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Vehicle at the bottom of the lake? Minn. dive team explains process

A Suburban that broke through thin ice Christmas Eve on Little Detroit Lake is nearly back on the ice Saturday, Jan. 6, during a salvage operation conducted by Tri-State Diving of Detroit Lakes, Minn. Tri-State Diving / Special to Forum News Service1 / 5
An SUV that sank to the bottom of Little Detroit Lake on Christmas Eve is raised from the depths with an extractor device Saturday, Jan. 6, by workers from Tri-State Diving in Detroit Lakes, Minn. Tri-State Diving / Special to Forum News Service2 / 5
A crew from Tri-State Diving in Detroit Lakes, Minn., moves the extractor (SUVE) up into position Saturday, Jan. 6, to retrieve a vehicle on Little Detroit Lake that had fallen through thin ice Christmas Eve. Tri-State Diving / Special to Forum News Service3 / 5
The big blip on Gary Thompson's Humminbird depthfinder and side imager betrayed the presence of a side-by-side vehicle resting in 14 feet of water on the bottom of Lake of the Woods. Tri-State Diving / Special to Forum News Service4 / 5
Gary Thompson of Tri-State Diving in Detroit Lakes, Minn., has been diving more than 50 years. He's shown here after wrapping up a June 2016 salvage on Lake of the Woods. The red truck in the background broke through thin ice March 12, 2016 and sank into 29 feet of water. Tri-State was hired to retrieve the truck and three other vehicles that day. Tri-State Diving / Special to Forum News Service5 / 5

DETROIT LAKES, Minn.—Ask Gary Thompson why people break through the ice, and he'll say they usually don't do a good enough job of testing it before they venture out.

There's more to "reading" ice than measuring how thick it is. The Eskimos have more than 100 different words for snow, Thompson says. And while his vocabulary for describing ice is less extensive, it's no less accurate.

There's clear, black ice; milky ice; honeycomb ice—which is fairly good until there no longer is water visible on top of it, Thompson says—and finally, there's the ice he puts in the "oh (expletive)" category.

"That's when you go through," he says.

Owner of Tri-State Diving in Detroit Lakes, Thompson, 69, often gets the call when people experience the sinking feeling that results when vehicles, fish houses, ATVs, snowmobiles and who knows what else end up on the bottom of the lake or river.

Thompson, who in 2008 was featured on an episode of "Dirty Jobs" with Mike Rowe, recently wrapped up his 50th year of diving.

The Ada native says he's pretty much seen it all over the years.

"What we're finding now, more than anything else, is side-by-sides, four-wheelers and the big-wheel fish houses" breaking through the ice, Thompson said. "People are getting smarter in some ways—they're not taking a three-quarter ton pickup or 1-ton 'dualie' (pickup with dual wheels) out there and pulling their houses around on the ice. They just get too much weight in a small area."

Busy season

Thompson, who aptly is nicknamed "Seal," says Tri-State Diving does anywhere from 10 to 15 salvage operations in a typical winter. As of mid-January, the company already had pulled nine ATVs, vehicles or fish houses from lakes across the region, and more jobs await them when weather conditions improve.

"It's getting to be more and more because of how well we're getting known and insurance companies calling us direct," Thompson said. "'Dirty Jobs' put us on the map."

Tri-State shoots photos or video of all of its retrieval jobs and posts the footage on Facebook, Thompson said, which also helps to spread the word.

"Plus, there are a lot of the areas where conservation officers know the kind of work we do, and they refer (people) to us," he said.

Tri-State uses a device called a SUVE (pronounced soo-vee)—which stands for Submerged Underwater Vehicle Extractor—for retrieving vehicles. In very basic terms, the SUVE is like a big teeter totter with a winch on the top to raise whatever's submerged to the surface. Thompson has patents on both the apparatus and the teeter-totter concept it employs, he says.

"It's just two rails (the vehicle) rides up, and once it's up on top and gets past center, we just bring it down on the ice," Thompson said.

A foot to 2 feet of ice is preferred for retrieving a vehicle with the SUVE, Thompson says, but he also has used it on 9 to 10 inches of clear ice.

For smaller vehicles, the crew uses a lighter bipod apparatus. Safety is paramount to everything they do, Thompson says.

"We don't move anything until we determine how good the ice is," he said. "We'll use the bipod on about 4 or 5 inches of ice and bring up an ATV. If it's a side-by-side (vehicle), then I usually need about 6 inches of ice to bring them up safely."

A typical vehicle recovery using the SUVE takes 3 to 4 hours while ATVs and snowmobiles typically take no more than an hour or two, Thompson says. The crew, which varies from three to five or more depending on the size of the job, tries to avoid working in extreme weather, he says.

