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One More Pass

Lake Superior waves crash in Eagle Harbor, Michigan during a storm in October 2022. It was in this area where Keweenaw County Deputy pulled off a dramatic rescue of a 68 year old man, caught in a storm. (Dan Wanschura / IPR)

On Sunday, June 19, 2022, Keweenaw County Sheriff’s Deputy Matthew Eberly is dispatched to Eagle Harbor, Michigan. There's a report of someone in a canoe in Lake Superior, who is having difficulty getting back into the harbor. A few moments later, a wave crashes over the canoe and sinks it. Now, the person in distress is in the frigid water.

Over the next 45 minutes, Deputy Eberly navigates strong waves, wind and cold rain, and even lightning ― but still can't locate the subject.

Just as he ponders turning his personal watercraft to shore, he thinks, "One more pass." During that final lap is when he finally sees a face as white as chalk, floating in the water.

What happens next is a wild, true tale of heroism and bravery, which ultimately results in a life being saved.

Editor's note: The man rescued from the water survived but declined to be interviewed for this story.
Also, it's highly recommended you listen to this episode in order to experience it more fully.

Host / Producer: Dan Wanschura
Editor: Patrick Shea
Music: Jonas Hipper, Holizna, pan, Maarten Schellekens, Nuisance

DAN WANSCHURA, BYLINE: Matthew Eberly was a Michigan conservation officer in the Keweenaw Peninsula for 23 years. When he retired in 2016, it wasn't for long.

MATTHEW EBERLY: It took my wife two months to realize the only thing worse than me being gone all the time was being home all the time. I started napping a lot and that's when my wife said, Yeah, you need to go out and find another job.

WANSCHURA: So he did. He called up the newly elected Keweenaw County sheriff.

EBERLY: I said, Do you need a guy that knows the woods real well? And he said, ‘Certainly.’

WANSCHURA: Few people know the Keweenaw better than Eberly. That's why he's perfect for the job patrolling the woods and lakeshore right at the northern tip of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

EBERLY: We're surrounded actually on all sides by Lake Superior, which really affects our weather. My wife and I will watch the weather report, and then next morning it'll be totally opposite what the report is. And we always grumble, ‘Why do we bother watching the weather report?’ Because the lake dictates everything. And that's one thing people need to know about the Keweenaw.

WANSCHURA: Lake Superior can dictate that change in a heartbeat. One minute it might be calm the next, it's raging into a wild storm, and when it does, sometimes people get caught off guard.

This is Points North, a show about the land, water, and inhabitants of the Upper Great Lakes. I'm Dan Wanschura. Today on the show, a dramatic rescue attempt in the frigid waters of Lake Superior.

EBERLY: That day actually started, like they say as a natural regular day, showed up for work at six in the morning. The forecast was for bad weather to be rolling in, and we kind of knew it was coming, so I thought, 'Well, it's still not raining at least, so I'm gonna go out and go on the four wheeler.' (I) jumped in the four-wheeler and took off and I started working Trail 3 and I wanted to get up on the cliffs and work the trails back up in there.

Eventually worked my way down to Gratiot River Park, which is a county park right at the shore of Lake Superior at the mouth of the Gratiot River. It was just after two o'clock in the afternoon and by that time, I could see the storm rolling in from the north. The wind had definitely picked up and the lake was starting to get pretty churned up.

There were some big rollers coming in and I thought, ‘Well, that storm's gonna come in, I should start working back up towards the office.’

Lake Superior waves crash as seen from Brockway Mountain, during a storm in October 2022. (Dan Wanschura / IPR)

Well, Station 80 Central Dispatch contacted my partner and advised them that there was a subject in a squareback canoe off the bell buoy in Eagle Harbor, and it appeared that he was trying to get back into Eagle Harbor, but he was having motor problems and was getting tossed around by the waves.

