Department of Natural Resources Warden Aaron Koshatka of Hayward wasn’t thinking about it when he was rescuing seven canoeists from the strong winds and high waves of Lake Hayward in May, but lessons learned as a recruit during a dangerous flood in August 2018 in Crawford County were automatically put into action.

“What I went through in Crawford and Vernon and Grant counties, it definitely helped me,” Koshatka 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. An eyewitness saw a couple of group’s canoes flip and called 911 after also observed the passengers could not get back in, and the water was still very cold in late May.

Koshatka and his frequent duty partner Sawyer County Recreation Officer Craig DePew answered the call. 

“Your mind goes a million miles an hour and you just move,” Koshatka said, adding he was glad to have Officer DePew 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.”

They didn’t. 

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 effects from the 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,” Koshatka 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.

Veteran wardens classified that night as among the scariest missions of their careers. Koshatka called it an eye-opener, as one of his roles was to sit in the front of the airboat in the dark watching for obstacles. 

Koshatka’s job was not only to watch for these obstacles as Adams operated the airboat over streets in the darkness, thanks to the help of the Viola Fire Department, but also to muscle the boat in place at the doors and windows of homes so residents and pets could be ushered into the airboat.

Now, Koshatka is stationed in Sawyer County, 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.

(Copyright © 2019 APG Media)

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