No Ice Is Safe Ice
Saginaw Bay is Steve Geistel Jr.’s favorite place to go ice fishing. But when he heard reports of bad ice in early February, he decided not to risk fishing there. That is, until his friend Jeremy Holman talked him into it.
“When I got there, there was hundreds if not a thousand people going out on the boat launch,” Geistel said. “So, I thought maybe I was being a little too paranoid.”
After two good days of fishing, the wind suddenly changed direction, which can lead to dangerous conditions on the bay.
“I said, ‘Hurry up boys, pack up. We gotta get outta here right away,’” said Geistel.
Hoping the ice won’t crack, the trio raced for shore. But that’s when Steve’s worst nightmare was realized. He went in the water.
Host / Producer: Dan Wanschura
Editor: Morgan Springer
Additional Editing: Peter Payette, Patrick Shea, Ed Ronco
Music: Coins, Ugly Truth, Static, Cellar Door, and Vintage by HoliznaCC0 | Drawing Room and Ivory Pillow by Blue Dot Sessions | Radiate Instrumental (SAND) by Nuisance | Chill Relaxing Lo-Fi Hip Hop | Born by Alex-Productions | You'll Have a Plan Before You Try to Get Your Horse on the Trailer by Aldous Ichnite
DAN WANSCHURA, HOST / BYLINE: There’s this saying that you hear around the Great Lakes in winter.
No ice is safe ice.
A reminder for those who need it – to be careful – and take nothing for granted when walking on “hard water.”
HURON COUNTY DISPATCH: Huron County 911.
BRAD GNATKOWSKI: Yeah, we have someone…in the water…out of Thomas Road. Three and a half miles out.
HURON COUNTY DISPATCH: Three-and-a-half miles out?
GNATKOWSKI: Yup…Saginaw Bay…Three and a half miles out. We got open water.
WANSCHURA: It’s about 7:30 at night on February 6, 2023. And a bunch of ice fishermen are stranded on a large ice floe in Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay.
KELLY HANSON: There was a lot of confusion that was going on because 911 calls were going into Tuscola County and 911 calls were coming into Huron County.
WANSCHURA: That’s Huron County Sheriff Kelly Hanson. He says because of where the calls are coming from, they aren’t sure how many people are in danger.
HANSON: At one point we were under the impression there could be 30 people out there. We knew we had people in the water. Didn't know if we had one, didn't know if we had 10.
DISPATCH: Are you in radio communication with him?
GNATKOWSKI: We can hear people yelling. We got water all around us. There’s a bunch of people out here.
DISPATCH: And no one is – and you can’t…
GNATKOWSKI: He’s in the water!
WANSCHURA: In the hours that follow, the U.S. Coast Guard and local emergency responders mount a massive rescue attempt that includes airboats and helicopters.
(Sound of helicopter)
BEN WILLENBERG: Anybody out here?
WANSCHURA: This is Points North, a podcast about the land, water, and inhabitants of the Great Lakes. I’m Dan Wanschura.
Today, we’re floating on ice in Lake Huron. Don’t get too comfortable because no ice is safe ice.
STEVE GEISTEL JR: This gonna be on some kind of website or something?
WANSCHURA: It will, yeah. I'll send you the link when it's up…
WANSCHURA: That’s Steve Geistel Jr. He’s been fishing for most of his life. His fish of choice: walleye.
GEISTEL JR: To me it's the best tasting fish in the world. You know, that's what I go after. I don't even fish for bluegill no more…I just target walleye. That's all I do.
WANSCHURA: A good place to catch walleye is Saginaw Bay. In fact, Steve claims it’s the best around.
GEISTEL JR: Ain't uncommon at all to get your limits every day. Eight fish per man, you know. There's several times you come out there with three or four of us and come home with 30 fish, you know, on one day of fishing.
That’s why he and a couple friends plan a two-day ice fishing trip there in February. But when it comes time to pile into a truck and drive about three hours across state, Steve gets cold feet.
GEISTEL JR: I talked to a buddy of mine…He told me, ‘Do not, by no means go on that bay. It's not safe.’ He said he had a couple buddies out there the day before and it was moving all over the place and not to go.
