From Looking Back at Lake Owen, a frightening 1979 near tradegy in her own words:

“Gretchen Bell Hannaford: A Frigid, Frightful Introduction

My introduction to Lake Owen turned out to be a scary experience.  Many, many years later, a few of my Lake Owen friends heard about this story, and despite my reluctance as a typical shy Norwegian, they persuaded me to re-tell it. Here are my remembrances with the aid of an old newspaper article.

My late husband, our children, and three other couples and their children were spending a long weekend of winter recreation and relaxation in rented condos on the south end of Lake Owen in late January, 1979.  We typically took turns in small groups to go for walks or cross country ski since some had to stay back to watch small children.  Late that Saturday afternoon, several of us decided to go skiing. Friend Nancy Brown from Oshkosh and I decided that we would split from group as a way of going a shorter distance (we had to get back to finish dinner prep) and took a shortcut across the tip of the lake.  As recounted in the newspaper article, they could see lights from the condominiums just coming on.  It was really beautiful – beautiful as only a Wisconsin winter can be.  Quiet and clean and cozy with the tucked-in kind of coziness, that despite the cold, gives one a sense of peace and security.

After some distance, my Nancy saw a hole about 20 feet away–probably cut by an ice fisherman.  And then we heard someone from the group a long way ahead on land yell back something before they turned and skied off in a different direction, but we couldn’t clearly hear what they said.  Never mind, we kept on, cutting a trail. There’s a special kind of satisfaction in cutting a ski trail through fresh Wisconsin powder.  They were both comfortable in this beautiful northern bowl of a lake.  Then suddenly alarm flashed through Nancy.  Her ski poles felt heavier.  She looked down.  They were coated with slush. “Gretchen, I think we’d better head in.  I’m not so sure about this ice.”  It was too late.  Her skis sank into the slush.

I was ahead of Nancy and had gone through the ice just seconds before she did.  I remember being in deep, cold water. Although I was scared, somehow I was able to use my pole to push down and release my bindings under water. I lifted my skis up and placed them on the ice directly ahead of me. I then used the skis to pull myself up out of the water by pushing the skis ahead a few inches at a time and simultaneously dragging my body out very carefully, flat, on the ice.  I could hear Nancy behind me becoming frantic, thrashing and yelling that she couldn’t get one of her bindings released. “Oh God! Nancy thought desperately.  The more she searched in the icy water, the more her temples throbbed in fear.”  I knew we needed to get out of that water quickly because it was extremely cold (I think several degrees below zero) and I was worried about Nancy who was still in the water.

I turned around by crawling and pushed a ski towards Nancy.  Gretchen … laid her own ski at the edge of the puddle of slush. Nancy shifted her weight to Gretchen’s ski.  Together, their fingers probed the icy gray water for the binding.  They guided the tip of a ski pole to the hole in the spring release.  Gretchen pushed.  The pole glanced off the release and slipped away. Nancy was in a state of panic.  In silence, her ears were screaming.  She couldn’t think.  She jammed her ski forward and backward.   It wouldn’t be dislodged.  She was stuck.  They sought the hole in the binding again.  SNAP!  Gretchen leaned her weight on the pole.  Nancy felt her foot slide free.  She was close to tears.  Gretchen soothed her; urged her on. ‘Nancy, come on.  We’ve got to get to shore!

It was 20 yards or more to the nearest point of land.  They sloshed, knee deep in icy slush all the way.  She wasn’t sure how long it took – it seemed forever.  When they reached the shore there was a 15 foot bluff rising out of the water. “It was as close to vertical as anything I have ever seen,” said Nancy.  “The closest way – the only way – was up.  Gretchen made it up first.”  Nancy slipped and slid and heaved herself upward, grabbing whatever undergrowth she was fortunate enough to find poking through the snow.  At last they were up and over.  There was a cottage.  There were lights on inside. They saw somebody walking inside.  Nancy called for help. “We’re cold.  We’ve been in the lake.  We’re freezing.  Please, could you drive us back to our condominium?” She was stunned by his reaction.  “He couldn’t have cared less,” she said.”  “He told us he didn’t have a car and was busy.” “Let’s go on, Nancy,” Gretchen said.  “We’ve got to move.”  To have skied home from there would have been an easy thing.  It was a mile or two.  But their skis were encrusted with ice.  Skiing was impossible.  They started to walk, sinking thigh-deep in the snow every third or fourth step.  Nancy knew she couldn’t possibly go on.  She told Gretchen to go ahead and get help. “She grabbed my shoulders and shook me,” said Nancy.  “She hugged me and kissed me.  She said to me, ‘Don’t worry.  We’re going to make it.  It isn’t much farther and we’re going to do it together.’  “She told me later that I was hyperventilating.  She was incredibly worried.”

They came to a hard-packed road.  The walking became much easier.  It was still another mile to the condo.  Nancy said, “When I got back, I collapsed and I wept.  I just couldn’t stop crying.  When I took off my ski pants, my legs from the knees up were bright red and burning.  From the knees down, they were gray.”  The ordeal ended in the sauna.  She stayed there until the shaking stopped and her body regained a normal temperature.  It had begun in fun.  It nearly ended in tragedy.  “I don’t know what we were thinking.  I saw that hole.  It just didn’t register” said Nancy.  The hole had been where the heavy snow had pushed through the thin ice underneath.  The words from the friend ahead on the trail had been a warning NOT to go out on the lake.

She credits her friend Gretchen with her life.  “She bore the burden of getting the two of us home.  I was no help to anyone,” said Nancy.  “I just hope everyone who cross country skis knows NOT to venture out on an unfamiliar lake…and NOT to tackle new trails alone.”  Unbeknownst to us, our husbands had become worried that we hadn’t returned and had gone out looking for us.  We were all so relived to find us back at the condo.  Then, because we knew no better, we went in the sauna and all rubbed our (mine was mostly gray) skin trying to warm up.  We later learned that we probably should have warmed up slowly and shouldn’t have gone right into a sauna.   And rubbing our skin was not a good thing to do either as I guess it can damage nerve endings.

So, my first adventure on the lake ended safely and happily without any negative side effects.  Who would have known that about 25 years later, I would end up as a resident of this gorgeous lake?  I still go out skiing…but mostly on land.  My friend Nancy moved to Aspen and has been there ever since – enjoying down hill skiing.”