By Carl Cooley
A Chetek man was rescued from the frigid waters of Lake Chetek after he broke through the ice when he was thrown from his ATV on Monday afternoon, Jan. 7.
Bruce Kamrath, who taught high school band in Chetek for 30 years, said the following day, Tuesday, Jan. 8, that felt lucky to be alive. He was truly thankful.
Much of that thanks went to a former student of his, Wade LeMoine, and unnamed others who stopped to help, along with the emergency responders.
A longtime fisherman of the lakes, Kamrath was venturing out to go ice fishing. In that area of Lake Chetek, just south of the Pokegama Bridge, a pressure ridge often forms in the ice. It’s a weak spot, but Kamrath said he had seen vehicles drive over that area a few days before. It was an area he had crossed many times before.
“I’ve driven over it a thousand times,” Kamrath said, and he figured he could give his ATV a bit of gas and drive over it. But as he did, the plow on the front of his ATV caught the ice and dug in, throwing him over the handlebars and onto the ice. He broke through and went beneath the ice. Somehow, he managed to resurface.
It was frigid water, Kamrath said, and his boots and gear quickly became heavy with water. His ATV helmet restricted his movement and breathing, too. He tried to pull himself up onto the ice, but each time he did, it broke underneath him.
While the ATV had broken through into shallow water above a sandbar, Kamrath had been thrown into deeper water, and with the heavy gear, he couldn’t swim back to the ATV. He tried to touch the bottom, but felt nothing beneath his feet.
“I thought I was going to die,” Kamrath said.
He struggled for minutes, he said, feeling numbness creep into his arms and legs, but he managed to get a hold on a large chunk of ice with one hand. There, he waited, watching two cars drive past on the Pokegama Bridge.
LeMoine was on his way into work and noticed the ATV as he crossed the bridge. Slowing down to look, he then noticed the man in the water. He turned around, parked and called 911. Then he grabbed a tow strap from his pickup and ran out to the man.
LeMoine is taking the training classes at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College to become a firefighter and is on the Chetek Fire Department.
“We’ve had ice-water rescue training. I sprawled out as much as possible,” LeMoine said. He knew that he had to distribute his weight on the ice as much as possible to not break through as he approached Kamrath.
He threw the tow strap to Kamrath, who wrapped it around his arm.
“Then, I was pulling for dear life—pulling and pulling and pulling—trying to get him halfway up,” LeMoine said. But the ice was slick and he kept sliding toward Kamrath.
“Luckily there were other people there that helped me get him out,” LeMoine said. Other people had stopped to help and they tied another tow strap to LeMoine’s legs. Pulling together, they were able to pull Kamrath out of the water and to shore.
At first, LeMoine did not recognize his former band teacher as he still had his helmet on. Taking it off, Kamrath told his former student he no longer needed any more band lessons.
The Chetek Ambulance Service, Chetek firefighters, First Responders, a Chetek police officer and a Barron County sheriff’s deputy were there quickly. They helped Kamrath up the bank and into a waiting ambulance, where he was taken to an area hospital.
“Doctors said my core was down to 30 degrees Celsius [86 degrees Fahrenheit],” Kamrath said, and he required three hours of recovery as they warmed his body back up. The human body is normally 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), meaning Kamrath’s body temperature was considered critically low.
Chetek firefighters were able to use the ATV’s winch and ropes to pull the machine back onto the ice. It was still running. LeMoine brought Kamrath’s ice fishing gear to his house while he was in the hospital. Much of his gear was ruined, but Kamrath wasn’t upset about that. He was happy to be alive.
“I am so thankful that Wade knew what he was doing. He did everything right,” Kamrath said.
Kamrath and LeMoine said they have talked after the incident.
LeMoine added he looked up to Kamrath growing up and it was an “out of body experience” to be able to help him in this way.
“I’m just glad to hear he’s doing okay and doing well,” LeMoine said.