JEREMY HOLMAN: Steve is the most cautioned person that I've ever, ever fished with in my life.
WANSCHURA: That’s Jeremy Holman. He and Steve go back over 20 years. The two of them met in the mid 90s driving race cars. In fact, Steve was the guy who first brought Jeremy fishing on Saginaw Bay, way back when.
HOLMAN: I was gung-ho. I wanted to go. I love the Saginaw Bay.
GEISTEL JR: We had a little bit of heated discussion about it, I'll tell you that. Cause I didn't wanna go. I really, I knew better, you know what I mean? I didn't want to go out there.
HOLMAN: You wanna be honest? I was an asshole...I already had paid for the hotel room over there…All my buddies are sending me pictures that live over there with all these pile of walleyes they were catching. It was stuck in my dome. I'm going.
WANSCHURA: Caught up somewhere in the middle of all of this is Telaine Bower, the third friend on this guy's fishing trip.
TELAINE BOWER: We gassed up the truck, we loaded up our equipment, and we drove down. Jeremy's in the backseat sleeping – he passed out.
GEISTEL JR: When I got there, there was hundreds if not a thousand people going out on the boat launch, you know, so I thought maybe I was being a little too paranoid, you know?
HOLMAN: They all looked at me and I, I thought I was the man. I was like, ‘I told you!’
BOWER: Well, we get going and we set up day one. Fishing was beautiful, you know, it was a beautiful day. Not a lot of wind, good temperatures. Nighttime came and we got into the fish. You know, we were hooking fish. We were just shy of our limit and we called it a night. Everybody was packing up. So we packed up, we rode out, went to the room, thanking Jeremy, you know?
‘Thank you, man.’ And, ‘We're so glad we came,’ you know. It was such a blast seeing everybody for me, meeting the guys, you know, it was, it was an experience, you know, and can't wait for tomorrow. Little did we know what tomorrow had, man.
WANSCHURA: The next day, the three friends wake up and ride their snowmobiles out about four miles across the ice to their shanties on Saginaw Bay.
And the ice is pretty good. About eight to 10 inches thick. By mid-afternoon, the guys are getting hungry. That’s when Telaine Bower and Steve Geistel Jr. hop on the snowmobiles again.
GEISTEL JR: He followed me back to shore to get his lunch and we crossed this big patch of black ice.
BOWER: You got all the white ice and then you got the black ice. When you got clear black ice, you could see the bottom. That's, that's scary. So I just have a tendency of just giving it the grip, you know, just squeeze the throttle to the bar real quick, get over it and then I can ease up.
WANSCHURA: They make it across and the rest of the afternoon is pretty uneventful. The fish aren’t biting much, so they grill some burgers. As the sun starts to set, they hook a few more walleye and then call it a night.
GEISTEL JR: I climbed outta my shanty to pack up…and I felt that east wind and I knew we were in trouble. Fifteen to 20 mile an hour winds, probably.
WANSCHURA: There’s something you need to know about ice fishing on Saginaw Bay. The bay itself is located between Michigan’s thumb and pointer finger. There’s a small island that sits in the middle of it. If the bay isn’t frozen all the way out to that island, there’s technically nothing blocking ice from moving around. As long as the wind is from the right direction though you’re fine– it keeps the ice pinned to the shore. But if the wind shifts, the ice could crack off and blow you miles out into open water.
GEISTEL JR: I said, ‘Hurry up boys, pack up. We gotta get outta here, right away.’
HOLMAN: I never paid attention to it. I was just packing stuff up and trying to get out. But Steve said he had noticed the wind had changed.
GEISTEL JR: We had a guy, a couple guys from Indiana follow us out that day, that morning. And, uh, they left us before us and they, they called us on our cell phones, told us they made it back to shore ok. They said there's nothing there. No cracks, no nothing. And it was like a half hour before we took off, you know what I mean? So I didn't think it was that big of a deal to, you know, I knew we were in trouble if we didn't hurry up.
They head back to shore. Steve on one snowmobile, Jeremy and Telaine on another.
