DEVILS LAKE -- A Dickinson-area angler was found by first responders after being stuck in whiteout conditions on Lake Alice for about four hours Monday evening.
Mark Nygaard was wrapping up what had been a successful fishing trip when a snowstorm put him in a potentially dangerous situation and prompted him to contact the Lake Region Search and Rescue squad.
Nygaard, 47, told the Herald he has fished Devils Lake since he was a boy, but this was the first year he had gone out on Lake Alice, which was first opened for ice fishing in 2015.
After being out since daybreak Monday and catching two walleye, Nygaard said he decided to head in around 3 p.m. to beat the darkness. Winds had been hovering around 16 mph throughout the day, but Nygaard said they began to pick up around 3 p.m. and visibility was low.
As his phone hit 20 percent battery life, Nygaard began to make his way back on his snowmobile, knowing he’d need his phone to find his way back.
After about five minutes of moving slowly toward shore, Nygaard reached to check his map on the phone,and found it had died.
“At that point, I went about another five minutes in that direction and I was truly lost. I didn’t know north, east, south, west -- there were no landmarks. With the white out conditions, I couldn’t tell where the sun was at.”
Still on the ice, Nygaard opted to erect his fishing structure with its back to the wind and hunker down. He said he had enough supplies and shelter to sit out the storm for the night. But when he used a heater to warm his phone up and got through to his wife, she pushed him to contact first responders.
Nygaard was able to send out a pin of his location. Eventually he reached the Towner County Sheriff’s Office. A deputy asked if he could head east, and said wind was coming from the northeast.
“So I rigged the ice house back up, put the wind to my left nostril and away I went,” he said.
After 10 to 15 minutes going about 5 mph, Nygaard was able to get off one last message to deputies before his phone died again. When he hit land, Nygaard knew he had to get back on the ice or risk sinking into the light snow, but by the time he turned back toward the lake it was too late and his sled sunk down.
Nygaard said he initially planned to follow the shoreline back to land, but after about a quarter-mile he opted to turn back and stay with his snowmobile and gear.
He set up his ice house and got his heater going again.
“About two and half hours later, here rescue comes with two sleds and three guys and we were able to get my sled unstuck,” he said. “Search and rescue did a great job.”
Rescuers found him shortly after 8 p.m.
‘It was a very humbling experience,” Nygaard said.
He said he was aiming to get five walleye by the day’s end and had caught several fish the day before with some friends.
“This was just the hiccup in my great fishing day, getting lost in the snow,” he said.
Randi Anfinson, a 31-year veteran of the Lake Region Search and Rescue squad, said they typically rescue one or two people each winter who get caught in storms while ice fishing.
He said it took about an hour for the rescue squad to get to the Lake Alice access point Monday night, and that a plow had to be called in to lead the way up the snow-covered road. Crews hauling trailers with snowmobiles got stuck twice just trying to reach the lake, he said.
“There was no travel advised for good reason,” Anfinson said.
He said with deep, soft snow and high winds conditions on the lake can quickly become dangerous, but noted that with the level of gear Nygaard had his situation was not dire.
Anfinson said anyone venturing out in the wilderness should not go alone.
“This guy was lucky,” Anfinson said. “We’ve had people die.”
He noted that the area only got a cell tower three to four years ago, and that in the past Nygaard could have been in real trouble.
Even with GPS location information, whipping winds caused low visibility and Nygaard could have easily been missed. Anfinson said Nygaard was wise to ultimately stay with his snowmobile, which is how a Towner County deputy spotted him.