Warden Wire encore: 'When the victim is your friend' - a warden's story about loss
Published: May 24, 2013 in Wardens in Action
By: Conservation Warden Michael Young/Bureau of Law Enforcement
'It was too late. It was my friend... And, it was preventable'
Warden Michael Young of Shiocton wrote this column long before dawn on April 18, 2011. Hours earlier he helped pull his good friend's body from the river. The images from the river’s edge and the haunting what-ifs made it impossible for Warden Young to find the peace to sleep. So, he got up and wrote this column. The family of the victim has approved the release of Warden Young's column with the hope it can prevent other drowning-related deaths. If it does, the family says sharing their loss will serve as a fitting tribute to their loved one. Warden Wire originally distributed this column April 18, 2012.
Warden Wire today repeats this column as National Safe Boating Week ends and the boating season picks up. The goal of this column is the same today as it was in 2011 -- to prevent drowning-related deaths. Please wear your life jacket any time you are in a boat.
In Memory of Les Riehl
It’s 4 in the morning. I can’t sleep so I get up and make a pot of coffee. As a Wisconsin conservation warden, it’s not unusual for me to have insomnia. I get it mostly in the spring and fall when I’m running nonstop on complaints.
This morning I can’t sleep because I keep thinking about the body I pulled from the river last night. Just one of the many drowning victims I have assisted with over the years. The difference this time is this was my friend.
Les was at my house yesterday morning to ask if I wanted to go for breakfast and to see how the fish are biting. Since duty called, I had to decline breakfast, and the fishing report was poor. After another 15 minutes of b-s-ing, we went our separate ways.
Fast forward to 4:40 pm. I stopped at a boat landing to talk to a couple of deputies when a radio call came in of someone yelling for help on the river. Since Wardens carry PFDs (personal floatation devices), throw bags and other water emergency equipment, I went along to assist. After a seven-minute light and siren-run, we met with the caller who pointed out the area where he thought he heard the yell.
A half-mile hike to the flooded river and we found nothing. I and one of the deputies flagged down a passing boat and searched the area without locating any person or abandoned boat. A boat tied near shore was thought to belong to the cottage owners. When the registration number was ran through dispatch it was found to be registered to Les’ son. I called Les’ cell phone a couple of times without him answering. I feared the worst.
A quick drive to the other side of the river and we found Les’ truck and trailer at the small boat landing. I borrowed a boat from a local resident and I, and a county sheriff’s deputy, headed back up river. Two other friends heard what was going on and came to the scene to help.
While looking over the boat a second time it was apparent Les fell overboard. The county sheriff’s department called out their patrol boat with the drags and the dive team. Local fire departments were also dispatched for assistance.
We were searching slowly along the bank hoping that Les made it to shore. The deputy with me spotted a small piece of cloth about a foot square in the brush along a snag. After getting closer, he decided it was nothing. I wanted to look it over better just in case.
That’s when we found Les. It was all the four of us could do to get him in the boat due to the strong current of the river.
It was 6:54 p.m… It was too late…. It was my friend…. It was the saddest I have been in a long time…And, it was preventable.
Had Les had on his PFD, he would be alive this morning. We would have breakfast and BS, and we would give him a ration of s--- for falling out of the boat. Instead, we went to talk with his wife and family to consul them, cry with them, and try to make sense of the senseless.
I remember seeing Les in a PFD and asked his son about it. His son said Les only wore it some of the time. PFDs only work if you wear them, please wear your PFD all of the time.
I’ll miss you, Les.
Conservation Warden - Shiocton