BOWER: When we were leaving, it was real dark, you know, you got your headlamp and you got your snowmobile machine, you know, you got your, your light there.
HOLMAN: Steve's in front, I'm following Steve and he gets to that spot where he thinks it's just black ice. So, we was just gonna skip over it. Well, it was open water.
BOWER: I just seen Steve go down, man. Headlight underwater. And it was like a big wave come up and just boom. Steve was down.
HOLMAN: I watched my best friend sink, like I've never seen nothing sink that fast in my life. He was gone. Quick! You didn't even see his tail lights go down slowly. It went down fast. Whoom! Disappeared.
GEISTEL JR: I tried hitting the throttle on my snowmobile once I hit water, but I knew it was fruitless and the snowmobile started sinking. So, I jumped off my snowmobile into the cold water…and I've always been taught, you go through the ice out there, it's a death sentence. You know what I mean? Chances are you're not gonna make it.
It’s fear, that’s all I can say. It ain't adrenaline or nothing, it's just, it's just fear.
Well can you imagine just thinking you’re gonna die, you know what I mean? That’s the feeling you got. You know you’re gonna die. I knew I was dying, you know…and they couldn't see me cause it was so dark out.
WANSCHURA: Jeremy and Telaine are almost in the water themselves. At this point, Jeremy doesn’t know if the ice near the edge is safe to hold them. That’s when the race car driver in him kicks in.
HOLMAN: I turned the skis to the right on my snowmobile with Telaine on the back of it with me. And I pinned it to get away from Steve, cause all three of us didn't need to be in the water.
WANSCHURA: So he starts driving away from Steve, with Telaine sitting behind him. Telaine can’t believe it.
BOWER: I'm hitting his back, man, ‘Steve's down! Steve's down!’ And he's just going…50, 60 yards away in the opposite direction. I mean, I just felt like he was leaving Steve. And I told him that and I hit his helmet – wham!
And I told him, ‘Steve went down,’ and he kind of let off the throttle. When he did, I bailed and I was just running towards that direction looking for Steve.
WANSCHURA: Jeremy – still driving the snowmobile in the opposite direction – finally stops.
HOLMAN: There was, uh, no emotions at that time because we didn't know it was going on. I mean, we, it, we kind of starstruck us all. We were like, ‘Whoa.’ But I knew that if I didn't get up to safe ice, there was no way we were ever gonna get to Steve if we were in there ourselves.
BOWER: Steve's still about 15 yards away from the edge of the ice, you know, in the water.
HOLMAN: He was screaming and hollering, get me out of here. I'm dying.
GEISTEL JR: ‘Cause you know, you're trying to kick and paddle, you know and it wasn’t really doing you no good, because the weight, you know?
I bet you I weighed probably 300 pounds more on my body weight, just by water weight, you know, from my boots being full of water and suit soaked. And all my clothes are drenched, of course.
WANSCHURA: Steve has something helping him though. His dad passed away in August.
He was an avid ice fisherman. And before he died, he bought himself a new float suit – a bib overalls and jacket combo with built-in floatation. It’s not a lifejacket, but it can help keep a person above water for a couple hours.
GEISTEL JR: So when he died, my ma asked me if I wanted his new float suit. I said, ‘Yeah, I'll take it, ma.’
WANSCHURA: Steve is wearing that float suit when he drives into the freezing water.
GEISTEL JR: So, I think my dad had a hand in saving my ass that day.
WANSCHURA: Steve swims about 30-40 feet back to the edge of the ice. Telaine is crawling towards him.
BOWER: I get on my belly and Steve hits the ice and he is holding on, you know.
GEISTEL JR: I told him, the ice ain’t thin here bro, it just broke apart. It’s eight inches thick. I can feel it. I'm right at the edge of the ice. I can feel how thick the ice is.
BOWER: So I grab hold of Steve and I tells him, ‘I'm not letting you go brother,’ you know, and he's got me and he's like, ‘You gotta get me outta here, dude.’ You know? And I go to pull him. And Steve's…he’s a big guy. And now you got that big guy with all his equipment, his gear, you know, his, his float suit and his boots, his helmet, you know, full of water.
