by Lee Marie Reinsch
They call him the ice legend, the ice master, or just that guy who fishes vehicles out of the water.
Don Herman has walked miles on ice to get to sunken cars, trucks, snowmobiles, even a semi. He’s pulled boats, planes, ATVs, motorcycles and people out of the water. Last summer, he pulled out a seaplane that crashed into Lake Winnebago south of Oshkosh during EAA AirVenture. A scuba diver since 1979, Herman also dives for diamond rings, phones, sunglasses and anything of value a person might lose in a lake.
For almost four decades, Herman has operated a company that’s both a question and an answer: Sunk? It’s a dive and ice service company consisting of Herman, a handful of strong young men, a mix of handbuilt and heavy equipment, and a lot of determination.
How did you get into Sunk?
My dad was involved in a fishing club in the 1970s, and they needed a mechanic. Starting when I was 16 or so, if they couldn’t get one of the trucks or something started, I would fix it. A vehicle went in the water in 1978 or 1979, and we pulled it out with a hand come-along, which is a winch you operate by hand. Then another vehicle went in, and we started expanding and building (equipment).
You can’t buy this anywhere, you’ve got to build everything yourself. You have to be kind of a half-wit engineer and figure out what you need. We tried many things, and it took a lot of time to get it perfected. Our first vehicle was in 20 feet of water and it took us a day and a half almost. Now we can pull them out in about five hours. We make it look easy, but there’s quite a bit of equipment and quite a bit of danger to it, and in the beginning it was a challenge, figuring out what you were going to do and getting to it. But the equipment makes it a lot easier.
What kind of equipment do you use?
It’s all handbuilt. We have a couple of portable winches. We took a 1976 Chevy truck my buddy owned and we made it into an ice wrecker: we cut a bunch of stuff off it to make it lighter in weight — we took it down to about 4,000 pounds, whereas normal wreckers weigh about 10,000 pounds. We put a winch on it, and I still use it to this day. It’s been rebuilt a couple of times. We have sled saws that we use to cut the ice; you can walk behind them. We have a boom across that goes back and forth. You actually use the ice to pull out the vehicle.
Your equipment goes on the ice?
We assess what we want to do. When we’re on a lake we’ve never been to before, we call some local guy who knows the ice and will know that lake. We find out where it is, we walk or take a four-wheeler, and drill holes all the way to (the wreck site), sometimes 100 holes. We check the ice every 20 or 30 yards, and we keep checking it, and as long as we have 10 to 12 inches, we keep going.
When we get to 10 inches and it gets less, we’ll walk from there. We cut the ice all the way back, sometimes a quarter mile, cut a flap and pull the vehicle under the ice all the way to the good ice, all the way up to a quarter of a mile. You cut the ice and sink it, two guys in the water standing on it, and push it underwater. It took us six hours to cut a half mile of ice the width of a vehicle.
How many does it take to get a vehicle out?
We usually have myself and four or five other people. Everybody’s got their jobs. We have two divers, the equipment guy who keeps the equipment running, one guy who sets up the boom, a crew that cuts the ice. We all do all the jobs. When we get to a job, one guy starts cutting the ice, one guy starts getting the equipment ready, one guy gets dressed to go diving.
The divers wear ice water dry suits. When I first started out, we wore wet suits, but when you’re young and stupid, you just do that stuff.
How far do you travel for retrievals?
About 100 miles, Stevens Point, Milwaukee, Green Bay. We’ve gone further, but I can’t compete on price with some local wrecker doing it and me driving all that way. I’m not the only guy that does it, but I probably do more than anybody.
What should one do if they break through ice?
You never want to ride it to the bottom, you want to get out as fast as you can. If you feel yourself going in, you want to get the doors open as quick as you can, although you can’t do that with snowmobiles. Most people who drown going through the ice are on snowmobiles, not vehicles.
I always say driving on the ice is just as safe as driving a vehicle on the roads, because you figure that, out on Lake Winnebago in a good year, there are probably 80,000 to 100,000 vehicles go out on that lake. During sturgeon season, it’s 25,000 vehicles in one weekend. There’s only a few incidences (of vehicles going through the ice). Now with social media, my business is slower than it used to be. I used to do about 30 to 35 a year; now I do about 15 to 20.
How has social media slowed your business?
If there’s a bad spot on the ice, usually somebody takes a picture and puts it on Facebook and it travels like wildfire and keeps everybody safe. It put a little damper in my business, but it made everybody a little safer. I check the ice every day, and do an ice report on my Facebook page. I pulled out a little kid about five years ago so I started doing ice reports. I’d rather lose a little business than have someone lose their life.
What’s the biggest vehicle you’ve pulled out?
A 72,000-pound semi. It took 14 hours. It was on (Interstate) 41, went off the highway and went down into a lake and sank. It took a lot of people, and I had to hire a couple big wreckers. We used a crane. It was 10 degrees below zero, with minus 25 windchill factor, and we had to do it at night because they wouldn’t shut down the highway. We worked in the dark until 6 a.m.
What is your hourly rate?
I do it by the job, but I’d say roughly $700 to $1,100 an hour. That covers all the crew, insurance and everything.
Does insurance cover these people’s boo-boos?
If you have comprehensive on your vehicle plan, then yes. If you have liability and comp, the comp will cover it. But I’ve heard they’ll only cover it once.
How many accidents are alcohol-related?
Not too many, not many at all. I’m close to 1,000 jobs and I don’t think more than five or six were alcohol related. Normally it’s people driving around out there, or going to find someone, or young kids who go out there playing around and don’t know where they’re going. But alcohol-related, there hasn’t been a lot of them.
Back before GPS and all of that, I’d get most of my work during a snowstorm when people are out there, they get lost and they go in.
Has GPS decreased instances of vehicles going in?
When GPS came in, my business dropped a little bit, too, because what happens is when it gets foggy out there and the fog sets in late, or late in the year, the (navigational) tree line is off and they get disoriented or lost out there. Now that people have GPS, they pretty much know where their shoreline is now, but before GPS, fog and snowstorms were probably the reasons why half the people went in. They just get disoriented and hit the river line.
Can recovered vehicles be fixed?
They total them out now. Years ago, before they all had computer components, I got them running. You’d take the seats out, put them in the oven at a body shop, take the carburetor apart, take the spark plugs out, and we’d get them all running.
What else do you get out of the water?
I don’t just do cars and vehicles. I do boats too and anything that can sink in a lake. This year we pulled out a plane that went in the water during EAA. We’ve done diamond rings. People will lose a $500 pair of sunglasses off a dock someplace and we’ll go dive for it. When I do the diving, I only charge $100 an hour when it’s warm out. We charge more in the cold.
Do you enjoy it?
I have around 600 ice dives in. This is my 37th or 38th year, so I must enjoy it. Winter is really busy for me. I’ve been doing all the plowing for the Otter Street Fishing Club for over 43 years. I put the bridges out, I tell people when to go out on the ice and when not to, or they call me. They call me the Ice Legend.