Introduction: My dad, Van Vander Ark, wrote this article about 8 years ago (2000), 2 years before he passed away. He had been an avid snowmobiler for a good portion of his life and covered (for the press) both the I-500 Winnipeg to St. Paul snowmobile race and the Midnight Sun 600 from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska. He loved snowmobiling and told us this story many years ago. I didn’t know until recently that he had written out a rough draft of this event. So the following, with some editing from me, is his recounting of this amazing rescue…
The years have passed quickly since that mid January day in I986, but I can still see the terrified look in the eyes of I4 year old Stephanie of Fargo, ND. She and her step-father Shawn had been snowmobiling on an unfamiliar stretch of the Red River when Stephanie’s machine suddenly sailed over the edge of the unknown spillway and quickly sank. She clung to the edge of the ice for dear life. For some time, her step-father Shawn had struggled to pull her out of the raging current in the open water below the spillway, but he was unable to.
The two had decided to take a snowmobile ride on the “Red,” starting south of Fargo-Moorhead in a tree-lined sheltered area. The Red River of the North divides the cities of Fargo, ND and Moorhead, MN and also most of North Dakota and a large portion of Minnesota. It eventually twists and winds its way past Winnipeg, Manitoba and into Lake Winnipeg, the world's 12th largest inland lake. Riding on this portion of the Red was new to Shawn and Stephanie and they were unaware of the danger that lay ahead -- the unmarked spillway and the open water below it. In later years this spillway and one further north and closer to downtown Fargo-Moorhead became known as the “drowning machines.” Anything that was caught in the deathly grip of the turbulent whirlpool rarely survived.
The two rode north with Shawn in the lead. Stephanie’s stepfather noticed a trail on the Fargo side of the river and followed it to see where it went. What he saw terrified him. He suddenly realized that the trail was meant to divert riders around the hazards of the unseen spillway. He raced back to stop Stephanie, but was too late. As she rode her machine down the center of the wide river, she didn’t notice the spillway and open water until almost directly upon the drowning machine. To Shawn’s horror, she and her snowmobile sailed off the edge of the spillway. Her snowmobile sunk below her into the turbulent water. Stephanie tried desperately to swim to the side but the strong current pushed her body into a V-shaped area of ice on the far side of the open water. Shawn abandoned his machine close to the edge of the spillway and ran around it and onto the thin ice to try to pull Stephanie out. But as strong as he was, he couldn't overcome the force of the water that held most of her body under the ice’s edge. In fact, the current was so strong that it actually pulled off her snowmobile boots. The two struggled without success and the roar of the spillway drowned out their cries for help. The normally busy winter recreational area was void of everyone. Perhaps because of the somewhat adverse weather conditions or an NFL football playoff game, but not one single snowmobiler or skier came by.
That Sunday morning something seemed to be nagging at me to take a ride on my old cross country racer. It was an older 1978 Polaris TXL 340 with a somewhat smaller engine that would top out at about 75 mph. It was a rough riding snowmobile made before the much smoother independent suspension machines. Common sense indicated this was not a day to ride -- the preceding day had been very warm which melted the wind-swept drifts in the flat fields and ditches of the Red River Valley. The snow had frozen rock hard overnight and so I kept telling myself it would be foolish to ride on such a day. A fairly strong wind was blowing and it was overcast, which meant the hardened drifts would be more difficult to see. I was also a little leery of the clutch on my machine – it had just been repaired by the dealer but still appeared to be misaligned.
Given all of that I still couldn't get over the feeling that I had to go to the Red. Finally, I suited up and told my wife Dorothy that I just wanted to check out the clutch and not to worry as I might ride all of the way to the river. We lived several miles east of Moorhead on the south side of Interstate 94. I was then a 56 year old salesman for KFGO radio station in Fargo where I had worked for the past 19 years. My wife asked if I wouldn't rather stay home and sit by the fireplace and watch the football game. Normally I would have taken her up on it, but I mumbled some sort of excuse and fired up the old TX. When I got to the end of the driveway of our rural home I remembered that I had left a rope on the workbench in the garage that I normally carried in my snowmobile. Just in case I needed it, I retrieved it and tucked it into the storage compartment of my TX.
