Warden Tyler Strelow of La Crosse calls weekends, like the one Wisconsin just experienced, airboat season.
This is one season to avoid.
“This is the time of year when we get the calls for rescues. Ice fishers, trappers, and snowmobilers are pushing the limits of ice safety,” Strelow said. “There is still snow on many of the snowmobile trails that lead to water. And this is the time of year that the ice is starting to go out."
That means anglers, snowmobilers and anyone else can break through the water’s dangerously thinning ice cover with very little warning. When that happens, conservation wardens working the Mississippi River beat turn to the sleek, flat-bottomed airboat with the giant propeller in a cage at the boat’s back to make the rescues.
Warden Strelow’s team has three airboats -– the only team of the Wisconsin Conservation Warden Service equipped with these vessels that can cross a river of ice chunks.
“These boats are designed for use on the Mississippi River. They are really the only tool that can get you out to somebody in broken ice,” Strelow said. “Airboats are a very unique piece of equipment.”
So unique that they require specialized training. Strelow and three other wardens based in far western Wisconsin -- Bob Jumbeck, Chris Shea and Cody Adams -- joined their Minnesota counterparts for a Feb. 28 to March 1 airboat training on the backwaters of the Mississippi River near Winona, Minn.
The Minnesota DNR hosted the training to help increase the confidence abilities of law enforcement airboat operators.
The training included a classroom section, along with all aspects of vessel operation as skilled airboat pilot.
“These are truly amazing vessels,” Strelow said.
In recent years, airboats have become well-used tools for public safety and emergency response –- such as in responses to floods, shallow water and ice rescue operations.
“Because airboats are such a unique piece of equipment, the training is about getting a lot of ‘stick’ time. You use a stick to steer the boat,” Strelow said. “It’s about getting a lot of time behind the wheel to learn where they can go.”
Airboats are capable of operating over water, ice, broken ice, snow, sand and logs.
“That’s what makes these boats an ideal tool for rescues, they can go just about anywhere,” Strelow said.
In the meantime, Strelow urged everyone to learn where they can go during this season of transition. That means staying off the ice from now on – whether you’re an ice fisher, trapper or a snowmobiler.
Ride sober, slow down and stay on a land trail, he said.
Wisconsin has endured 18 snowmobiler fatalities this season.
To learn more, visit: http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/snowmobile
Visit the Warden Wire, Wisconsin's latest news from its conservation law enforcement team, at http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/wardenwire/