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How U.P. tow company found 4 snowmobiles that plunged through Lake Superior's ice

Feb 07, 2018 06:45AM ● Published by Editor

Photo courtesy of U.P. Wilderness Towing

By Tanda Gmiter of mlive.com - February 7, 2018  tgmiter@mlive.com

 
MUNISING - Skip Rutter's U.P. Wilderness Towing gets the occasional winter call about someone's snowmobile going through thin ice on an inland lake.

But when he was hired last weekend to find four snowmobiles that had plunged through the ice on Lake Superior near Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, he knew his team might have to get a little creative with the recovery effort.

"This is the first Lake Superior one we've ever done," said Rutter, who also owns Skip's Auto Repair in Munising.

No one was hurt on Saturday, Feb. 3, when five snowmobilers drove their machines onto thin ice near Grand Island. Four riders broke through and managed to pull themselves out of the water. The fifth rider called for help. The others were rescued by authorities and taken to shore.

But not the four snowmobiles. Two were completely submerged, and two had pieces sticking out above the ice.

Rutter and his crew started the recovery effort Sunday. They finally finished the job on Tuesday afternoon. They wrapped it up with a little help from Mother Nature and a lot of guidance from Paul VanLandSchoot, one of the area's longtime fisherman who knows the ins and outs of the mighty Superior.

Since Rutter couldn't take his big wrecker with its hydraulic lift onto the lake, his crew had to think lean. They used a "come-along," or a winch run by hand to pull the first three sleds out of the water. Two were easily spotted and the third was sitting in about 12 feet of water.

The fourth was trickier. First they had to find it. They called in a diver from Marquette who located it near a drop-off in about 45 feet of water. He found it Monday, but with only three hours of daylight left, they had to wait until Tuesday to recover it.

Searching for the fourth snowmobile. Photo courtesy of U.P. Wilderness Towing Company


They devised a way to haul it underwater. Rutter said they cut a hole over the spot where the sled sat, and the diver went down and hooked it with a rope. The diver then swam underwater, closer to shore, carrying the length of rope, and came up through a second hole.

They threaded the snowmobile under the ice, pulling it toward the near-shore hole with a battery-powered winch hooked to a tree. When it was in sight, they brought it up through the ice.

"Snowmobiles pull way easier under the water," Rutter said.

All four sleds had to wait on Grand Island for the ice to get thicker between there and the Munising mainland.

"We had to wait until we had enough ice to safety get them. In the last two days, the lake made maybe 4 inches of ice."

By Tuesday, conditions were safe to tow the machines and load them onto a flatbed.

Rutter said he worked with a great team, and got stellar advice from VanLandschoot, who for years was part of VanLandschoot & Sons Fishery.

"Nobody knows the lake better than that guy," Rutter said.

As for the waterlogged sleds, will they run again?

Rutter says he'll wait to hear. Once the machines were back on land, the crews pulled their plugs and pushed water from the cylinders. There's no apparent damage on the exteriors.

"They look just like when they went in," he said, adding the owners indicated they planned to repair them.

And now Rutter's got another first in the books. If he gets another Lake Superior call, he'll be ready.

"We learned a lot. Next time will go way easier. There is nothing cut-and-dried with working underwater."

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Lake Superior Ice Coverage Map. Click on map to enlarge. [GLERL Ice Concentration for Lake Superior]

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