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Survival on Leech Lake

As told by my son, Layne LaRue, who experienced

The Edmund Fitzgerald went down on Lake Superior when “the winds of November came early.”

At 4 a.m., Rusty Lilyquist, Troy Beltrand and I, Tessa, my chocolate Lab, and Rensy, Rusty’s yellow Lab, were going on an exhilarating duck-hunting excursion.

It was cold (25 degrees), windy, wet, and blacker than the bowels of hell. Shivering and cussing, exchanging loud banter, and in good spirits, we proceeded, boat pitching and rolling, in search of adventure. It was to come more than we knew.

About four miles out, Rusty’s panicky voice sounded. “#*&!, there’s water coming in over the top of my boots!” We were swamped; the back of the boat level with the water surface. The bilge pump hadn’t been turned on. The next wave turned the boat upside down, and the three of us, our dogs, and all our expensive equipment were dumped into the icy, pounding water.

Rusty managed to wedge himself in between the motor and boat, only his head above water. I was near the front and got two fingers in the winch loop. Troy was clawing his way to the top of the boat. There was nothing for him to grab.

I yelled for Tessa. She came swimming, and I flung her on top of the boat where she scratched frantically to stand up. Rensy was in the water part of the time, and part of the time she stood on Troy. I thought about how hard this must be on Rusty. He had been in an accident and had broken his back, neck and arm.

I realized I couldn’t cling to the boat with just those two fingers, and then it dawned on me to use Tessa’s collar, which I cinched tightly on my wrist. Troy, on top of the boat, was not in good shape. He lay flat on his back like a cadaver, eyes open, cold waves washing over him.

We spent an eternity out there in that dark howling water, praying silently, because the cacophony of the wind and waves made it hard to communicate. Then suddenly, thanks to God, a 16-foot DNR boat materialized out of the mist and swirling waters. Tessa tried to get in the boat, but she was pushed aside. Tessa struck for shore. She was tired of this stupid adventure. No amount of calling could turn her back. I prayed she’d make it.

It was Rusty’s turn next, and his weight nearly swamped the boat, so they hung him over the side and dragged him to shore until his feet touched bottom. That left me out there by myself. At the crest of a tall wave, I could see a tiny brown blob running back and forth on shore. Tessa had made it!

With Rusty off the back of the boat, the front end started to go down with me attached to it. I thrashed and flailed, gulping in water. My waders were filling with water. I was under water, lungs burning, thinking I was about to lose after all. Then my legs suddenly touched rocks. I had been blown into shallow water. I stood up straight and walked the boat into shore.

We had come ashore right at a little resort owned by Rusty’s relatives. They stripped us down and wrapped us in blankets. Rusty was taken to the hospital by ambulance and Troy to a different hospital. I was in okay shape and was taken to my truck. I just wanted to go home. First, I had to see if Rusty was all right. Tessa and I struck across country. While driving, I called my wife to tell her about our experience, sobbing as I told her the details.

I walked into Rusty’s hospital room and we both started sobbing, hugging tightly, as much as our element-ravaged muscles would allow. The next time we met, we would be our old macho selves, but this day we just damn happy to be alive. Thankfully Troy’s okay too, owing his life to Rusty, who managed to hold him on top of that boat.

We all have a new respect for Leech Lake, and on this day when the winds of November came early, she was cheated of her prize.

Post note: When I went back the next day a fellow said, “Boy, that yellow Lab was sure something. I wondered why the yellow dog (Rensy) was singled out and why wasn’t my Tessa mentioned?

To our amazement we heard that Rensy made it back to shore long before we realized and set up a frenzied barking at a cabin. He created such a ruckus that the owner looked out and saw, far out on the water, a brown dog appeared to be standing on a wave. Tessa was the only one visible standing on top of the boat. The man knew there was an overturned boat. A wonderful yellow dog running frantically up and down the water’s edge had alerted him. The man called 911 just as the DNR appeared, and help was on the way, thanks to Rensy.

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