Rhinelander rescue reminiscent of 1940s tragedy
The rescue of Rhinelander High School seniors Zack Densow and his buddy Mark Schmidt, brings to mind an event that shook the heart of the Midwest to its core in 1940.
Seventy three years ago this Monday, a weather event dubbed, The Armistice Day Storm, blew up over Iowa, Minnesota, parts of Michigan and southern Wisconsin. It was a blizzard of gargantuan proportions that killed more than 150 people. It sank two freighters and three smaller boats on Lake Michigan killing 66 sailors, and shut this portion of the country down with winds topping 80 miles per hour.
Also among the dead were more than 55 duck hunters who had headed out on the Mississippi river that warm November morning to bag some birds. By the afternoon, many were in a life and death struggle, valiantly trying to outwit this turn of weather that caught everyone off guard.
The sloughs and backwaters of Wisconsin’s waterways have always held a special allure for hunters in November, especially those who look to the sky for game. And that was certainly the case for Zack and Mark last Sunday evening. Zack checked some migration reports and learned the ducks were on the move. He called Mark and the pair made preparations to go duck hunting early Monday morning.
By 4:30 a.m. they had launched their boat at the landing off Apperson Dr. in Newbold. Zack was very familiar with this vessel. It was originally his grandfather’s boat but over the years, his dad, Brian, and mom, Lori, who are also avid hunters, had used it on many excursions. At 24-feet long and powered by a three-horse motor, the small wooden craft had been rigged by Zack’s grandpa as a mobile hunting blind and was perfect for getting into the backwaters of rivers and streams. Zack is also very familiar with this part of the river, and had decided that Munningoff’s marsh was the best bet for some fine shooting that morning.
After loading up decoys, guns and donning waders the two headed out. The wind was stiff and the air cold but the pair were excited about seeing some ducks.
Suddenly things went very wrong.
“It just happened so fast,” Zack said. “Mark told me the boat was sinking after water came in over the bow. Suddenly the boat was swamped and the next thing we knew we were in the river.”
The men were chest deep in water, standing on a mucky and uncertain bottom.
They tried to flip the boat back up, but it was too full of water to right itself.
Both had received a dunking and their clothes were wet but the water had not completely filled their waders…yet.
Luckily Mark’s cell phone was in a pocket and had not been completely submerged. After gathering their wits, they decided to call a friend to help them out but the phone died.
“That’s when I told Mark to call 911,” Zack said. “I knew we were in trouble.”
Mark tried his phone again and got through to 911. He told the dispatcher they had sunk their boat near Munningoff’s marsh. And then, again, the phone went dead. Mark called back and got through once more.
“We just told the dispatcher we were calling back but that the phone might die out again,” Zack said. “Then we heard sirens and I can tell you I was relieved. Then I knew we were going to be OK.”
While the two could faintly see the boat landing from where they had been stranded, they knew their rescuers would have a hard time finding them. It was still dark and they had navigated through some heavy cover.
“It’s like a maze back there,” Zack said. “You really have to know where you’re going on that part of the river.”
Another stroke of luck was the fact the two had saved their flashlights.
“We started shining them and calling out,” Zack said. “Luckily they found us right away.”
And just in time. An ambulance was waiting at the boat landing and while Zack’s vitals checked out OK, Mark’s were not and he was transported to the hospital to be stabilized. Zack used an EMTs phone to call his dad to tell him what happened and that he was OK, then hurried home, changed his clothes and got to the hospital shortly before his friend was released.
“We are very thankful for the quick action of our rescuers,” Zack said. “They saved our lives.”
Zack’s dad agrees.
“We were one phone call away from a funeral,” he said. “They got lucky.”
But luck was in short supply the day of the Armistice Day storm. That autumn season had been unseasonably warm and it was in the 50s the morning of Nov. 11. Many hunters headed out in short sleeve shirts and light jackets, launching their boats into the river and staging on the numerous islands and sloughs of the Mississippi.
And then a weird phenomenon happened. Ducks by the thousands started flying in, low to the ground, trying to out run the storm they instinctively knew was coming. It was an unusual and unheard of bonanza for the hunters and as they became engrossed in the hunt, many lost track of time and the conditions of the weather.
As a cold front from Canada and a warm front from the Gulf of Mexico merged over the Midwest, a pounding rain first turned into sleet and then a heavy and blinding snow. The temperature dropped like a sinking anchor and soon many hunters found themselves stranded in the backwaters and on the islands of the river. Some endeavored to get back to shore in their small skiffs, but many drowned trying as the waves reached up to five feet. Others froze to death, trying to find shelter under their boats and without adequate clothing protection.
More than 55 died that day.
As devastating as the human life toll was, the Armistice Day storm did even more damage economically. It wiped out virtually every apple orchard in Iowa, killed more than 1,000 cattle in that state and killed millions of turkeys in Wisconsin that were being raised for Thanksgiving dinners across the nation. In Minnesota 20-foot drifts forced rescuers to use long probes to find cars buried beneath them. In Winona, Minnesota the city garage was used as a morgue as rescuers brought in the dead to be identified.
Thankfully that was not the fate of Zack and Mark, but their rescue has left a lasting impression. In fact, Zack was willing to share his story in the hope of educating other hunters that situations can go from bad to worse in a hurry and that being properly prepared can save your life.
“You always think that situations like Mark and I were in happen to other people and won’t happen to you,” he said. “But now I know differently.”
Zack and his dad had a long talk on Monday night after his rescue, discussing how close disaster had come calling.
“Always wear a life jacket,” Zack said. “We had them in the boat but we weren’t wearing them. If we had been in deeper water, I don’t think I would be here.”
He also admits that modern day technology saved their lives but that scenario could have been different too.
“They make cases that can keep your cell phone dry and if you don’t have one of those at least put your phone in a zip lock baggie,” he said. “My phone was useless because it got wet.”
In addition, Zack advises hunters to carry a whistle.
“If you are stranded at least you can make some noise and you have a better chance of people hearing and locating you,” he said.
Another rule he advocates is letting people know where you are and when you will be returning.
One stroke of luck for these young men was that, due to the hard work of Oneida County’s dive team, the boat and most of their gear was recovered.
“We lost two decoys and the boat oars,” Zack said. “We’re very thankful to those guys for getting our stuff back.”
This Monday will mark the 73rd anniversary of the Armistice Day storm, and while many hunters did not return home on that fateful day, two of Rhinelander’s citizens lived to tell their tale, and have grateful hearts to show for it. In fact, Zack was a little concerned to face his dad after sinking Grandpa’s boat but his fears were unfounded.
“Once I saw him we just hugged,” he said. “I’ve realized that when something like this happens it makes you appreciate life even more. I’m not going to be shy to tell my family, ‘I love you’ more often and I’ll always be thankful for the people who rescued us. They are real heroes.”