By: Joanne M. Haas/WDNR Bureau of Law Enforcement
Warden Aaron Koshatka wasn't thinking about it when he was rescuing canoeists from the strong winds and high waves of Lake Hayward in May, but lessons learned as a recruit during the perilous August 2018 night rescues in a rapidly flooding Crawford County community were automatically put into action as effective and efficient emergency reflexes.
"What I went through in Crawford, and Vernon and Grant counties, it definitely helped me," Warden Aaron said, reflecting upon how he reacted to pull several canoeists to safety on May 31. "There were a lot of take-aways from those recruit training experiences I know how to do now."
Among those benefitting from the warden's recruit lessons are the children and adults who were on an outing that went awry in the strong current and cold water. A witness saw a couple of group's canoes flip and called 911 after also observing the passengers could not get back in. And the water was still very, very cold in late May.
Warden Aaron and frequent duty partner Sawyer County Recreation Officer Craig DePew answered the call. "Your mind goes a million miles an hour and you just move," Warden Aaron said, adding he was glad to have Officer Craig with him as he is well-versed on the county's numerous waters. "On our end, we were very well-organized, and our goal was not to waste any time."
The two officers teamed to rescue four shivering teenagers and one adult from the water and gathered two more teens who were beached with a canoe under a Highway 77 bridge. Thankfully all had life jackets and the worst injuries appeared to be very, very cold. The strong wind and high waves, coupled with inexperience, were too much for the school group to handle and the canoes flipped. Without life jackets the outcome could have been much worse, a great reminder for those involved and others who enjoy boating.
"Once back on land, we did a head count to ensure all were accounted for. We asked if anyone needed medical attention - and that was it," he said.
In the days that followed the Lake Hayward rescues, he realized what he learned during his recruit training with Warden Cody Adams in Crawford County on those dangerous flood rescues after dark, and more rescues in Vernon and Grant counties came through in how he handled the Lake Hayward rescues.
"Things like just knowing how to pull someone into the boat. Knowing all of us wardens should carry our own throw bag in the boat. How to toss an anchor and be able to grab the person we need to rescue," he said.
It was August 2018 when then-DNR Recruit Warden Aaron Koshatka, in his third week working with Warden Cody Adams, went on night rescue missions in Crawford and Vernon counties after torrential rains pushed the Kickapoo River into La Farge and Viola with a powerful fury never seen before.
While the veteran wardens classified that night as among if not the scariest mission of their careers to date, Warden Aaron called it an eye-opener as one of his roles was to site in the front of the airboat watching in the dark watching for obstacles. That included looking up to avoid the power lines right above their heads as the airboat passed beneath. "Cody's airboat sits so high in the water the power lines were right over our heads as we passed."
Warden Aaron's job was not only to watch for these obstacles asWarden Cody operated the airboat over streets in the darkness- thanks to the help of the Viola Fire Department - and to muscle the boat in place at the doors and windowsof homes so residents and pets could be ushered into the airboat.
Lessons learned, lessons in action as life emergencies arrive with no warning.
Now, Warden Aaron is stationed in Sawyer County in the Northwoods where he hoped he would land - not far from his childhood home in Polk County. "There is so much water here I could be at a lake a day and still not get to them all," he said.
Wherever he goes, the lessons of Crawford County are with him. And that's good news for everyone.
If you have information regarding natural resource violations, you may confidentially report by calling or texting: VIOLATION HOTLINE: 1-800-TIP-WDNR or 1-800-847-9367. The hotline is in operation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Trained staff relay report information to conservation wardens.