NEW LONDON — Fifty years later, and the image of a friend and hunting companion’s face sinking below the water as his hat floated up remains as painful as the day it happened.
“I just can’t get that out of my mind,” said Gary Dahlberg, 76, of New London.
Dahlberg remains willing to tell of the tragic duck hunting accident on Oct. 26, 1969, that took the life of Harold Miller at age 55, and very nearly took the lives of Dahlberg and his father, Dennis. He knows it is a precautionary tale worth repeating for waterfowl hunters on the importance of wearing a life jacket.
There was not a life jacket in the 14-foot aluminum boat that Dahlberg, his father and Harold Miller took out on Monongalia Lake north of New London on that fateful day. Dahlberg, 26 at the time, and his father, 53 at the time, were avid waterfowl hunters who knew the lake well.
Dahlberg said they had just finished a Sunday meal at his parents' home overlooking the lake, then known as Mud Lake, when Miller telephoned. Miller was the Kandiyohi County treasurer. Taxes were due Nov. 1, and because of that, he knew this was his last opportunity to get out duck hunting.
Father and son had been out hunting one day earlier, with limited luck. Sunday was a windy day, and they hesitated because of it. “Harold talked us into it,’’ said Dahlberg.
They motored out from the New London hunting camp on the south shore to their favorite bog in the main body of the lake. As was their practice, they shoved 14-foot-long, ironwood poles into the bottom muck for the blinds they used to hide the boat. One of the six ironwood poles they used was newly cut and green.
The wind picked up through the day, and the temperature started a slide that would take it to 26 degrees shortly after nightfall. Dahlberg said the hunters managed seven ducks among them.
The slow action gave them time for lots of chatter, and one notable laugh. A mouse had apparently been hiding in one of the blinds they had unrolled. It startled Harold as it sped across his lap. Dennis Dahlberg laughed, caught it, and tossed it out. It clung to a reed. “That little guy is going to have a long winter,” Dahlberg said his dad remarked.
“Half an hour later we were doing the same thing as that mouse,” said Dahlberg.
They picked up the blinds and decoys as darkness descended and began to motor back.
They were treated to a once-in-a-lifetime sight. Thousands of mud hens started rising and circling like a whirlwind around the lake, starting a nighttime migration.
Dahlberg said Miller was cold. They tucked him in the very front of the boat under the blinds.
As the stern of the boat and its five-horsepower motor rode a large wave, the front end stabbed into the next wave like a diving submarine. “We tipped over so fast. It just happened so fast. You don’t get time to think,” said Dahlberg.
With six layers of clothing, Dahlberg said he didn’t immediately feel the cold of the water. He and his father got Harold on to the overturned boat. He was atop of it on hands and knees, clinging for life. Dennis pulled himself up on the stern of the boat, while Gary was on the front.
“And there we sat, just not knowing what was going to happen,’’ said Dahlberg. With no life jackets, they knew they had to hang on.
The overturned boat stayed in place despite the wind and waves. The newly cut ironwood pole had not floated away like the other poles. Like a pole vaulter's pole, it had gotten punched into the lake mud and caught on one of the upside down boat seats, anchoring the boat in place. The three knew they weren’t moving because the decoys that had fallen out of the boat stayed by them. Their small weights had unwound and anchored them.
Dahlberg said they figured that Harold Miller was probably atop the overturned boat with them for a half hour before it happened.
Suddenly, Harold gave out a loud grunt and went into the water right opposite of Dahlberg. He said Harold was in the water, about eight feet away, staring at him with glass eyes. “And I’m screaming ‘swim, Harold, swim!’”
“He didn’t even wiggle an arm. He didn’t do anything. I think he had a heart attack,” said Dahlberg.
The effects of hypothermia progressed. At first, Dahlberg said his legs cramped and tightened with painful charley horses as he attempted to kick and stay buoyant. Soon, his entire body was shaking and heaving with cold. His hands turned blue. Although he had wet gloves in his coat pocket, he didn’t dare take even one hand from his hold on the boat.