He's even heavier now. So, I go to pull Steve, like, it's gonna be easy. It was not. I could barely move him. And I got even more scared. So I put myself on the edge, you know? And I tried to pull real hard. Well, when I did, we cracked just that little edge, and I kind of fell and had a small wave go down my float suit.
And when that wave hit my skin down my coat, man, it felt like I got a million needles poked into me. It was so cold. It was immediate. You know, it took my breath, my power, man. I just felt myself instantly tense up and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I'm useless now.’
GEISTEL JR: I looked over, I seen my buddy Jeremy standing there about 50 feet away and I yelled at him and said, ‘Jeremy, I'm dying over here man, it ain't thin ice. Come get me, come help him.’
BOWER: And he grabs my feet…and when Jeremy started to pull us, that's when we were able to successfully get Steve out.
WANSCHURA: Telaine says it takes them about five minutes to get Steve out of the water.
BOWER: That was incredible, you know…when we hit the ice with him, that was an even better feeling to have him out. I mean, as soon as Steve hit the ice…Jeremy let go of me and I pulled Steve another couple feet. I got up and walked away. I had to breathe, man.
WANSCHURA: They aren't out of the woods yet, though. With temperatures below freezing, they need to get Steve warm fast.
BOWER: Steve's like, ‘We gotta set up the shanty.’
And I'm looking and it's– it's not there. And I'm like, ‘Where is this shanty?’ And Jeremy's like, ‘It's gone. It was on the sled with Steve's sled.’ And I'm like, ‘oh no.’ You know, we're wide open, exposed. Steve's soaking wet.
WANSCHURA: Thankfully, another ice fisherman notices what’s going on. He speeds over on his snowmobile, takes Steve back to his ice shanty, and cranks up the heat inside.
Around that time, another group of ice fishermen are returning to shore across the ice heading straight towards open water.
HOLMAN: I was like, ‘dangit,’ I need to stop these people!'
This time Jeremy doesn’t hesitate. He runs to his snowmobile and starts flashing his lights for them to stop.
BOWER: And he stopped them guys, you know, they stopped right.
Literally, probably three feet before Steve went in.
WANSCHURA: All told, there’s 14 of them trapped on this huge chunk of ice, floating in Lake Huron. Those who still have charged phones and cell service call 911 for help.
When Steve hit open water the gap between the ice was over 100 yards across. He couldn’t see across to the other side. But because of near gale force winds now, the gap keeps growing.
BOWER: It was chaos out there. It was not quiet, you know. We’re speaking with other people that are a little bit further away from us and trying to assure them the ice in between them is good, and meeting with people to bring them over with the group.
WANSCHURA: They come up with a plan: sit tight and wait for help to arrive. That’s when Jeremy notices a guy getting agitated.
HOLMAN: Didn't really say nothing, just mumbling. You could tell he was upset. Don't be upset with us. There's nothing we can do about it. We didn't create this, you know what I mean?
WANSCHURA: Then the ice fisherman hops back on his snowmobile and takes off.
HOLMAN: I was like, ‘Okay, maybe he's just going to see if he can find a way around us for us all, you know. Sweet!’ And all of a sudden he gets out there a ways, and I just hear a snowmobile turn wide open, watch the headlights come, I already knew what he was doing.
WANSCHURA: He’s heading for open water.
It’s not uncommon for snowmobilers to cross water between cracks of ice. With enough speed, the snowmobile can skim right on top of it. But this is no small crack. It’s a big stretch of open water.
HOLMAN: I'm screaming at his buddies. ‘Stop that guy. He ain't making it.’ And you could hear him, and you could watch him for quite a ways.
BOWER: This is gonna sound really bad, but I'm gonna be honest with you…I mean, like anybody, something dumb is gonna happen, you're gonna watch.
HOLMAN: He made it a long ways, I ain't gonna lie. Probably three quarters of the way. He did. I was like, ‘He's gonna make it. He's gonna make it.’ I know I'm in a bigger snowmobile than him. If he made it – and it did cross my mind. I'm like, ‘I'm going too.’ But it didn't.
