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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

In a dramatic rescue, two WDFW staff pull hunters from freezing Pend Oreille River

WDFW employees Jerry Havens, pictured, and Michael Wilkinson helped rescue two hunters from drowning on the Pend Oreille River on New Year’s Day. (Courtesy of Jerry Havens)
WDFW employees Jerry Havens, pictured, and Michael Wilkinson helped rescue two hunters from drowning on the Pend Oreille River on New Year’s Day. (Courtesy of Jerry Havens)

In the predawn chill of the first morning of 2019, Jerry Havens considered whether to back his boat down an ice-slicked launch on the Pend Oreille River.

“I was thinking it might not be good to go,” Havens said.

In fact, he’d just watched two other hunters nearly get stuck deploying their craft. Havens wasn’t sure what to do.

But screaming shattered the morning silence.

Havens and Michael Wilkinson, both Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife employees, had originally planned to go duck hunting Dec. 30. They postponed until Jan. 1 after Havens’ cousin had a heart attack (he made a full recovery).

On the drive north that morning, the two were passed by a truck pulling a boat. Havens remembers noticing that it was a “small boat to be going out on the river.”

That small boat belonged to Ben Heuvel and his hunting buddy.

Heuvel arrived at the launch, just south of the Usk bridge, minutes ahead of Havens. They launched into the 30-degree water.

Shortly after launching, the front of their 12-foot craft, loaded with duck decoys, dipped below the water and capsized the vessel.

“Basically, we had too many decoys,” Heuvel said. “I was kind of holding one of the bags near the front of the boat and when my buddy hit the motor it pulled it into the water. It basically flooded the boat.

“There was no time to react. Ironically, I had set our life vest right next to where each of us was sitting.”

The boat had foam seats, so it didn’t sink completely. But the two men couldn’t get in because it was full of water. Instead, they clung to the craft and their decoy bags and started kicking toward shore.

The current kept pulling them back toward the middle.

The cold water seeped into their clothes. Their waders filled. They held on and started screaming for help.

“I realized as we were kicking we were not getting any closer to shore,” Heuvel said. “I kept waiting to hear a boat motor start up, but I never heard anything.”

Meanwhile, Havens and Wilkinson were jumping into action.

“The only thing I could see was the headlamp of the guy in the water,” Havens said.

He launched his boat, ignoring the icy ramp. Wilkinson jumped in alongside and they headed into the river. The two men were about 100 yards from shore and 500 yards downstream of the launch.

But Havens’ motor wouldn’t start. Its battery was dead. He fired up the kicker motor, but it also died after running briefly.

Luckily, Havens had a third smaller trolling motor. Slowly, it propelled his 16-foot flat-bottomed craft toward the sole headlamp bobbing in the dark.

That third, and final, motor died minutes after Havens and Wilkinson launched. Its battery was dead, too.

Havens started rowing with a single canoe oar. Meanwhile, the screams for help continued.

“We heard him screaming, ‘I have a baby daughter! I can’t die!’ ” Wilkinson said.

As Havens and Wilkinson rowed toward them, Heuvel said he continued to kick, mostly just to stay warm.

“At that point, I couldn’t bend my knees and I had to kick with my legs straight,” he said.

After nearly 30 minutes, Wilkinson and Havens reached the two hunters.

“They were in the water for 30 minutes,” Havens said. “I was rowing and rowing. We finally get there and both of them are on their last legs. It took everything Mike and I had to pull them in because both their waders were plum full of water.”

Back on shore, other hunters had heard the commotion and called 911.

Once Wilkinson and Havens got the two men into their boat, they took off their sodden clothes and gave them all the dry clothing they could find.

“Not really how I imagined spending my New Year’s,” Heuvel said. “Naked on a boat with four guys.”

In a twist of fate, Wilkinson realized he knew Heuvel – Heuvel’s father-in-law is one of Wilkinson’s hunting partners.

“It was crazy, absolutely crazy,” Heuvel said.

Havens started rowing back to shore. By this time they’d drifted roughly a quarter mile down the river. Eventually, they reached the shore and dragged the boat back to the launch where an ambulance was waiting.

Both men in the water made full recoveries. Heuvel didn’t go to the hospital, although his partner did.

“We were just lucky enough we were in the right place at the right time,” Wilkinson, a former EMT, said.

Wilkinson and Havens were honored for their heroics on Feb. 2 at the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council’s annual awards banquet.

“We just wanted to acknowledge that they did something special,” said Wanda Clifford, the executive director of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council. “What Mike and Jerry did, they saved their lives.”

Wilkinson, who is a council member, received the Above and Beyond Award.

Heuvel is adamant that without the intervention, he would have died, leaving his 2 1/2-year-old daughter fatherless.

“Without those guys, we would have been toast,” he said.

As far as lessons learned from the experience, Heuvel has one big takeaway: Wear your life jacket.

“Don’t just give it to your kids,” he said. “There is not time. You don’t have time.”

Havens agreed, and urged boaters to watch how much gear they put on their boats.

As for what he learned?

“I need to leave my battery on the charger all night,” he said. “That was stupid.”

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