St. PAUL —Tow truck operator Jason Butler has fished pickup trucks out of frozen lakes, pulled snow-covered semitrailers out of ditches and once rescued a capsized double-decker pontoon boat.
So when Butler, the owner of City Line Towing in Willmar, read about Mike Olson’s plight, he knew he could help. He called to offer his towing services and expertise — free of charge.
Olson, of Chisago City, is the owner of the 26-foot white-and-blue fiberglass 1977 Pearson sailboat that has been frozen in the St. Croix River since Nov. 1.
Butler and a friend, Josh Schafer, division manager of Pulver Towing in Marshall, said they plan to assemble a team to remove the boat in the next few weeks.
“I’m 110 percent sure that we can get it out of there,” Butler said. “We may need to wait a couple of weeks, until the temperature drops, if we need good ice, or we might not need any ice at all. I was up until about 2 o’clock in the morning trying to figure out, ‘Well, how do we get it out?’ ”
Said Schafer: “It’s definitely doable. It will be fun. I can’t wait.”
Butler said he plans to drive to Stillwater on Wednesday, Nov. 20, to assess the situation and come up with a plan. He’s bringing his camera and tape measure, he said.
“There’s no sense in rushing it and risking anybody’s life just for a boat,” he said. “It’s not going anywhere, I can guarantee you that. … We have to figure out every angle that we possibly can.”
Ice recoveries are Butler and Shafer’s “forte,” Butler said. “We try to do as many as possible. That’s what we get excited about.”
Last year, Butler, Schafer and Matt Maloney, owner of Maloney Enterprises in Madelia, , led an effort to pull an ice fisherman’s 7,000-pound pickup truck from the bottom of Lake Shetek near Slayton.
“It was under 25 feet of water, on the bottom of the lake,” Butler said. “He was driving on thin ice, and it broke through.”
The ice fisherman got out OK, but his truck was totaled, Butler said.
The men used a “pontoon system” to retrieve the truck. They cut a hole in the ice, had a diver secure straps to the vehicle and then lifted it up through the ice. That might be the same system they use on Olson’s 2,200-pound sailboat, Butler said.
Another option might be to cut the ice on one side of the boat, “reverse roll” it onto its side and pull it to shore, he said.
“We have skid loaders, tow truck winches and pulley systems we can use,” he said. “It will take an entire day, guaranteed. There is more set-up and tear-down than there is work involved.”
The volunteer job would be the team’s “first boat-frozen-in-ice-in-a-river” recovery, Butler said.
“It’s a challenge for us, especially because it’s on a river,” he said. “That’s not in our neck of the woods. … It will be a good training for us.”
“I really, really appreciate what they are doing,” Olson said. “I was running out of options. He even told me that the boat shouldn’t be damaged when he’s done with it.”
Olson, who doesn’t have insurance, was told the recovery effort would “normally cost around $20,000,” he said. “It’s nothing I could afford. It’s extremely nice of them.”
“I won’t say we’d do this every day for free … but this is a special circumstance,” Butler said. “He seems like he’s in dire need of some help.”
Schafer’s family has owned Rochester-based Pulver Towing since 1922; the company’s biggest job was pulling former King Hussein of Jordan’s 747 jumbo jet off the runway at the Rochester International Airport, he said.
“We’ve been around 97 years,” he said. “There isn’t much we haven’t seen.”
Schafer said he and others at Pulver jumped at the chance to help.
“We said, ‘Hey, this guy’s struggling. Of course we’ll do whatever it takes,’ ” he said. “Everybody in the towing industry is friends. It’s like a brotherhood.”
Plus, he added, “It’s that time of the year.”