And all of a sudden you heard the snowmobile just start dogging down– blah.
And I was like, ‘This guy is– he's a goner.’ He's now at this point, 300 yards away from us. There's no way we can help you. None. You're– I just watched somebody die is the first thing that went through my head.
WANSCHURA: Amazingly, once the snowmobile sinks, the ice fisherman swims to the other side and pulls himself onto the ice.
HOLMAN: You could see him over there. He was so far away he looked like maybe he was a foot tall. He was that far away and you could see his flashlight turn on on his phone.
So at that point we knew at least he was out of the water. But your journey ain't over yet. You still got two miles somehow to figure out to get to that shore. Hypothermia is a bad deal – you ain't going to make it. They were gonna find him curled up in a ball or standing up like a popsicle somewhere.
WANSCHURA: Back in the ice shanty, Steve is still trying to warm up. His body temperature has dropped.
GEISTEL JR: It felt like my whole body's on fire. So it felt like, like you were burning. You know what I mean? I don't know if you've ever been that cold before, but yeah. And then you know that all the ice is cracking all around you and every time you look up that shanty and open water's getting closer and closer to you, you know, you know you're not out of danger yet. And I'm so exhausted and spent, and I told these guys in the shanty, I said, ‘Man, if I go in the water again, guys, I'm a goner. I'm telling you now, I ain't be able to fight no more. I'm just, I can't. I'm exhausted.’ You know, I really was.
WANSCHURA: After about two hours of waiting, the Huron County Sheriff airboat is the first to arrive on scene. Also on board, the other ice fisherman who went in the water. The boat picked him up on the way over. On the slow ride back, one of the emergency rescuers starts talking to Steve.
GEISTEL JR: He asked my name, I told him. He goes, ‘Steve, do you realize 90% of the time we come out here for rescues, it's usually to recover a body.’ He goes, ‘You're a 10-percenter and don't ever forget that.’
BOWER: We were about three and a half miles out from shore where we were fishing both days…they said in the report we had drifted out, those that were last rescued had reached a distance of about six miles. So altogether we drifted about two and a half, three miles.
WANSCHURA: Jeremy says it was more like 1.8 miles. No one agrees on exactly how far out they drifted.
Soon, U.S. Coast Guard helicopters show up and begin scooping up the rest of the fishermen trapped on the ice.
HOLMAN: And I knew right then, ‘I'm going home.’ They dropped that basket, and I did a swan dive into that son a bitch.
WANSCHURA: Steve Geistel Jr. is the first to admit it – he’s his own man – and he made the decision to go ice fishing.
But in the days that follow, he’s angry at his friend Jeremy Holman. He lost his snowmobile, sled, ice shanty, and all his fishing gear at the bottom of Saginaw Bay. And on top of that, he almost died.
Jeremy tries calling him for a few days and at first, Steve doesn’t pick up.
HOLMAN: I think it was is…me being his best friend, I wasn't the first one to him.
I panicked. He's seen that I panicked. I was scared. I explained that to him, but he, I think he felt like I should have been the first one to him to get him out. Which is probably correct I guess. But the way I see it? We got him out. Don't matter how we got him out, we got him out, and that's all that matters.
He's home, he's safe. He kept me up until five o'clock this morning. Son of a bitch.
WANSCHURA: Just chatting on the phone?
HOLMAN: Yeah, we do all the time. If we don't hang out with each other, that's how we hang out with each other. When he gets out of work, he'll call and he'll drink beer over the phone while I drink…we're dumb.
WANSCHURA: Do you think you'll go fishing with Jeremy again?
GEISTEL JR: Oh yeah. Oh, that's never gonna change. No. Me and Jeremy have been buddies for years, and we raced together, we've fished together, we hunted together. but I ain't gonna let him talk me into doing nothing stupid again, and he'll know what I'm saying when he hears this.
Me saying, ‘I’ll never go to the bay again,’ you know, or ‘I might,’ you know, who knows? I can't tell you if I'll ever fish it again or not right now, but I’d sure hate not to ‘cause I love the place, you know? My favorite thing to do is ice fish that place.