St. Louis River hike turns perilous for Shakopee dad and sons
DULUTH - A Shakopee, Minn., man and his two sons, 11 and 8, were rescued from rocks where they were stranded on the St. Louis River in Jay Cooke State Park on Wednesday afternoon.
Joe Matuza, 45, and his boys had been hiking on the south side of the river and had attempted to cross to the north side by hopping rocks. They reached a point where the boys could go no farther.
"The youngest one kind of panicked, and I realized we were in trouble," Matuza said.
Joe Matuza swam across 30 feet of fast-flowing current, climbed a steep bank and was able to reach a phone to call 911. After calling, he returned to the river and swam and waded back to where the boys sat on a rock in the current. They waited there for rescue crews to arrive.
The Matuzas were about a half-mile downstream from the park's swinging bridge. They sat calmly on a slanted rock amid several channels of rushing water. Rain fell off and on. The temperature ranged from the mid-60s to the lower 70s, according to the National Weather Service.
The 911 call was made about noon, and the rescue operation began about 2:15. Rescue officials had asked Minnesota Power to lower water levels on that stretch of river and waited for the river to drop somewhat.
Derek Randall, a diver with the Cloquet Police Department and Carlton County dive team, waded out in a wetsuit and retrieved the boys one by one. Roped to rescue personnel on shore, Randall put 8-year-old Marc Matuza on his back. It took Randall six minutes to wade the irregular rock riverbed and swift current to shore. The water was chest-deep at times.
"It's moving faster than it looks," Randall said. "The kids were really good. They didn't say anything."
He returned for 11-year-old Joe Matuza, who waded the river with Randall embracing him from behind. Randall then returned to the rock where he anchored one end of the rescue rope and personnel on shore held the other end. Joe Matuza Sr. then waded to shore while holding the rope.
Getting all three to shore took about half an hour.
Neither the boys nor their father were injured. They climbed the river embankment and returned with rescue personnel to their campsite at the park.
Quest to cross the river
They had left camp about 9 a.m., crossed the river on the Swinging Bridge near the visitor center and hiked down along the south side of the river. They had attempted to rock-hop across the river on an earlier trip to Jay Cooke and failed, Joe Matuza Sr. said.
"This year we were going to do it," he said.
They rock-hopped as far across the 100-yard river channel as they could before encountering a deep, fast piece of current too wide to jump. They couldn't backtrack because at one point, they had jumped down from a high rock to a lower rock across a channel of fast water. They were unable to jump the channel and get back up the high rock, Joe Matuza said.
The three of them appeared relaxed as they awaited their rescue. Joe Matuza said after the rescue that his son Marc said at one point, "I'm going to write about this in second grade."
Matuza said he didn't want to leave his boys on the rock but knew he had to go for help. He found a phone at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District pump station on Minnesota Highway 210 in the park.
About a dozen rescue personnel were stationed along the river's edge, some with flotation bags ready to throw if the rescue went awry.
Joe Matuza took complete responsibility for getting himself and his boys in their predicament.
"I didn't know what was on the other side," he said. "I'm not blaming anyone but myself ... I'm embarrassed but happy. I want to give thanks to everyone."
Responding in addition to Cloquet police were emergency crews from the Esko Fire Department, Carlton County Fire and Ambulance, Carlton County Sheriff's Office, the Thomson Township police chief and a Fond du Lac Reservation conservation officer.
Jay Cooke assistant park manager Mark Luschen said park visitors become stranded on river rocks about once or twice a year and need to be rescued.
A hiker died in April 1998 in Jay Cooke State Park when he fell in the runoff-swollen St. Louis River near the Swinging Bridge. His body was recovered near the site of Wednesday's rescue.
The Duluth News Tribune and the West Central Tribune are Forum Communications Co. newspapers