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Practicing the ice safety he preaches

WILLMAR - Clergy are recognized by the collars they wear. On the ice of Big Kandiyohi Lake, Tim Johnson is known by the pair of ice spikes he wears around his neck. "Religiously,'' said Johnson, who added that his buddies do sometimes tease him a...

Tom Cherveny | Tribune Emergency responders trailer up the rescue airboat after responding to a report of a vehicle breaking through the ice on Long Lake north of Willmar on Sunday evening. Its driver escaped unharmed.
Tom Cherveny | Kandiyohi County has a hovercraft for use in ice rescues, shown here when called to duty on Long Lake in February 2017. It takes time for rescuers to reach a scene, making it wise for anglers to carry ice spikes as a means of pulling themselves from the water.

WILLMAR - Clergy are recognized by the collars they wear.

On the ice of Big Kandiyohi Lake, Tim Johnson is known by the pair of ice spikes he wears around his neck.

"Religiously,'' said Johnson, who added that his buddies do sometimes tease him about it.

He preaches about the importance of ice spikes with authority. He's unexpectedly broken through the ice on Big Kandi no fewer than six times through the years, and he's come to the aid of many others who have done so.

"My philosophy on this lake per se,'' said Johnson. "It's not a matter of if you are going to fall through, it'a a matter of when.''

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And when you do, ice spikes give you the chance to pull yourself back up on safe ice, Johnson explained. "A person just does not realize how quick (it happens), and what it takes strength-wise to pull yourself up and out,'' he said.

Ice spikes make it possible to grab hold and pull. One of his first falls through the ice came years ago, before he carried ice spikes. "I just kind of rolled and scratched my way out,'' said Johnson.

A few years ago, he fell through with his ice spikes at the ready. Being prepared, he tried different routines, rolling and kicking porpoise like to see if he could get out without the spikes. "Not so easy to do,'' said Johnson.

Once in the water, there's panic and shock, and only so much time. Muscle coordination decreases quickly when immersed in cold water.

Johnson, who will soon turn 59, has lived all of his life on Big Kandi and is an avid angler.

He felt nothing less than "pure panic" the time he broke through the ice in his Carhart coveralls, and couldn't find the 16-penny nails he'd kept in the pockets to use as ice spikes or claws.

That's why today, he would no more than go out on the ice without his boots on his feet than go without his ice spikes around his neck.

He's lost much of his vision due to an accident at work years ago. Shortly after the vision loss, he said he was driving a four-wheeler with a trailer when he drove straight into open water.

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He had the ice spikes around his neck. "I was prepared for that one so it wasn't that bad of a deal,'' he said.

But ice anglers aren't always prepared. Just two weeks ago, trained rescuers from Blomkest pulled William Hurtz, 49, from Big Kandi after he and the four-wheeler he drove broke through the ice. Hurtz held on to the edge of the ice until the rescuers could arrive and pull him out. He was subsequently airlifted to a St. Cloud hospital.

Johnson went to the scene the next day and pulled the machine out of the water for the unlucky angler.

He began assembling his own gear to retrieve submerged equipment years ago, initially with the idea of saving his own stuff. Today, Johnson keeps a small, 12-foot boat at the ready all winter long. He's modified an old wrecker with a boom, and has a variety of winches concocted to provide added power. He recently purchased an older model, amphibious Argo all terrain vehicle. He's also got nearly a mile of steel cable, underwater camera, hooks and ropes, steel T-bar to anchor his equipment on the ice, and steel I-beams for use as ramps.

It all gets used. In recent years he's fished out 12 different vehicles, including pickups, cars and SUVs. He's also pulled out 18 different four-wheelers and 40 plus fish houses. An old friend once told him: "You've taken fishing to a whole new level." That was after Johnson told him he was going fishing for a vehicle.

Knowing he lives right on the lake, ice fishing buddies have called him for help when they've witnessed people go through the ice. He keeps his Ranger ATV equipped with a spool of rope and life jackets and floatation devices he can toss to people who break through ice.

One night, he was outside on his deck when he heard the hum of two four-wheelers going much too fast. Johnson knew they were outpacing the range of their headlights, and wouldn't be able to stop in time if they spotted open water.

"This isn't going to be good," Johnson said he thought only moments before his phone rang. Friends watched the duo of four-wheelers tea kettle into open water. He sped over in the Ranger and tossed life jackets and a bucket connected to the coil of rope to four frightened swimmers. Two guys in their 20's and the girlfriends they had brought along for a ride were saved by the quick rescue. "The girls weren't really happy about the whole thing,'' Johnson laughed.

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His most frightening experience came when he and a buddy were pulling an ice fishing house off the lake. His friend's two children, under 10 years of age, rode in the fish house. It broke through the ice.

It floated two-thirds above the water, but there was no opening its door against the pressure of water and ice, said Johnson. He eventually was able to pull his steel cable from shore to the house and winch it up so they could open the door and safely free the children.

All of which makes it easy to understand why Johnson takes ice safety so seriously. For all of the thousands of dollars ice anglers can pay for equipment, no investment can be more important than shelling out a few bucks for ice spikes and having them at hand.

He's not letting his experiences with the dangers of ice fishing keep him from his passion. He just makes sure he does it as safely as he can.

"Fishermen are die hards,'' Johnson explained. "You got to do what you got to do."

Related Topics: KANDIYOHI
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