By the time I got to the sheriff's office and got the truck and the personal watercraft – our jet ski hooked up to the truck. Station 80 came online for my partner and I both advising us that the canoe actually sunk the wave, came over and swamped canoe and immediately sank it, and the subject is in the water

As I proceeded. On M26, I heard Eagle Harbor Fire and Rescue advise that they had secured two private boats and they were gonna go out and look for the subject. The storm was there, it was raining now, and the wind had picked up even more and the lake was pretty rough.

By the time I got to Eagle Harbor to launch the jet ski, I was the last one to actually launch.

When that first wave came over me, the only concern I really had was at first my radio equipment. But I knew on this rescue that I needed that radio. I was waiting for ‘crackle–pop’ and my radio to short out but it didn’t, and I was very happy about that.

People don't realize the power that fresh water has, I mean, it's so dense that when a wave hits you, it's not like this soft, cuddly, warm water shower rolling over your body. It's getting hit with a brick wall. I mean, it actually hurts.

The waves were probably, maybe three footers, three to fours. But it's not the height of the waves out at lakes period that are what really gets you as much as the waves are stacked on one another. You know, you can go out into the ocean in 10 foot waves, but they're long rollers. The next crest of the next wave is, you know, yards away.

Out on the lake, you'll have three to four footers every three or four foot. So you get pounded, you'll actually get hit with such force in the water that it actually wants to knock you right off the machine. So, you really have to hold on and lean into it. I mean, put your head down and accept the fact that you're gonna go underwater.

Listening to more radio traffic, we knew that there was somebody near the lighthouse that would spot the subject every now and then, but then lose sight of them in the waves. Well, what we didn't know at the time was because of the storm, there was such a current that the person in the water was actually basically making big loops around the bell buoy – being drifted around.

We knew he had a life jacket on, but what we didn't know was he also had a lot of heavy clothing on because it was early spring and the only thing out of the water was his face. That was it. So, we could not see anything.

Deputy Matthew Eberly used this bell buoy in Eagle Harbor, Michigan as a reference point during a dramatic rescue attempt in June, 2022. (Dan Wanschura / IPR)

I started searching along the rocks east of the bell buoy and the other two boats were west looking over in that area where the subject was last sighted. The farthest out I was ever offshore was probably 200–250 yards. We probably searched for a good another 20 minutes, and then the two fire boats called in that they were returning to the dock because of weather.

I didn't really have concern for my safety until I saw that lightning.

There's nothing you can do or train to get hit by lightning. So the lightning was what really started scaring me. I did not blame the fire people for leaving the water. That was the right call. Absolutely. They're volunteers and yeah, they did more than they could have.

Now that they were heading back in, that put (me) in a situation where if I did fall off the machine, yeah, they would not be able to pick me up and I would be on my own. So that did factor in how much longer I was gonna stay.

I stopped and I was looking around and I was actually wondering if I should go back in – that's always a tough call.

You don't want to give up. You, you don't want to turn a rescue into a body recovery, but you gamble with your life and you look at the odds and the odds weren't good that I was gonna find this subject, and the odds were getting better, that I was putting myself needlessly in danger in that lightning.

I decided at that point to do one more lap around.

I just took off when I received a radio call from my partner who told me that he was on telephone call with a subject in the lighthouse and that he had just (seen) the victim. He advised me that if I were to go just west of the bell buoy – just passed it – I would see him.

I was excited, but also skeptical. In this rescue, the gentleman had been spotted several times and then lost in the waves. You kind of wonder like, ‘Okay, well he's been seeing before, are they actually seeing him or are they just wanting to see him?’

I immediately shot out as best I could in the weather conditions and I got just past the bell buoy. All of a sudden there it was: a face in the water. And that was all I saw was this face.

Honestly, I put his age at 80 and he actually was 68. That much time in the lake, yeah, that'll age you pretty quick. There was no movement at all. You would expect somebody that was in the water wanting to be rescued – you'd be yelling, waving his arms – there was none of that. It was just this face, chalky white face sticking out of the water.

