A Story of Survival: Duck Hunter Remembers the Day He Almost Died

It takes only a split-second for a waterfowl hunt to turn deadly. Learn from this true-life story of survival.

A Story of Survival: Duck Hunter Remembers the Day He Almost Died

Summer is giving way to fall, and while some waterfowlers are pursuing teal during special early September seasons, most duck and goose hunters won’t hit it hard for another few weeks. As you go through gear to prep for your first waterfowl hunt of 2021, please check to ensure you have a functioning life jacket (personal flotation device — pfd) for every hunter who will be traveling on the water.

While waterfowlers will toss life jackets into the boat to satisfy legal requirements, unfortunately they rarely wear them, even late in the season on big water. I understand that a pfd can be bulky and cumbersome to wear, especially over a heavy jacket and waders. Rowing a duck boat or placing decoys while wearing a pfd is a hassle. I’ve been there — I get it. But think about the situation this way: If you won’t wear a pfd for yourself, then do it for the people who want you — need you — to return safely.

The story below happened to a few duck hunting buddies of mine back in 1984. Every detail is true. It was written as a social media post by my friend Dan, in a tribute to our buddy John, who’s currently on a ventilator fighting for his life due to Covid-19. (The reason for his post will make sense as you read it.) If you learn only one lesson from Dan’s story, it’s always wear a life jacket in a duck boat. Take it off when you’re on shore and shooting, but put it back on when you head away from shore in the boat — even if it’s just for a few minutes to retrieve a duck.

Below is my friend’s post:

Dan here — again — and I'm going to tell a true story about John’s determination; forgive me if some of you have heard it before.

John saved my life back in 1984. This is my recollection/perspective of the situation. When John awakes, he can make corrections. But the gist of this story is how it demonstrates his will to persevere — against all odds. I will make the story as short as possible.

John, Erik and I went duck hunting on Lake Puposky (see map below). It was a cold morning, as we broke ice to get on the lake. We were in John’s 12-foot duck boat and had his beautiful, little Brittany Spaniel along named Brandy.

We were on an island, the big one, halfway down the east side. There were duck hunters on the island’s south point, as well.

Lake Puposky in north-central Minnesota. Dan, John and Erik were hunting off the large island on the east (right) side.
Lake Puposky in north-central Minnesota. Dan, John and Erik were hunting off the large island on the east (right) side.

A lot of divers were in the area — bluebills and ringers. We sailed a duck about 200 yards out, and I said I would go get it.

The duck boat didn’t balance well with only me in the back. The dog was tied into the boat to keep her from running around on the shore. We had life jackets in the boat but I didn't wear mine — yep, a number of poor decisions made.

The wind was blowing out of the west. While searching for the duck, the boat flipped. I immediately grabbed for the dog instead of a life jacket, and in seconds all the life jackets blew away. Tragically, I didn’t get Brandy untied soon enough and she drowned.

Back in those days, boats didn’t have level flotation. The duck boat was barely afloat, with only the front tip of it (upside down) above water level about 2 inches. The small outboard motor was weighing down the back end. If I put my weight on the boat, it slid under and kept going.

Meanwhile, John was at work. He ran south about 3/8ths of a mile, to get the help from the other duck hunters. They were motoring away from the island, and he tried to get their attention with gunshots as their boat drove back to the access on the lake’s southeast end. They didn’t look back.

John didn't quit. He headed north, running past Erik, who was sitting on the beach crying. He ran the length of the island (almost a mile), heading toward the narrows on the north end, looking for other hunters or maybe see a boat. No one else was on the lake.

He decided to swim the narrows at the north end because he saw a farm with buildings on mainland. Hunting clothes on, John began to swim and couldn't make it. He came back to the island, took off his clothes down to his underwear, then tried again, knowing I was surely to succumb to hypothermia before long, if not drown. The wild rice and other vegetation in the lake was bogging him down.

Thoughts ran through my mind as I treaded water. I tried to empty the motor’s gas tank, dumping it into the water, hoping to use the tank for flotation. But when I lifted up the tank, I’d go under.

Plan B: I had to get the outboard motor off the transom. I’d dive under and unscrew the latches as much as I could; I was getting real cold. Tired. After numerous dives, the motor finally came off the transom but then the safety chain still held it to the boat! Now, the motor hung about 14 inches deeper, by the safety chain. I was spent. Done. No more diving.

I would hang onto the boat and it would go under within five seconds. I would release and tread water — getting stiff. Muscles not working that great anymore. Peaceful. Bluebills saw a lone "duck" (my head) out in the middle would buzz me within feet. Things were getting quiet.

I wondered how my parents would take the news? They had already lost one child, now they were going to lose another. I began praying in earnest. Asking for help. Asking for more time. Promises to be a good person. A good son. A good friend.

Things were going dark. I remember, at this point, my vision started to fail. Hypothermia was setting in as blood left my extremities and started to focus on my core — trying to buy time for my body, even though my brain was losing it.

The back of the boat popped up! The chain had somehow become undone. I could, kind of, rest some of my weight on the boat. A tiny bit of time was allowed; prayer answered.

A noise — a motor. I vaguely remember seeing John in a boat, standing in his underwear, and pulling me from the water. I was surely a 210-pound lump (yes, I was in shape back then), but somehow he got me in the boat.

We headed toward the farm. My brain stored only one brief memory of the boat ride. I don't remember a dock, a yard or anything — just a brief memory of how funny John looked, how determined, turning the boat around and heading to shore, driving in his underwear, in late October. It was all surreal.

Later I learned that John had made the swim across the narrows, found a boat with trailer in a barn, stuck a rag in the boat’s drain hole, and after pulling the trailer to the shoreline and launching the boat, he started the motor. Superhuman strength and determination — a never-quit attitude.

I remember going into the farmhouse. John started the oven and sat me in a chair in front of a huge, old-style stove/oven. I wondered whether with all the motor gas stink on me if I’d blow up or start a fire from the gas oven.

I also remember the look on the faces on the older couple as they walked in with a large, young man sitting on their chair, in his tighty-whities, in front of their open oven, my speech/brain barely working, trying to explain. John had left to get that little silver truck of his to drive me back to town and help begin my recovery.

John, with the help of the Good Lord, saved my life. John was determined. He persevered in the face of all odds. He battled. A lot of prayers were answered. "With God all things are possible." (Matthew 19:26)

Pray folks — pray hard. Make it short and sweet; it doesn't have to be some long, drawn-out prayer. Ask God to pull John out of this Covid crisis and get him up on his feet. Say it on your way to work, in your car, say it when you awake and when you go to bed. Pray. Raise him up, Lord! Allow him to get up on his feet again - to teach, to be a parent, spouse and great grandpa. Raise him up oh, Lord.

Too many waterfowl hunters fail to wear a life jacket in the boat, even during late season on big water (above). Don’t make a mistake that could have dire consequences. Instead, put on a life jacket anytime you leave shore in a boat, even on warm sunny days (below).
Too many waterfowl hunters fail to wear a life jacket in the boat, even during late season on big water (above). Don’t make a mistake that could have dire consequences. Instead, put on a life jacket anytime you leave shore in a boat, even on warm sunny days (below).
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