Angel on the Ice: Born out of tragedy, Ashland’s ice rescue craft continues to make a difference

Angel on the Ice: Born out of tragedy, Ashland’s ice rescue craft continues to make a difference
Published: Feb. 8, 2023 at 6:25 PM CST
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ASHLAND, WI -- One cold day in 1991, 16-year-old Dan Bochler was out on Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay when the ice gave out underneath him.

“The Dan Bochler incident occurred long before my career here at Ashland fire,” said Captain Matt Spangler with the Ashland Fire Department, “I believe he was out fishing and found himself in the lake.”

The Ashland Fire Department quickly arrived at the scene to try and rescue Bochler.

They tragically realized the boy was too far out on the ice to save him.

“He drowned before he could be rescued by our department staff at the time,” Spangler said.

The tragic loss rocked the department to its core.

“In the years after that incident, that was kind of a spurring moment for the ice rescue program,” Spangler said.

According to the captain, the incident sparked a years-long fundraising campaign, as the department tried to make sure a death like Bochler’s would never happen again.

Finally, in 2003, they nailed down funding for a new craft that would help them safely traverse the treacherous waters of Chequamegon Bay: The Ashland Ice Angel, which they nicknamed the “Dan B.”

“It was named after Dan Bochler in memory of him,” Spangler said.

In the 20 years since it was commissioned the craft has performed dozens of rescues on Lake Superior’s South Shore.

Lieutenant Kurt Blakeman told us the Ice Angel has made their jobs safer, quicker, and much more effective.

“When a fisherman or someone gets stranded out on the ice or off the ice, there’s nothing that can go out into the water and back onto the ice. This craft allows us to do that,” he said.

Blakeman said many rescues can be done from shore, but every once in a while, an angler gets stuck far out on the ice.

“This is typically somewhere where the fishermen are going to be a lot further out, something that would take hours or an hour to get to. This allows us to get out there quickly if the ice breaks through,” he said.

That time is extremely valuable when the person they’re rescuing might be experiencing hypothermia.

“Hypothermia can set in very quickly and cause you to not only become unconscious but lose all your ability to use your arms, your legs, your motor skills, your thinking skills,” Spangler said.

Each year, the department trains to make sure its rescues operate like a well-oiled machine.

“On a normal rescue, we’re going to have four people on it. So we’ll have the pilot who’s driving, the navigator sits in the front seat,” Blakeman said, “then we have two people in the back. We call them the swimmers. So those are the two people that are going to go out and do the rescue.”

Once the Ice Angel safely arrives on the scene, it’s up to the firefighters and EMTs to do the rest.

“We’ll get them off the ice into the back of our ambulance and will expose them to a warm environment. How cold they are will determine how much we warm them up,” Blakeman said.

Once the victim is safely on shore, the Ice Angel has done its job.

It’s a dangerous and tedious process, but the specialty craft makes it much easier.

“Many similar-sized departments probably don’t have a craft like this or if they do, they have something that’s certainly not as large,” said Spangler.

Spangler says each time they’ve performed a rescue, the Ice Angel has made a difference for their department and the people they save.

One rescue, in particular, sticks out in Spangler’s mind.

“When our crews were talking to the victim at a later date, once the stress and shock wore off he confessed that he’d made his peace. He thought for sure he was going to die and then looked up and saw our craft come in. That finally gave him hope again,” Spangler said, “Without the Ice Angel, they would not have been saved.”

While the craft hasn’t performed any rescues this year, the department said it’s ready to go anytime the Ice Angel is needed.