A cold, tragic night on Mud Lake

The retelling of the Mud Lake tragedy was very emotional for Gary Dahlberg of New London, and at times, both Gary and this reporter had tears running down their faces. Gary was sharing something he will never forget and which haunts him to this day.


Gary Dahlberg, of New London, with a bunch of mallards they shot one hunting season. Gary will never forget the tragic night of Oct. 26, 1969, when he lost his friend, Harold, during a duck hunt on Mud Lake. Contributed photo


The story is about three Mud Lake duck hunters, Gary, his dad, Dennis, and a friend of theirs, Harold Miller. It happened on Mud Lake, now known as Lake Monongalia, on Oct. 26, 1969, when Gary was 26 years old. He described Mud Lake as a large body of water, a backwater of the Middle Fork of the Crow River. It’s used basically for duck hunting, but in the summertime, they do catch some fish up there, but there’s no place on that lake that a human can stand up without having the water over their head.

Gary and his dad had been hunting there for many years. Gary said he didn’t have as much experience as his dad did. His dad had a 14-foot Alumacraft boat, which they thought was seaworthy, but it was quite heavy. “That’s what we used for duck hunting.”

The day before the tragedy they hunted some ducks on the lake and didn’t have very good luck. The next day turned out to be a very windy day so they decided they weren’t going hunting. “I was up to my folks’ place for Sunday dinner, and we were sitting there, and the phone rings, and it’s Harold Miller, our friend from Willmar.” Harold, he said, was the county treasurer at the time, and he asked Gary’s dad if they could get out hunting one last time. “Being the county treasurer, taxes came due on Nov. 1, and he was going to be too busy to ever hunt again. This was Oct. 26. My dad said, ‘Harold, it’s terribly windy out there, that’s why we’re not going to go today.’ But he begged my dad into getting out for his last duck hunt for the year.”

Gary, who was married at the time and had a 1-year-old son, went home and got his heavy clothes on, met his dad, and away they went with Harold out to the hunting club on the southwest shore of Mud Lake, then they headed out onto the lake. Gary said the week before, one of the poles that held up their portable blind had broken, so they went into the woods and cut a new ironwood pole. “That pole ended up being a lifesaver for us….we found out later that green ironwood doesn’t float, and all the other poles in the boat floated away from the boat after we tipped over.”

He said they went out on the lake and hunted ducks and were sitting there having a good time. He believed they shot about seven ducks, which in those days wasn’t too many, but it was something, and they discussed a lot of things. “One thing I remember Harold bringing up was the United Fund. I think he was part of it. It was new at the time, and he was very much in favor, and he was explaining it to us. This was 1969, and I’ve been a proponent of that fund ever since because of that conversation with Harold way back then.”

As they were sitting in the boat, a little mouse came running from underneath the seat and across Harold’s lap. “He jumped, and my dad caught it, and he threw it out in the weeds. We saw that little guy sitting out in the weeds, and I’ll never forget my dad saying ‘Boy, it’s going to be a cold winter for that little guy.’ Little did we know that that night would be one of the longest in our lives.”

The hunt was pretty much over with since it was close to sundown, and they picked up the blind and the decoys, and because Harold was cold, they put him in the front of the boat and put the blinds on top of him. “That probably made our boat a little too front heavy.” They had a five-horse motor on the boat. “We started into these big waves heading to shore. It was still daylight out, and I remember looking up in the sky and the coots, called mud hens, which you hardly ever see fly in a flock, were thousands of them all over the skies. What they were doing is they were going in circles like a whirlwind all over Mud Lake, and all the coots were coming up to join them because they decided that because of the weather and heavy wind they were going to head south on the wind that night.” Gary said there are very few hunters that ever get to see that sight because they only fly after dark. You never see coots fly during the day except for one or two but never in a flock. “We were enjoying that sight, and about that time, the back end of the boat rode a huge wave, and the point went down into the next wave, and we filled with water and overturned.”

