It was approximately 4:30pm on Tuesday, July 14th when the town siren went off in Blackduck, Minnesota. Everyone is familiar with the siren here because they do a practice test every day at precisely 12 noon. The siren went for a good long time. It was eerie to hear it drone on and on through the rain and the wind just outside and it made me apprehensive. I imagined a fire in the downtown district or hopefully a cat up a tree. Thinking I might witness some sort of rescue I grabbed my cameras and ran for my niece’s car.
I had been off the river for one day, hold up in my niece’s house, 25 miles north of Bemidji (the first town on the Mississippi River), drying out my clothes and goods and preparing for a series of interviews here in the general area. A fire engine and a rush of police cars were headed straight through the town and as they passed some local residents watched from the sidewalks. Others were already in their vehicles and as I approached the stop sign at the nearby highway there were a good three to four other cars and trucks between myself and the emergency vehicles. We all followed. Everyone was going the same way. What I didn’t know at the time was that the town siren hadn’t rung for an emergency like this in some time, nor that these residents were not following the fire truck to watch and gawk or to take pictures. They were going to help.
Not long after I saw a Sheriff four wheel drive racing behind. I pulled over and as I did I saw he was towing a speedboat. Immediately I knew. The emergency was on the lake. Blackduck Lake is a straight shot from the town, about a mile off the highway.
I found a dirt road away from all other vehicles and I got out to take a look. There were reeds and muck between myself and the lake where I parked but it was the closest to the lake that I could find without being in the way. A fireman on foot approached me and I asked him what had happened and if I could help. “Boating accident – two bodies still in the water – I’m going to search the shore here in the reeds. They could have tried to swim.” We both tried to wade out in the reeds but it was a bit too mucky. He went one way and then I looked on top of my niece’s car and saw my canoe. And just inside, my paddles. For some reason I had forgot to take them out when I unpacked everything else from the car late the night before.
A local resident came and helped me launch from a private dock. There were lots of bigger boats out in the water but as far as I knew, no canoes that could cut through the reeds and cattails. I was then told the owner of the house from where I launched had just launched her kayak. I followed suit.
The water was choppy but out in the cattails you could keep your course. I looked and I looked and went further and further around the shore. I searched for two or so hours. In the end when the wind picked up and the waves began to rise I was on my way back when I saw the blue boat almost completely submerged, surrounded by Beltrami Sheriff rescue boats. There had been a foreboding in the air but it wasn’t until this moment that the gravity of the situation hit me. The two people who were lost were not going to be rescued. The deputy sheriffs around the capsized pleasure boat were marking off orange buoys for the divers to come in and search. The search would be called off for the night not too long after that as the weather would again take a turn for the worse as the wind picked up something fierce.
I didn’t report on this story and I didn’t end up taking any pictures. I only recount what I experienced now because I was touched that a town like this one could band together to try and help. The other, rather selfish reason is because the whole experience has left me a bit melancholy and reflective and I wanted to try to get it off of my chest. Tonight is the second night that I can’t sleep.
I don’t mean to say that I was a great person for launching my canoe. The point is there were many, many boats out there, all searching, all trying to help. It was a community that was coming together – it was a community in action that you can just tell comes together in different ways to help each other out, each and every day. Small town America has a completely different feel from the big city where I grew up. People take the time to greet people. When you try to cross the street, people stop their car and let you go first.
I’ll never forget the look on the searchers’ faces out on the lake as you’d pass by them. You’d take a moment to look at each other and you’d just nod. Others without boats were in the reeds in their wetsuits. I read in the paper today that other locals were preparing food and coffee for the searchers. Others still were there to comfort the mother of one of the missing young men who had come to the lake and was calling his name late into that night.
Life is fragile and every life is special. Two young men, Justin Daryl Anderson and Cody James Kruegerboth, both aged 21, had been rescued by locals directly following the accident. While the bodies of Adam Joseph Bobick, 26, of Little Falls, Minn., and Shawn Allen Ramsdell, 33, also of Little Falls, were recovered the following day. Although this story is not the sort of “positive American story” I intended when I set out on my Flash River Safari, I see now that it is an important one to understand and to share.