“You get to a mellow state where you don’t feel hardly anything anymore,” he said.
Dahlberg at the time had been married for only 2½ years and had a 1-year-old son. He couldn’t help but think of the repercussions on his new family should he die. But it is exactly what father and son anticipated. “You don’t have a chance to live. It’s hopeless,’’ he said.
From their talk, he said he realized his father preferred to die first, so he wouldn’t see his son go. “We said our goodbyes, we said our prayers. Did a little crying,” he said.
But they clung to the overturned boat, and continued to holler as best they could. Dahlberg said at one point he convinced his father not to try and right the boat, fearful they would drown in the trying.
“I remember thinking of that first gulp of water, what that was going to be like,” he said.
They had no idea that while they fought for their lives, Gary Dahlberg’s uncle, Dick “Tully” Miller and his wife, Betty, had finished up a warm meal at the Cedar Inn, located in what is now the Three Sisters store at the intersection of Highways 9 and 71. Dahlberg said his uncle drove to his father’s house after dinner to see how the hunters had fared. When he learned they weren’t back, he knew.
Tully Miller drove to the shore of the New London hunting camp from which the trio had launched their boat that afternoon. He parked on the hill overlooking the lake. Dahlberg said he and his father saw the headlights of Miller's car beaming over the water, but they were losing their mental capabilities to hypothermia. His father thought some “idiot” was probably sitting at the camp and listening to the radio, like a lot of people did when waiting during the day to see how the hunting was going.
They heard a motor and forgot about it. They learned later that Tully Miller had motored to the bog where they had hunted, didn’t find them, cut his motor and heard their cries for help.
“I remember seeing this black blob above me. I put my arm up and boom, I was in that boat like I weighed an ounce,” said Dahlberg. His uncle happened to have the largest boat kept on the lake but he was still risking his life to venture out in the waves and dark alone, with no life jacket or flashlight either.
Miller hoisted father and son from the water, and boated them to the hunting camp. Dahlberg crawled up the hill to their car, started it and passed out, the door left open. His father crawled out of the boat, put his head on shore and collapsed unconscious.
Miller sped to the Ernie and Etta Bowles house on the south shore to reach a phone and summon help. There, two New London men, Del Haverly and Charlie Dahl, were having their ducks cleaned. They hopped in their vehicle to retrieve the two victims of hypothermia and get them home.
Dahlberg said his father was so frozen he was unable to even move his arm. He rode home with it sticking out of the men’s car.
At the house, a State Patrol trooper stuck a thermometer in Dahlberg’s mouth and the mercury did not budge. An ambulance ride brought father and son to Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar, where they recovered under warm blankets while being fed broth and hot cocoa.
Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Deputy George Couleur learned from Dahlberg at the hospital where Miller had gone into the water in relation to the boat. At 11:15 p.m., his body was recovered in eight feet of water, according to a West Central Tribune news report.
The tragedy affected many. Miller was a husband and father and well-liked and well-known. He had helped manage the Sears store in Willmar, served on the City Council and for three terms as mayor. He was active in a wide range of civic organizations.
Dahlberg said the blinds they had in the boat had floated away, but they learned later they were found submerged before reaching shore. He said he had thought of trying to grab one and floating with it.
A .50-caliber machine gun box that he used to store his ammunition and duck calls and other goods floated to shore, and was found sometime later with just an inch of it sticking above the water. That same box survived a fire several years ago that destroyed the family’s home.
Dahlberg said he has decided it will serve someday as his cremation urn.
Father and son returned to hunt ducks on the lake the next year. Dahlberg continues to hunt waterfowl on the lake to this day, but he does so in a boat 6 feet wide and 18 feet long. It can’t be tipped, he said.
Of course, there’s no going on the water without life jackets.
And yes, he knows there are still rescues performed on the lake. It was just a few years ago that his son, Michael, pulled in a couple of guys who were standing atop their sunken boat. One of the victims had been able to call Michael and give him his location just as his water-soaked mobile phone died.