Within a second all three of them were in the water, he said. His dad grabbed Harold, and they got him on top of the boat with them. “I was on the point hanging on for dear life, and my dad was on the back by the motor. The boat was overturned, and there we were in heavy waves hanging on for dear life.”

Gary said Harold was with them for probably 20 minutes to a half hour on his hands and knees. “It was hard to hang on because of the heavy waves, big waves – I do recall a huge wave came in, and Harold gave a big grunt, and he dove in on the other side of the boat from me, about 8 feet away. He never moved an arm. He didn’t splash, and I hollered and screamed ‘Swim Harold; swim Harold’ and all he did was just sit there and look at me, and down went his head, and his hat floated back up and that is burned in my memory forever.”


Dennis Dahlberg is pictured during one of his hunting experiences. Dennis was with his son Gary and their friend, Harold, when Harold passed away during a duck hunt in 1969. Contributed photo


Of course, all they could do was hang on, he said, because if you dropped you were dead. They were soaked completely with that cold water. All they could do was just hang on and holler for help. “As the night went on, I recall looking at my hands. I didn’t have gloves on, and they were just turning blue, and they hurt from the cold. I got charley horses (cramps) from kicking trying to stay up on the boat. My legs were just hurting so bad and pretty soon that hurt kind of went away and then all of a sudden my body started going up and down shaking tremendously, and all you could do was hang on and hope for the best.”

They were there for another hour hanging onto that boat, and by this time, it was pitch black. “I could hardly see my dad on the other end. We talked about family. We basically did not stand a chance to live through this because we were in the pitch black in the middle of a lake, and nobody else is out there to hear us, so all we could do was holler for help.” He said they discussed what was going on in the family and how they were going to get along without them. Gary continued, saying that throughout the hour, his dad said a couple of times he kind of wanted to let loose. Gary thought it was probably to save him by doing that. “I think he didn’t want to see me die in front of him. I begged him to stay on, and at one time, we even tried to turn the boat over. He wanted to sit in the boat and thought it would float away.”

They weren’t moving from their decoys at all, he said, and the boat wasn’t moving, but they didn’t know why. “We tried to tip it over, and we lost some air under it, and I said ‘Dad, we’re making it this way. Let’s just keep doing what we’re doing.’ And we did. We pretty much said our prayers and our goodbyes, but we just kept hollering and hollering and hollering ‘help, help, help.’”

All of a sudden, they saw lights come out of the hunting club, which is on a hill on the south shore. “At that time, we were in a mellow state. Our bodies were so cold that we were talking kind of out of our head, and I remember dad saying ‘The damn fool is sitting there listening to the radio.’” That’s what people did in the daylight, Gary said, hunters would come out and look over the land and the water to see the hunters, but there was no reason someone would sit there in the dark with the radio on. It happened to be his uncle, Tully Miller, and his wife, Betty. They had been to the Cedar Inn for supper, and on the way home, they decided out of nowhere to stop at Gary’s mom’s house to see how many ducks they got. She told Tully they weren’t back yet, that they usually don’t get in until seven. “Tully knew that daylight savings time had switched the night before, and we should have been in by six, so he hopped in his car and came out to our landing, and he actually could hear us hollering out on the lake.” Gary said he and his dad were in the final stages of hypothermia and getting very sleepy, and their minds would go in and out of reality.

At the time Tully had the biggest boat in the hunting club. “He got in his boat in the pitch black and came out on the lake looking for us. We thought we heard him once going by, but your mind is so goofy that we just forgot about it and here it had been Tully driving past us.” He went out to where he thought they’d be hunting, and they weren’t there. He shut his motor off, and he heard them hollering ‘help’ again, and he came with that boat. “The good Lord directed him right to our boat. I saw this big black blob above me, and I stuck my arm up, and he popped me in that boat. I think I weighed about 300 pounds soaking wet, and he had superior strength. I remember I passed out, and I remember him kicking me saying ‘Gary get to the back of the boat, I’m trying to get your dad in, and we’re taking in water.’” Gary crawled to the back of the boat and passed out again. “Somehow he got my dad in the boat and away we went to shore.”

