'Don't quit yet' man tells himself as high winds strand him on ND lake island
LAKE AUDUBON, N.D. -- A Michigan man, working in western North Dakota, spent the longest and windiest night of his life huddled on an island in Lake Audubon, living out his personal episode of "Survivor."...
LAKE AUDUBON, N.D. -- A Michigan man, working in western North Dakota, spent the longest and windiest night of his life huddled on an island in Lake Audubon, living out his personal episode of "Survivor." Eric Gauthier, 34, who’d been working on a pipeline inspection team in the oil patch for three weeks, went fishing on Lake Audubon not long after sunrise Sunday morning, unaware as he paddled along and fished from his canoe that extremely dangerous winds were forecast up to 60 mph. Gauthier, who spoke by phone Tuesday from Michigan, said the water went from glassy to 4- to 5-foot waves within minutes. He said he was paddling furiously toward an island, when a wind shear tipped his canoe and sent him swimming for his life toward landfall 200 yards away. “I was on a swimming team for 15 years, but I was right on the edge,” he said of that swim. “The last time I went under (the rolling waves), I thought that was it. I thought of Bonnie (Trapp, his fiance) and I thought, `Don’t quit yet,’ and then my foot touched bottom.” He rolled into the water before noon Sunday, but no one was aware of his predicament until late Sunday night, when Trapp became worried because she hadn’t heard from him. She’d been visiting him in North Dakota and saw him last when he dropped her at the airport early Sunday morning for a flight back home. Trapp said she called the Bismarck Police Department, who passed her to State Radio, who passed her on to State Game and Fish Department warden supervisor Doug Olson. Trapp said she reached Olson at 10:30 p.m. Sunday and explained her worries.
“He’s an amazing man,” she said of Olson “He did not stop.” Olson, who works out of the Riverdale office, said he knew from a cellphone video that Gauthier had sent Trapp that he was probably somewhere on the east end of Lake Sakakawea. At approximately 1 a.m. Monday, he located Gauthier’s pickup near Totten Trail on the north side of Lake Audubon then started a search effort downwind on the National Wildlife Refuge side of the lake, finally suspending the effort in the wind and darkness until sunrise. Olson said refuge staff, more of his personnel and the McLean County Sheriff’s Department continued the ground search at first light, waiting hours for the wind to die enough to allow an aerial or water search. Finally, a Civil Air Patrol plane was able to go up and spotted Gauthier just before 3 p.m. Monday. The search area on the lake was narrowed to Gauthier’s last cellphone “ping” location, provided by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center in Florida, which also authorized the air patrol. Gauthier said, after stripping off his icy-cold wet clothes, hanging them to dry and running a few laps around the island to improve his circulation, he had spent the night in an animal nest that he filled with more grass, stuffing his clothes with grass for insulation and spreading it over him as best he could. He dozed fitfully, listening to the wind howl and figured he could get off the island when the wind died and daylight came. He made a raft of driftwood lashed together with his boot laces. He tried to start a fire, but couldn’t get a spark. He still had his cellphone and was able to dry out the battery, only to have it die just after reactivating it because the battery was down to 1 percent. He carved a few letters to people he loved, using his pickup key and more driftwood to write the messages. Trapp said she’d like to go out there and get hers one day. “I didn’t think I’d ever see him again,” she said. Gauthier said he watched the plane go over once then disappear beyond the horizon for another 45 minutes before it returned, banked low and waggled a wing at him. The Bismarck-based patrol, piloted by Ron Patch, with observers Larry Regorrah and Michael Gill, kept watch from the air while the water rescue continued. Olson said he and warden team decided to put a boat in the water as soon as they got a location from the spotter plane, even though the winds were still dangerously high. He’d been trying to maintain his optimism throughout the night and long day of searching and waiting. “You always want to be positive. There are a lot of islands out there,” he said. Gauthier said his air and water rescuers went above and beyond the call of duty to get him off the island. “They got out to me as soon as they could. The wind was still terrible,” he said. Olson said it was quite a moment to ride out the rough waves and find Gauthier, waving and waving to them as he watched them come across the rough, white-capping water. “I don’t know who was happier, him or us,” Olson said. It is a story with a happy ending. McLean County Sheriff J.R. Kerzmann said he’s calling Gauthier the “miracle canoer.” He was at the ramp when the Game and Fish boat returned with Olson, wardens Tim Larson and Kylor Johnston and the rescued canoeist “When I saw four heads in the boat, it was unbelievable. I said it’d be a good day to buy lottery tickets - he’s a lucky guy,” the sheriff said.