at the next lake. Because he knew the area so well, he traded his skis for their snowmobile and rode back along the trail.
When a person is having a heart attack, time matters. Left too long, a person can suffer permanent heart damage or die. None of the three had a firm estimate on how much time it took to get Gotchnik back to the medical crew. They were focused on getting him back along the rugged trail. The snowmobile was a one-seater, so Bermel stood while Gotchnik rode. At one point, the snowmobile got stuck and they had to get off and pull it out.
First responders did a field EKG and gave Gotchnik some nitroglycerin pills, Gotchnik recalled. They asked if he could ride on the rescue machine back to the parking lot, where an ambulance was waiting. He said he could. They brought him to the Ely hospital and he was flown by helicopter to Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth, where doctors found 99% blockage in an artery. They did emergency surgery and put in a stent.
"I'm lucky to be alive," Gotchnik said. He thanked everyone involved in his rescue, including Lawler and Bermel, who were recently given lifesaving awards from the DNR for the roles they played. Others on Gotchnik's thank-you list include the St. Louis County rescue squad, the father and son who were on the lake, the hospital crew, and the doctors and nurses in Duluth.
He said he suffered no permanent heart damage from the incident. Within a month of leaving the hospital, he was hunting turkeys in the Black Hills. His experience hasn't scared him away from the Boundary Waters. He's been back about 50 times since then, often alone. But he makes sure to take his cell phone and Garmin device.
He knows how unforgiving the wilderness area can be. About 20 years ago, he said, he and a friend rescued a man who was in diabetic shock, carrying him out of the wilderness to a helicopter.
And that is key to surviving a serious health scare in the wilderness, said Lawler.
“You just have to get out," he said. "There’s no survival without getting out.”
The conservation officers said they have seen people of all ages in the Boundary Waters, with the exception of the very young or the very old. Trouble can strike at any age, which is why it is crucial for everyone to prepare for trouble. Even if you are only trekking in for what you think might be a day trip, you might be forced to spend the night. Lawler advises people to bring along matches and extra food, and to always let someone know where you're going and what time you'll be back.
Once Gotchnik was safely with the rescue crew, Lawler and Bermel focused on getting themselves out, plus his gear and their own. The other man helped carry Gotchnik's gear and they were out well before nightfall.
Lawler lives with his wife and four kids in Alexandria, where he is the cubmaster for Pack 416.
He said he was happy that there was a good outcome for Gotchnik. And he downplayed his role.
“Anybody would have helped," he said. "It just happened to be that we were close enough to help. I’m just glad it worked out because sometimes it doesn’t.”