Close call for capsized hunters

Four locals rescued from frigid lake near Bemidji


Clint Riese
News Editor

What started as a fun afternoon of hunting for four local young men last week ended in relief, with more than a fair share of terror in between.

The Bemidji State University students, all of whom graduated from Forest Lake High School this spring, entered Three Island Lake in Port Hope Township late last Monday afternoon headed to a bog to hunt duck. Rescued from the frigid lake around 7 p.m. were Chase Chamberlin, 19, of Forest Lake; Mitch Kohler, 19, of Wyoming; Collin Johnson, 19, of Forest Lake; and Hunter Smith, 18, of Stacy.


Their boat capsized on the way back to shore, and the friends spent 15 or 20 minutes in the water. All were fine and recovered quickly, but had they spent even a few more minutes in the lake, they were later told, it likely would have been their last few.


An afternoon hunting on the lake was nothing new for the locals – Three Island Lake is only 10 minutes from campus. This particular hunt was nondescript, but the trip back was anything but. In choppy water just before sunset, the men ran into trouble.


“We turned too sharp and had too many people in the boat and we flipped,” said Smith. “It was a slow tip. I remember I was in the front and the last one in [the water]. I saw them three jump out and thought…‘This is going to be bad.’”

The submerged crew first tried to right the boat but quickly found that to be a lost cause. They kicked off their heavy waders, scrambled to grab life vests or floatable hunting decoys and started kicking for shore. However, they were in 10-12 feet of water near the middle of the lake and even the closest shore was about 200 yards away.


Smith said their minds went into a high level of focus.

“We were talking,” he said. “Everything kind of flashes before your eyes – everything you learned in your classes and what your parents taught you. We knew we had to keep moving and just try to get to shore as fast as we could.”

The men could feel their bodies tighten and slow, Smith said, but eventually their yells for help caught the ear of a worker at Woodhaven Resort, the only one on the lake. That worker and a bystander made it out to the crew in a small vessel and rescued Johnson. The rest were soon picked up by a host of agencies that responded. Those included the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office, the Bemidji Fire Department, Minnesota State Patrol and Bemidji Ambulance Service.


The men’s body temperatures had fallen to 89 and 90 degrees. A sheriff’s deputy estimated that the water temperature was between 40-45 degrees, Smith said.

The hunters were stripped of their wet clothes, covered in blankets and hot pads and hooked up to IVs. To their surprise and relief, not a one required hospitalization.

Looking Back

They returned to campus that night donning only blankets.

“Everyone was looking at us like, ‘What the hell have you guys done?’” Smith said. “We had a lot of stories to tell the rest of the night.”

Among those filled in was Jackson McDowell, a classmate of the group at both Forest Lake High School and Bemidji State. He would have been hunting with his friends if not for a night class.

The four survivors that night also made sure to return to the lake and thank the two people that spotted them and called for help. Without them, Smith said, the group likely would not have reached shore, as they were picked up closer to the boat than the shore.

The four men also returned to the lake the next day and recovered some of their belongings from the lake’s surface. Others, including their guns, were lost. So, too, was the lone duck shot the prior afternoon.

“It was an expensive duck,” said Smith.

Expensive, he added, but not nearly as expensive as it could have been.