When they got to shore he said he was going for help and asked if they would be alright. He went to a little house by the hunting club where Ernie and Etta Bowles were. Etta cleaned ducks for duck hunters. “Tully went down there to call the fire department. We didn’t have emergency services in them days.”

When he got there, he found Del Haverly and Charlie Dahl getting some ducks cleaned. Tully sent them up to get Gary and his dad. Gary said in the meantime he had seen Harold’s car on top of the hill, and he told his dad he was going up to get in the car because he was so cold. “I got up there, got into the car and started it and passed out with the door wide open. My dad flopped out of the boat and felt dry leaves on his face, and he passed out, and half of his body was laying in the water when they found him.”

Charlie got them into the car, he said, recalling that his dad’s arm was frozen so it was out the window, he couldn’t put it in the car. “We drove with the window open all the way. It was so cold that evening that the water was frozen all over us. We headed for my mom’s house, and I remember Charlie going up the back alley saying I’m going to see if Swede’s home, Swede Haverly, and he went up that alley about 60 miles an hour, and no he wasn’t home, and he kept going up to mom’s house and pulled up right to the front door.” There were some visitors there at the time, and they all helped get Gary and his dad into the living room. “They started ripping our clothes off and rubbing us, which was not a good deal, but I recall Dick Morelan with the highway patrol, putting a thermometer in my mouth, and when the read it, he immediately called the ambulance, which took us to Rice Hospital in Willmar.”

Gary said he remembered on the way to the hospital, he was kind of in and out of consciousness. “I remember it’s black in that ambulance, it’s dark, and the wind is coming on me, and I suppose that was heat, but it felt cold. The attendant was hitting us to keep us awake. Out of the black I hear my dad talking, and for the first time, I knew my dad was alive…it was just a happy time.”

They got to the hospital, and they piled blankets on them and came with broth. “I drank the whole canister of broth. I could feel it going into my limbs and she came with another one of hot chocolate, and I drank that whole thing too. It was such a good feeling to feel that warmth getting into your body.”

Gary spent a night in the hospital. His dad had some problems with his lungs and spent two nights there. “But after that we got home, and from crawling up that hill, I lost my arches so I couldn’t walk for about four days. Other than that, it was just the psychological effect on us. My dad always felt guilty because our good friend had drowned with us. And I really think Harold had a heart attack with the groan and grunt he gave out. He didn’t splash like a normal person would try to swim or do something. He didn’t do anything.” He said his dad felt guilty; he was basically the guide, and his good friend had died with them.

Gary said they didn’t hunt anymore that year, but the urge to hunt was so great and traditional with their family that they got a bigger boat and went out hunting again the next year. “Eventually we got an 18-foot Lund, and no matter how hard you try you can’t tip it. We’ve been hunting in that for many years. My dad passed away in 1977, and I’m still hunting without him and I’m now 74 years old.”

One thing Gary recalled that happened during the night after they’d tipped into the water was Harold asking “Are we moving Denny?” and his dad saying “Not an inch Harold.” They didn’t know why they weren’t moving, Gary said, but found out later that the green ironwood pole (all the other poles had floated away) had sunk down in the mud underneath the boat and lodged in the seat and actually held the boat up through the night. Had the green pole not lodged in the mud, the boat would have rolled over and over in the huge waves, and they would have drown, Gary said.

Gary said he’s grateful for his life, but it’s a night he will always remember, and it comes back to haunt him again and again. He said the old Trinity Church in New London had a mural in front of the church with Christ standing in a boat in rough water and grabbing Peter’s arm as he lifts him up. “The mural was in the Historical Society in the Old Lebanon Church, and every time I saw it I thought, ‘That is my Tully pulling me from the water.’”

#GaryDahlberg #HuntingTragedy #Hypothermia

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