"I'd rather have a day with 0 degrees and no wind than a day that's 30 degrees and wind," he said. "That wind just bites."

Steps to follow

Thompson says anyone who loses a vehicle or other equipment to bad ice should contact authorities and their insurance company before doing anything else. While some salvage operations charge a flat rate, Thompson says Tri-State charges $2,400 for the first hour and $1,200 for every hour thereafter from the time they hit the lake until they're back on shore with the vehicle.

The goal, Thompson says, is to bring the vehicle back to the surface without any more damage than it sustained when it sank.

The vehicle might be totaled, but it's worth less to a salvage company if the metal's not usable, he says.

"We work real good with insurance companies," Thompson said. "Once I get a claim number, it makes it a lot easier for the client than to all of a sudden pull (the vehicle) out and give this huge bill to the insurance company, and they're going, 'why did you go this route?'"

Full-coverage policies will pay the cost of the extraction and replacing the vehicle, minus deductibles. Some liability insurance policies may cover the cost of removal, as well, but that's something people who do a lot of ice driving should confirm with their insurers.

Despite popular belief, full coverage for dropping a vehicle through the ice isn't a one-time thing, Thompson says; not for most insurance companies, at least."

"The only way they could (not pay) is if they put a waiver on that it's not covered if you go on the ice," Thompson said. "But then, I guess I would look for a different insurance company if you're going to go out there fishing."

Changing workload

While vehicle and fish house extractions dominate the winter workload, summer tends to be more commercial jobs, such as underwater cutting, power plant projects, working for the Department of Natural Resources or other agencies and looking for jewelry or other items of value, Thompson says. Occasionally, though, the Tri-State crew raises vehicles to the surface and tows them back to shore in open water. Such was the case on Lake of the Woods in June 2016, when Tri-State salvaged two vehicles that had broken through honeycomb ice that March.

"If we've got ice we can work on, I prefer to work on the ice because I can put my machine up," Thompson said. "The other way, we drop down, float them up with lift bags, get them to the surface and then we just tow them to shore with boats."

Side- and down-imaging technology such as Humminbird's Onix and Solix units has made the job easier, Thompson says. In one case, a boat that sank to the bottom of Pelican Lake in 34 feet of water was more than half a mile from where they'd been told it was, Thompson says.

Watching the electronics revealed not only the outline of the boat and how it was situated on the bottom of the lake but also showed a big fish about 2 feet above the sunken craft.

"It just makes the job so much easier to have these new electronics," Thompson said. "We would have been diving for days."

From mid-January until ice-out, driving too close to shore, especially in areas where cattails cause conditions to deteriorate, or anywhere there's current are among the more common reasons people run into trouble, Thompson says. Fish such as tullibees, which tend to school up high in the water column, also can weaken the ice.

Going too fast on the ice with larger vehicles is a problem any time of the winter, he says, and not because of traction issues.

"We still have people out there who feel the faster you go, the less problems you're going to have," Thompson said. "And it's just the opposite. You're creating a wave under there, and that's what destroys the ice. If I see someone going hell bent for leather across the ice—well, you're an idiot if you do that, you're stupid—I'm going to find a different route to go."

• On the Web:

Tri-statediving.com.

Facebook.com and search for "Tri-State Diving."

TAKE IT FROM SEAL

Here are some do's and don'ts for driving on the ice from Gary "Seal" Thompson, owner of Tri-State Diving in Detroit Lakes, Minn.:

• Do test the ice before venturing out to make sure it's thick enough to support the weight of whatever you'll be driving. Remember milky or honeycomb ice isn't as strong as clear, black ice.

• Don't drive too fast on the ice with larger vehicles; keep the speed to no more than 10 or 15 mph. "We still have people out there that feel the faster you go, the less problems you're going to have, and it's just the opposite," Thompson says. "You're creating a wave underneath there, and that's what destroys the ice."

• Do avoid areas with cattails, which can weaken the ice, and current areas where the ice is always thinner.

• Do call authorities and your insurance company immediately after dropping a vehicle through the ice. As owner of an extraction business, Thompson says it's easier to work through the process if he has a claim number before starting the job.

• Do use the same GPS you used to mark the location of the sunken item—if you used one—when going out to find and retrieve the item. "You're always going to be more accurate," Thompson said. "Even if it's the same (GPS) brand, if you're punching the coordinates in, it's not the same as having the unit you're out there with. ... The coordinates might be off 15 or 20 feet. If you use the same one, you're going to be a lot more consistent."

-- Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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