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Published April 05, 2009, 12:34 AM

Life well within his grasp

Man spends 45 minutes in icy Lake Superior, lives to tell about it

By: Sam Cook, INFORUM

Duluth, Minn.

Gary Pederson had worn his fingers raw and bloody on the ice, but he just couldn’t manage to pull himself out of the frigid waters of Lake Superior.

Pederson, 66, had gone through the ice of the big lake in March near Cornucopia, Wis., when his all-terrain vehicle plunged through a patch of rotten ice. But he’s alive today thanks to his eventual rescue by five other Lake Superior anglers and subsequent medical attention.

A retired machinist from Foxboro, Wis., near the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, Pederson was in the water for 40 to 45 minutes, according to the estimates of other anglers. He was suffering hypothermia, and his body’s core temperature had plummeted to 84 degrees, said Jo Pufahl, assistant head nurse for St. Mary’s LifeFlight, which transported Pederson to St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth.

“If you get down to 80, you’re pretty much dead,” Pufahl said. “He was pretty much right there on the border of being almost dead as far as temperature goes.”

Pederson had been fishing with friend Jim Natvik, 24, of the Town of Superior, Wis., off the tip of Bark Point near Cornucopia. Pederson had left alone to deliver some lake trout fillets to friends in Cornucopia.

He was traveling about 25 mph across the ice when he hit the bad ice and his ATV went down. He found himself floating in the water, surrounded by honeycombed ice. Pederson was wearing a foam-lined Stearns Float Coat, which acts as a personal flotation device and offered him some measure of insulation.

Because it was a Monday, few anglers were on the ice. But Mark Utyro, 55, of Solon Springs, Wis., and his triplet sons, 15, were fishing about 1.5 miles away on Bark Bay at midday when son Cody thought he heard someone calling for help.

Utyro and sons Cody, Caleb and Corey quickly hopped on their snowmobiles and drove toward where they thought they had heard the faint voice. They saw Pederson floating in the water.

Utyro threw Pederson a ski rope that Utyro had carried for years in case of just such an emergency.

“I told him, ‘We’re gonna get you out of here. It’s not your time to die,’ ” Utyro said.

But not just yet.

“He was able to grab onto the rope, but there was no way we could pull him out of the water,” Utyro said.

Fortune was on Pederson’s side. That day, for reasons Utyro still doesn’t understand, he had towed a friend’s 14-foot aluminum johnboat onto the lake just for safety’s sake. Utyro had never hauled the boat with him before.

Utyro pushed the bow of the boat into the open water around Pederson. With the boys on the back of the boat, Utyro tried to pull Pederson into the boat. That didn’t work, either.

At that time, Natvik arrived, worried that something must have happened to his partner. Utyro and Natvik, working together in the bow of the boat, were unable to lift Pederson aboard.

Finally, they tied one end of the ski rope to the boat and the other to a snowmobile. One of the boys fired up the machine and pulled the boat away from the open water. With Utyro and Natvik clinging to Pederson’s arms, they pulled Pederson to solid ice.

“The man’s fingernails were off. His hands were just bloody,” Utyro said. “The guy was incoherent but moving around a little.”

Pederson was unable to sit up on a snowmobile, so the others packed coats around him and tied him to Natvik, who drove the snowmobile about a half-mile to shore.

Utyro called 911 on his cell phone from the ice and emergency responders arrived quickly, followed by the LifeFlight helicopter.

“I had a sense of determination,” he said. “I was really fighting to get out.”

He doesn’t remember feeling cold, he said.

He didn’t panic, and he didn’t call for help until he had been in the water for several minutes, realizing he probably couldn’t get out himself.

“When I started calling for help, I thought maybe I might not make it,” he said.

“It’s a true miracle,” said Beverly Pederson, Gary’s wife.

The Duluth News Tribune and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

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