I thought he had died

And then a big wave came over and pushed the face under the water. I got so worried that I wasn’t gonna find him again.

Luckily, the subject popped back up. I maneuvered next to him, and as I looked at him, his eyes were closed. He was in the fetal position because he'd been in the water so long that he was so hypothermic. All of a sudden his eyes popped open.

And that startled me and I'm like, ‘Wow!’ And then I couldn't grab him fast enough because I just didn't want to lose him again. I reached down and I grabbed him by his life jacket with my right hand and I looked at him, I said, ‘You're gonna have to help me.’ And I just knew I was gonna get no help from this gentleman. He was past helping himself.

I braced myself and as a big wave hit us, I was able to actually lift him up over into the footwell of the jet ski. It wasn't so much I lifted him out of the water and threw him in as much as I basically guided him in and let the wave crash over us and used the inertia of the wave to push his body onto the machine.

Keweenaw County Deputy Matthew Eberly recalls his rescue attempt of a 68 year old man, in June 2022. (Dan Wanschura / IPR)

And I was able to get my leg over him and then wedged back into that foot well, so I could lock him in.

I then had to let go with my right hand because I needed that hand to operate the jet ski. So I let go and grab him with my left hand. Well, now we had a problem.

I've got 180 pounds of dead weight on one side. I've got a very bad list to that side, and I'm in a storm. So I had to lean as far over to the left as I possibly could to try to compensate for that list and give the jet ski some gas.

After I entered the harbor, I had to make the bend around to the left. Well that put the waves on my left side and that's where I was having problems seeing and breathing because the waves were actually coming over me. There were two or three times where I actually had to stop and cough water out that I had ingested trying to breathe.

My biggest fear was that I was gonna roll the machine and that way both of us would be in the drink. That's why I was leaning as much as I could to the left, and was really conscious at how much throttle I gave the machine. You know, if too much throttle and I could have lost control because I got slammed by a wave; too little throttle and the machine was wallowing in those waves.

I kept going and once I got around the corner, I was able to come into the dock, which again presented another problem. I was going at a pretty good clip trying to get this gentleman back in because I knew how hypothermic he was. I would probably say I was doing 20. The jet ski does have a break on it.

Unfortunately, you have to use your left hand and I could not. I let go of the throttle and I tried to grab the brake, but it was just, it was too late. And yeah, I beached the jet ski fairly hard on the ramp.

Well, I've heard people talk about hypothermia, and I've thought I've seen it before, but no, those people that I saw were cold. This gentleman was in late stages of hypothermia. He had been in the water for 40, 45 minutes and at that time, the water temperature was probably around 38.

Thankfully, Eagle Harbor Fire and first responders were still on scene waiting and they rushed over and immediately took over.

I was pretty spent by that time.

Keweenaw County Deputy Matthew Eberly pictured next to the personal watercraft he used to find and rescue a 68 year old man in June, 2022. (Dan Wanschura / IPR)

I got the machine back to the office, got it put in the garage, and got in the office, got a cup of coffee and started getting some dry clothes put on. I thought, ‘Okay, unless we get another call, I'm, I'm here. I'm going to catch up on paperwork.’ Again, I'm too stubborn to, you know, I work until 18:00. I'm gonna stay until 18:00.

I've always patrolled with the idea of when I'm ready to quit, I'll do one more thing and then I'll quit. And that's what I did. I looked at the situation, I thought, ‘It's probably time to go in – I'll do one more pass.’

I don't know where that comes from. Maybe all the years in the military. Growing up on a farm, there's always one more thing to do. ‘I want to go home – I wanna go in, dad.’ ‘Well, finish milking the cows, then you go in.’ ‘Okay.’

You know, I just don't know. It's just always been me and this time it paid off.

Ever since he was young, Dan has been fascinated with radio. From hearing the dulcet tones of John Gordon broadcast Minnesota Twins games, to staying up late listening to radio theater, he was captivated by the imaginative medium.