Warden Young: When your friend is the victim, and it could've been prevented

Warden Michael Young of Shiocton wrote this column long before dawn a year ago today. Hours earlier he helped pull his good friend's body from the river. The images from the riverís edge and the haunting what-ifs kept the peace to sleep at bay. So he got up and wrote. The family of the victim has approved the release of Warden Young's column with the hope it can prevent other drowning-related deaths. If it does, the family says sharing the anniversary of their loss will serve as a fitting tribute to their loved one. Please wear your life jacket any time you are in a boat.

In Memory of Les Riehl

Itís 4 in the morning. I canít sleep so I get up and make a pot of coffee. As a Wisconsin conservation warden, itís not unusual for me to have insomnia. I get it mostly in the spring and fall when Iím running nonstop on complaints.

This morning I canít sleep because I keep thinking about the body I pulled from the river last night. Just one of the many drowning victims I have assisted with over the years. The difference this time is this was my friend.

Les was at my house yesterday morning to ask if I wanted to go for breakfast and to see how the fish are biting. Since duty called, I had to decline breakfast, and the fishing report was poor. After another 15 minutes of b-s-ing, we went our separate ways.

Fast forward to 4:40 pm. I stopped at a boat landing to talk to a couple of deputies when a radio call came in of someone yelling for help on the river. Since Wardens carry PFDs (personal floatation devices), throw bags and other water emergency equipment, I went along to assist. After a seven-minute light and siren-run, we met with the caller who pointed out the area where he thought he heard the yell.

A half-mile hike to the flooded river and we found nothing. I and one of the deputies flagged down a passing boat and searched the area without locating any person or abandoned boat. A boat tied near shore was thought to belong to the cottage owners. When the registration number was ran through dispatch it was found to be registered to Lesís son. I called Lesís cell phone a couple of times without him answering. I feared the worst.

A quick drive to the other side of the river and we found Lesís truck and trailer at the small boat landing. I borrowed a boat from a local resident and I, and a county sheriffís deputy, headed back up river. Two other friends heard what was going on and came to the scene to help.

While looking over the boat a second time it was apparent Les fell overboard. The county sheriffís department called out their patrol boat with the drags and the dive team. Local fire departments were also dispatched for assistance.

We were searching slowly along the bank hoping that Les made it to shore. The deputy with me spotted a small piece of cloth about a foot square in the brush along a snag. After getting closer, he decided it was nothing. I wanted to look it over better just in case.

Thatís when we found Les. It was all the four of us could do to get him in the boat due to the strong current of the river.

It was 6:54 p.mÖ It was too lateÖ. It was my friendÖ. It was the saddest I have been in a long timeÖAnd, it was preventable.

Had Les had on his PFD, he would be alive this morning. We would have breakfast and BS, and we would give him a ration of s--- for falling out of the boat. Instead, we went to talk with his wife and family to consul them, cry with them, and try to make sense of the senseless.

I remember seeing Les in a PFD and asked his son about it. His son said Les only wore it some of the time. PFDs only work if you wear them, please wear your PFD all of the time.

The same committee is already at work to plan the 2013 event, which will seek to come back stronger than ever as we exit this transitional year. On behalf of the St. Croix Yacht Club, we look forward to working with the community to make this uniquely Cruzan event a proud and prosperous one for all in 2013.

Iíll miss you, Les.

Michael Young
Conservation Warden - Shiocton