The ditch drifts were hard and bone-jarring. About half way to the Red I stopped by a group of trees to warm my hands under the exhaust of the snowmobile. I debated about continuing on -- the lure to return to the fireside was strong, but I decided to keep going. I finally reached the Red at what was known as Monastery Bridge where I would usually stop to rest my arms. But this time I decided not to stop and so I kept riding south just a short distance. For whatever reason though, I decided to turn around and head north. I was excited that several miles of smooth and fast snowmobiling lay ahead. But the serenity of that pleasant stretch ended abruptly at the spillway. As I continued on the twisting river the lack of the normal traffic became obvious. I was always careful to watch out for snowmobilers riding on the wrong side in the sharp corners, but seeing only one person in the highway-wide stretch of the river that went north toward the spillway, I began to push the old racer to see what it could still do. I pushed the machine wide open into the corner, and then backed off for a moment, then full throttle again. It was a delicate ballet of machine and speed in the curves, trying to go as fast as I could with the inboard ski nimbly balanced just inches off the ground. On that entire stretch I didn’t encounter any other snowmobiles – just one lonely cross-country skier. The speed and the thrill of riding reminded me of the time I rode as a press entrant several years prior in the Winnipeg-St. Paul I-500 snowmobile race.
The last corner before the spillway was broad and I held the throttle wide open. The track studs caught in the hard-pack and the old machine seemed to leap ahead. The side of the high windshield folded back – telling me without looking at the speedometer that I was doing at least 75 mph.
I slowed for the unmarked spillway and saw a snowmobile parked close to its edge, wondering why anyone would leave it there. Stopping further back, I ran up and looked over the edge and saw someone lying spread eagle on the ice. It appeared that the person was trying to retrieve a white helmet in the water. But when I looked closer I could see that someone was in the water! I waved my arms to get their attention and shouted that I was coming, but they couldn't hear me over the roar of the spillway. I raced back to my snowmobile that was still idling and drove as fast as I could around the spillway on the trail and onto the ice as far as I dared to go. I grabbed my rope (that I had nearly forgotten to bring along) and ran out onto the thin ice. For some reason, I had no fear of the ice giving way.
It was then that I looked into the terrified eyes of Stephanie. Shawn would later tell me that they had been struggling for about I5 minutes and that their cries for help to the nearby homes were drowned out by the roar of the spillway. He would also later tell me that when he saw me run back from the spillway's edge that he thought I didn't want to get involved. They had both prayed that God would hear their cries and send someone to help them in their hopeless situation.
With his strong grip failing and his hands numb from the icy water, Shawn didn't know if he could hold her much longer. He simply couldn’t bear the thought of how he would ever explain to Stephanie's mother that he just couldn't hold onto her any longer and that she was swept away by the violence of the current and was lost under the ice.
We both frantically pulled on Stephanie but to no avail. I then yelled at Shawn to take the end of my rope and throw it out into the current so it could circle her and then tie it under her arms. With his remaining strength he was able to do it, holding on to her with one hand and tying the rope with the other.
But the river was still winning this terrible tug of war -- we pulled but we still could not free her. The current wedged her body tightly under the ice. I shouted at Shawn that when I yelled "GO!" to reach over Stephanie as far as he could, grab her by the seat of her snowmobile suit and pull her up against the current. I backed away from the water’s edge to the end of the rope and was able to get leverage when I found a little bump on the ice. I held the rope tightly, braced my feet against the bump and I yelled, “GO!” Shawn grabbed Stephanie as I pulled and she slid out onto the ice past both of us. The force of the current had ripped off her boots and her long black stockings were hanging far below her feet when she finally popped out onto the ice.
After a quick look to make sure Shawn was OK, I got Stephanie on the back of my machine and told her to hang on tight. We raced back up the trail, across the river, up a steep bank and skidded into the front yard of a home where a young college student looked at us in surprise. I told him she had been in the river for some time and we needed help fast. He yelled at his sister as we took off Stephanie’s snowmobile suit. The young lady put her in a warm shower. Shawn came to the house just a few moments later and we talked face to face for the first time without our helmets on. He was profoundly grateful. Stephanie was going to be alright, but I will never forget that look of terror in her eyes.
I don't know how Shawn and Stephanie are doing today (2000), but I assume they are both fine. She will be about 28 and I will be 70. But at times I still wonder why I felt so compelled to ride to the Red River of the North on a day when common sense dictated otherwise, on a day when I knew the ride would be so difficult. What was it that urged me to go under such adverse conditions and rough riding? And why had I returned for the rope? And why, after stopping half way, had I decided to continue? And why didn't I stop to rest my arms under Monastery Bridge as I normally did? And why did I start going south but almost immediately reversed course to go north toward the spillway? And why did I push the old racer to its maximum speed to get there? And why, when I went back to look at the scene three days later, was the thin ice we had been struggling on completely gone? And why was the rope just long enough to reach a little bump in the ice where I was able to get the needed leverage to help pull Stephanie out of the icy water?
Some might consider it a coincidence. But I believe God heard their cries for help.
Copyright 2008, All Rights Reserved
Dan Vander Ark
I am very impressed. This article really demonstrates the hand of God in our lives. Anyone who has experienced such divine guidance will always realise that we are all here for such a time as this.
I am not very versed in the nuts and bolts of writing but feel that this incident would be a success in any magazine. Good on You.