Jan 10, 2019

King of the Lake Ice

After four decades retrieving breached vehicles from the bottom of frozen lakes, Don Herman has more stories than a bookshelf

By Lee Reinsch

Sometimes, the call of the ice cannot be ignored.

Like the song of the Siren, whose irresistible melodies led sailors to their death in Homer’s epic tale of The Odyssey, the appeal of a lake, even a frozen one – wide-open space and the chance to be somewhere normally not accessible – beckons the outdoors enthusiast.

Sometimes, like that of the sailors in the Greek myth, the tale for mere mortals and their vehicles doesn’t end well.

Which is why it’s a good thing that on the eighth day, the gods of the lake created … Sunk?

Sunk? – yes, it’s a question – hauls trucks, cars, ATVs, SUVs, boats, motorcycles, and just about anything else that doesn’t float, out from the lakebed of various bodies of water.

Owner Don Herman once pulled a 72,000-pound semi out of Lake Winnebago on a 10-degree-below-zero night with a minus 25 windchill factor. It took 14 hours, with Herman’s crews working until 6 a.m.

“We had to do it at night because they wouldn’t shut down the highway,” Herman said.

He’s towed out practically brand-new trucks – including somebody’s pride and joy with just 17 miles on the odometer.

“It was a guy whose buddy backed his boat in and didn’t put it all the way in park,” Herman said. “It rolled into the water, all the way over the roof.”

He’s hauled helicopters, schlepped snowmobiles, towed track hoes and bird-dogged beer trucks. He’s even trucked a tree-cutting truck that broke through. It was on the ice, trimming weeping willow trees along the shore.

A scuba diver with decades of experience, Herman has even plucked diamond rings and RayBans off lake bottoms.

“People will lose a $500 pair of sunglasses off a dock someplace and we’ll go dive for them,” he said.

Two summers ago, he hauled out a plane that went into Lake Winnebago during EAA’s annual AirVenture event. Last year, it was a helicopter in the Fox River in Oshkosh.


A mere tadpole

Practically before he could shave, Herman started repairing trucks for his dad’s fishing club in the 1970s. When a vehicle went into 20 feet of water, Herman got it out using a hand-operated winch. It took about a day and a half.

Before long, people started calling Herman to help them out. Word spread.
“Now we can pull them out in about five hours,” Herman said. “We make it look easy, but there’s quite a bit of equipment and quite a bit of danger to it. In the beginning it was a challenge, figuring out what you were going to do and getting to it. But the equipment makes it a lot easier.”

It’s not just equipment anyone can go out and buy, though. Herman fabricates his own in his auto repair shop, modifying and tweaking existing devices and creating new paraphernalia for all of the disparate tasks involved in making an underwater recovery.

“You have to be kind of a half-wit engineer and figure out what you need,” he said.

A couple portable winches form the foundation of his arsenal. He took a 1976 Chevy truck his buddy owned, pared it down to 4,000 pounds by taking out anything not necessary, and turned it into an ice wrecker.

“Normal wreckers weigh about 10,000 pounds,” Herman said. He put a winch on it and still uses it to this day, although it’s been rebuilt a couple of times.

He’s got a boom that goes over the ice opening, multiple trailers, four sled saws that he built himself, ice saws, drills, hooks, chains, and a mile’s worth of cable, to name a few other key bits of tackle. Herman made the sled saws, which can be walked behind, to save stress on his back. When he started, the way to cut swaths of ice was to hunch down with a chainsaw.

No fear of uncharted terrain

When they’re called to haul a vehicle out of a frozen lake with which they’re not overly familiar, they’ll find some friendly nearby ice angler or someone else who knows ice conditions and that particular body of water. They’ll hoof it or take a 4-wheeler out to the site of the wreck, boring holes en route to measure the thickness of the ice. They’ll drill every 20 yards or so, sometimes making as many as 100 rivets total.

It usually takes about four to six people to get a vehicle out of a frozen lake. Everybody’s got a specific job.

“We have two divers, the equipment guy who keeps the equipment running, one guy who sets up the boom, a crew that cuts the ice,” Herman said. “We all do all of the jobs. When we get to a job, one guy starts cutting the ice, one guy starts getting the equipment ready, one guy gets dressed to go diving.”

Over the past 15 or so years, Herman’s called upon some 30 people – all guys except one – to assist him, and for whatever reason, people usually are more than willing to help out.

“It’s a very interesting job – there’s danger, there’s fun, there’s excitement,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but a lot of people want to help me all the time.”

Knock on ice, but they’ve never had any injuries among staff in 39 years. That’s not to say employees haven’t unintentionally tumbled into the water.

“We’ve had our people fall in, but we laugh at them and then help them get out.”


Diesel and methyl, not ethyl

Contrary to what some might think about merry joyriders driving into rivers or doing dizzy donuts through the ice, only a small percentage of Sunk? rescues are alcohol-related. They’ve done around 1,000 jobs, and Herman said he doesn’t believe much more than a handful involved alcohol.

“Normally, it’s people driving around out there, or going to find someone, or young kids who go out there playing around and don’t know where they’re going,” he said. “Or a kid who takes his dad’s truck out for a spin and doesn’t know where he’s at, so he drops it in the water. But alcohol-related, there hasn’t been a lot of them.”

Back before GPS, Google Maps, phone apps and the like, bad weather or a snowstorm would hail a flurry of jobs for Sunk? when drivers lose perspective and end up in the water.

“What happens is when it gets foggy out there, or it’s late in the year when the tree line is off, (people) would get disoriented and hit the river line,” Herman said.

Social scene

When social media became a big deal, Sunk?’s business took another little dip.

“If there’s a bad spot on the ice, usually somebody takes a picture and puts it on Facebook and it travels like wildfire and keeps everybody safe,” Herman said. “It put a little damper in my business, but it made everybody a little safer.”

Herman checks the ice daily and prepares an ice report, something he started after pulling the body of a child years ago. “I’d rather lose a little business than have someone lose their life,” he said.

Herman used to post some of the crash-throughs on Facebook, but he stopped after a while.

“You’d get these comments like ‘stupid idiot’ and ‘what a dumbass,’ and I don’t want to make the guy feel bad. He feels bad anyway, because his vehicle dropped in.”

And it’s not always stupidity. “You can drive out on a lake and come back on the same tracks, the temperature changes, a crack opens up and you don’t see it,” Herman noted.

Or – because there’s no snow, like last year – the ice looks the same where it’s 14 inches thick as it does in spots thinned down to four inches.

Snow can help people see where they’re going on a lake, because people like Herman plow roads on its surface. Like a Yeti city engineer, Herman’s been platting arteries and carving thoroughfares for Otter Street Fishing Club out of Oshkosh the last 44 years, steering drivers away from known skimpy spots, like the mouth of the Fox River.

So snowless seasons actually boost Herman’s business.

Last year, with little snow and decent ice, people felt free to drive everywhere on the lake. “They didn’t realize they were near the mouth of the Fox because there were no roads to guide them away,” Herman said. Last year, seven vehicles crashed through the lake ice near the river mouth.

He even hand-scribbles maps of thin spots and cracks and posts them for people to use.

“Businesswise, I probably shouldn’t do that, but I do it because my heart doesn’t want anybody to get hurt,” he said.

“It’s kind of ironic that I’m the one who pulls people out, and I’m the one who tells people when to go out.”


Lee Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers in Wisconsin before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.