By Joanne M. Haas, WDNR Bureau of Law Enforcement
WDNR Conservation Warden Aaron Koshatka wasn’t thinking about it when he was rescuing canoeists from strong winds and high waves of Lake Hayward, but lessons learned as a recruit during a perilous August 2018 night were put into action as effective and efficient emergency reflexes.
“What I went through in Crawford, and Vernon and Grant counties, it definitely helped me,” Warden Aaron said, reflecting upon how he reacted to pull several canoeists to safety on May 31. “There were a lot of take-aways from those recruit training experiences I know how to do now.”
Among those benefitting from the warden’s recruit lessons were children and adults who were on an outing that went awry in strong current and cold water. A witness saw canoes flip and called 911 after observing the passengers could not get back in.
Warden Koshatka and a frequent duty partner, Sawyer County Recreation Officer Craig DePew, answered the call.
“Your mind goes a million miles an hour and you just move,” Koshatka said, adding he was glad to have DePew with him, as he is well-versed on the county’s numerous waters. “On our end, we were very well-organized, and our goal was not to waste any time.”
The officers rescued four shivering teenagers and one adult from the water and gathered two more teens who were beached with a canoe under a Highway 77 bridge. Thankfully, all had life jackets. The strong wind and high waves, coupled with inexperience, were too much for the school group to handle and the canoes flipped. Without life jackets, the outcome could have been much worse, a great reminder for those involved and others who enjoy boating.
“Once back on land, we did a head count to ensure all were accounted for. We asked if anyone needed medical attention – and that was it,” Koshatka said.
In the days that followed the Lake Hayward rescues, Koshatka realized what he learned during his recruit training with Warden Cody Adams in Crawford County on dangerous flood rescues after dark, and more rescues in Vernon and Grant counties, came through in how he handled the Lake Hayward incident.
“Things like just knowing how to pull someone into the boat. Knowing all of us wardens should carry our own throw bag in the boat. How to toss an anchor and be able to grab the person we need to rescue,” he said.
In August 2018, then-DNR recruit warden Koshatka was in his third week working with Adams when he went on night rescue missions in Crawford and Vernon counties after torrential rains pushed the Kickapoo River into La Farge and Viola.
While veteran wardens classified that night as among the scariest of their careers, Koshatka called it an eye-opener. One of his roles was in the front of an airboat watching in the dark watching for obstacles. That included looking up to avoid the power lines right above their heads as the airboat passed beneath.
“Cody’s airboat sits so high in the water the power lines were right over our heads as we passed.”
With help from the Viola Fire Department, Koshatka also muscled the boat in place at the doors and windows of homes, so residents and pets could be ushered into the airboat.
Lessons learned, lessons in action for emergencies that arrive with no warning.
Now, Warden Koshatka is stationed in the Northwoods of Sawyer County, where he hoped he would land – not far from his childhood home in Polk County.
“There is so much water here, I could be at a lake a day and still not get to them all,” he said.
Wherever he goes, the lessons of Crawford County are with him. And that’s good news for everyone.