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The Ill-Advised Float Trip

Game wardens have one of the most flexible, yet unpredictable, schedules of any law enforcement agency in North Dakota. We definitely don’t have the typical 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. job; we work days and/or nights with long hours while still being on call when the work is done. We are responsible for the lakes and land within our designated or neighboring districts with some areas being as big as 3,200 square miles. With having such an unpredictable schedule, it seems like the most memorable moments in my career, thus far, have been in either the very early hours of the day or late hours of the night.

One of the most memorable search and rescue calls happened in spring 2018. I had worked a long shift in the river bottoms of Williston (which happens to be a very popular spot for “late night” activities) and got home around 2 a.m. The next morning, around 7, I woke to the mallard duck ring tone of my work phone to a Williams County dispatcher informing me of an emergency call that came through of three missing individuals on the Missouri River south of Williston.

The dispatcher wasn’t given a very specific description of their possible location, so all I knew was that I would be looking for three juveniles on the river in an inflatable pool, no life vests, paddles, or lights and possible alcohol onboard.

That year, the water levels of the Missouri River were also very high with extreme flooding, due to the large amount of mountain snow runoff from Montana. So given the high water levels and overall lack of location, I knew it would be a tough go because of the increased current and frigid water temperatures.

I immediately responded to the call and headed to the designated mobile command center to get the most up-to-date information on the situation. The local sheriff’s office was gearing up to deploy their search and rescue watercraft, an airboat, at the time of my arrival. The airboat was chosen in the rescue mission due to its next to zero draft in shallow water and was able to search in very shallow waters that would be otherwise limited by a prop boat. Based on the river condition, the current speed, and unknown time of departure, we decided that we needed to widen the search grid than originally planned.

With the search and rescue team agreeing, I decided that my efforts would be best on the water. I would be covering the main channel with my work boat, as well as looking for high ground in case they landed on shore waiting for rescue. Once my plan was set, I headed back to the Game and Fish office to grab my work boat and decided to call warden Lucas to assist. We decided meet at the Highway 85 boat ramp on the Missouri River south of Williston to launch our boat. Once we arrived at the boat ramp and did a safety once over of our equipment and boat, we launched and were off.

Going into any emergency situation such as this, wardens internally struggle with knowing the graveness of the circumstances we face, hoping for the best and knowing we won’t stop searching until everyone is accounted for.

We had just started our search when we received a call from the airboat operator. They reported they had run out of fuel and were in need of assistance, so now our search and rescue mission went from one group to two. The operator was able to give us a rough idea of their location. Fortunately, we had extensive knowledge of the Missouri river system in the area, so we were able to take multiple mile long narrow channels through flooded wooden areas, several miles off the main river channel to finally reach their location. Once we arrived, we made sure they were okay and waited until they were fueled up to continue our initial search.

During the time we had spent looking for airboat, a law enforcement aircraft was (unknowingly to us) sent out to help in the search from above. That aircraft was able to locate two of the three individuals on a sandbar in the middle river right off the main river channel. The aircraft pilot had relayed the information to the airboat operator, whom we had just helped.

With this new information, the airboat took a direct course to the missing individuals. Like I had mentioned before, the airboat was able to blaze through the very shallow areas of willows and flooded underbrush. In the time it took us to back track through the narrowed channels and back to the main river channel, the airboat had safely recovered two of the individuals from the sandbar. The third individual, which we would later learn but do not recommend doing, decided to swim across a back channel of the river and made it safely to shore.

We eventually were able to link up with the pilot who gave us the same information as the airboat to the location of the missing individuals. When we arrived, because we were unaware that the airboat has beaten us to the location, there was no one present. Fortunately, the pilot quickly relayed the message that the airboat had recovered the juveniles and that they were alive and safe.

Other than a little ego/pride dilemma of wanting to be the one to bring everyone home safely and lack of communication in certain aspects, we could not have asked for a better outcome for the situation.

Many lessons were learned that day: don’t drink and float in an inflatable pool (especially starting late at night), make sure you have life jackets and paddles on board, have a way to contact others in case of an emergency, and most importantly (in this situation) it pays to have an airboat.

- Warden Shawn Sperling

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