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UPDATED: All 200 anglers rescued on Upper Red Lake

All anglers have been safely evacuated from Upper Red Lake according to a 3:20 p.m. update from the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office.

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A temporary land bridge is pictured between a chunk of ice that detached from the mainland on Upper Red Lake on Monday, Nov. 28, 2022.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Sheriff's Office
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UPPER RED LAKE — When anglers set out along the southern portion of Upper Red Lake on Monday, Nov. 28, little did they know what an eventful afternoon they were in for.

It all started when a strong gust of wind separated a large section of ice from the mainland along the southern shoreline, stranding around 200 anglers out on the sheet of ice.

The Beltrami County Sheriff's Office and other first responders rushed to the scene, and everyone was safely back on shore later in the afternoon.

Those on the ice who needed to evacuate were encouraged to head toward JR’s Corner where a temporary ice bridge was placed to get across the open water.

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According to a statement from Beltrami County Chief Deputy Jarrett Walton, at approximately 11:34 a.m. Monday, the sheriff’s office received a 911 call from individuals who were fishing on Upper Red Lake in northern Beltrami County, about an hour north of Bemidji.

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The callers indicated that a large chunk of ice broke free from the main shoreline stranding what was estimated to be around 100 individuals. The sheriff’s office and other first responders arrived on the scene and discovered a large portion of the ice with up to 30 yards of open water stranding the anglers.

Several water rescue agencies and vehicles were dispatched to the scene and after assessing the extent of the open water with visual and drone operations, a narrow spot of the separation was found and a temporary bridge was deployed to evacuate the stranded anglers north of JR’s Corner, Walton detailed.

"Due to the urgent nature of getting people off the ice and the likelihood that several groups were unaware of the separation, Beltrami County Emergency Management utilized a Wireless Emergency Alert through the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System to notify of the evacuation," Walton said in the release. "The WEA allowed notifications to be sent to cell phones of those who are not enrolled in the local notification system and provided GPS coordinates of the evacuation site."

According to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Nick Prachar, who responded to the scene, the incident was caused by a combination of strong wind coming from the south end of the lake with early and unpredictable ice.

“When you get a strong south wind on a very early sheet of ice, this is very commonplace (for this to happen),” Prachar said. “We were expecting it, between DNR enforcement prepping the airboat up here and all the game wardens around. We made sure we had all the equipment we needed in the truck, the sheriff’s office is always ready for this.”

In anticipation of just this type of incident, Prachar said he and other conservation officers, along with members of the sheriff’s department and first responders, were as prepared as they could be, adding they had airboats ready and nearby along with trucks stocked with emergency and staging equipment.

“People push (to get on) the ice sooner and sooner, and it was only a matter of time before (this) happened, we just didn’t expect there to be that many people out there when it happened,” he said of Monday’s incident. “We always hope it doesn't happen, but at least if we plan for it, we can be ready to respond properly to it.”

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A chunk of ice detached from the mainland on Upper Red Lake on Monday, Nov. 28, 2022, stranding anglers out on the ice.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Sheriff's Office

Just after 2:30 p.m., everyone requiring evacuation from the ice had been reached. In total, the sheriff’s office estimated some 200 people were evacuated from the ice.

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“There’s a lot I (could say) as far as ice safety and the safety of the responders going out there to save people, but as far as I'm concerned, today is a win,” Prachar said. “Nobody got wet or injured and everyone got off safely.”

The Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office was assisted by Kelliher Fire and Rescue, Red Lake Nation Fire, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota State Patrol, Blackduck Ambulance, Lake of the Woods Sheriff’s Office and local resorts.

"The Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office reminds those who are thinking of heading on the ice that early season ice is very unpredictable," Walton said in the statement. "Extreme caution should be used when heading on the ice and to check the thickness frequently to ensure an adequate amount of ice."

The DNR does not measure ice thickness on Minnesota lakes. Anglers’ safety is their responsibility, and the DNR encourages them to learn about the different ways to check the ice thickness before heading out.

“I tell people to use common sense and if you’re questioning it, don’t go out,” Prachar said. “It's ultimately up to the person going out there to make sure they're doing it safely.”

According to the DNR, anyone who recreates on the ice should wait until there are at least 4 inches of new, clear ice before walking out onto it.

Working in the Upper Red Lake area over the weekend, Prachar said he saw ice thicknesses of anywhere from 4 to 7 inches.

“What I saw today, granted I was in the airboat, but I’d estimate it was less than about 4 inches,” he added. “I encourage people to follow what the DNR information office puts out as far as safe ice conditions.”

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Temperature, snow cover, currents, springs and rough fish all affect the relative safety of ice. Ice is seldom the same thickness over a single body of water; it can be two feet thick in one place and one inch thick a few yards away.
Courtesy / Minnesota DNR

Tips for staying safe around cold water and on the ice include:

  • Wearing a foam life jacket or flotation suit.
  • Not going out alone and letting someone know about trip plans and expected return time.
  • Carrying ice picks, rope, an ice chisel and tape measure.
  • Checking ice thickness at regular intervals; conditions can change quickly.
  • Bringing a cell phone or personal locator beacon.
  • Inquiring about conditions and known hazards with local experts before heading out.

For more information about staying safe on the ice, including thickness recommendations for various types of activities, see the DNR’s ice safety page at mndnr.gov/icesafety.

For more information about surviving a fall into cold water, see the cold water dangers page at mndnr.gov/coldwater.

Maggi is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on outdoor and human interest stories. Raised in Aitkin, Minnesota, Maggi is a graduate of Bemidji State University's class of 2022 with a degree in Mass Communication.
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