Snowkiter plunges into Pewaukee Lake
Man says he's mysteriously rescued from icy water
A quiet Sunday morning nearly ended in tragedy on Pewaukee Lake.
Tom Heckenkamp was looking forward to getting out onto the lake to pursue his hobby of snowkiting, a sport in which one uses a kite to drag them across ice or snow on a snowboard.
"I had been planning on going for the first time this year, because the weather has been so bad (warm)…" the Town of Lisbon resident said on Monday morning.
Just 24 hours earlier, Heckenkamp had been struggling for his life on the frigid semi-frozen waters of Pewaukee Lake. The single father of four ventured out onto the ice from Pewaukee's downtown around 9 a.m. He observed the geese floating on open water, but saw ice fishermen nearby on their buckets angling for gamefish.
According to Heckenkamp, ice fishermen told him the ice was about eight-inches thick.
Besides these few hearty souls in search of winter sport, the lake appeared very quiet for a late-January weekend. The snowmobilers and ice skaters that normally dot the lake's horizon this time of year were nowhere to be found.
Nonetheless, Heckenkamp tightened his snowboard's bindings, caught a draft of air and he was off, kiting his way across the ice. Most of the lake was snow-covered, which indicates the formation of an ice layer. Heckenkamp said he noticed a bare patch near Rocky Point as he glided along the lake's frozen surface.
"I've been kiting since 2008, and usually I'm out there quite often, and there's always bare patches at some point, but it's solid ice," he said. "But apparently this was not snow-covered because it probably didn't freeze until after the snow on Friday. I had been already across there a few times already, but I was moving at a pretty good rate so I had no problems."
Then, just as he was crossing over the bare patch again, the wind died, and disaster struck. The weight of his body no longer buoyed lightly atop the thin, newly formed ice, the entire weight of his body applied pressure on the surface.
"My speed was getting down to almost nothing, and all of a sudden I hear this noise, and I look down, and the tip of my snowboard is going through the ice. And I see this black ice, this black water, and the next thing I know, I'm up to my chest deep in water - everything up to my arms.
"I'm holding onto the edge of the ice, and as soon as I got my bearings a bit … I thought, well, I'm pretty strong. I'll just boost myself up."
But it wasn't that easy.
"Well, I had a snowboard on … it's like having a straightjacket on the lower half of your body," Heckenkamp said.
With the snowboard weighing him down in the water and limiting the mobility of his legs to kick out, the 62-year-old Heckenkamp was also facing another obstacle, as the thin ice gave way again and again as he tried to pull himself up.
"The ice was just like paper," he recalled.
He called for help to no avail. None of the fishermen were in sight, and he was a long way from shore.
"I had my hands back up on the ice, and so for the third time I tried to push myself back up. At that point, it just completely gave way. At that point I don't even remember putting my hands back up or trying to get to the ice," he said. "I just had for the first time, a very short realization that I was never going to get out of the water."
How he finally got out of the water remains a blurry recollection, Heckenkamp told a reporter, but he swears it must have been the result of divine intervention.
"Somebody had to pull me out, or something had to pull me out, which I think was my guardian angel. I've never had an experience like this before, but I'm quite convinced that's what it was."
He somehow ended up with his back on the ice with his snowboard still attached to his feet. He said all he remembers was the sound of the ice cracking slowly around him.
"The funny thing is was not only was I lying on my back, but I was just slightly on my left side, and behind me was the hole, but also, I was facing the opposite direction of how I would have been if I had pulled myself up," Heckenkamp said. "Not only would I have been on my belly with my feet dangling with the snowboard in the hole and trying to move it out of the hole, but I would have been facing pretty much where my feet were … So it's really strange."
Finally the sound of cracking ice subsided, and he cautiously moved to release the snowboard's bindings from his feet. He turned onto his stomach, and began crawling on his belly toward the snow-covered, thicker ice, where he eventually kited his way back to shore.
He called emergency dispatch to let them know he had gone through the ice and that he was OK. According to Village of Pewaukee police logs, Heckenkamp called around noon to report the incident.
Heckenkamp said he often snowkites on Pewaukee Lake and Pike Lake in the winter, in addition to open water kiteboarding on Big Muskego Lake, Lake Michigan, and Lake Winnebago in the summer.
Despite the ambitions of many winter sports enthusiasts to get out and try to enjoy winter before spring arrives, Smokey's Bait Shop owner John Laimon said it's a much better idea to stay off the ice for now. According to Laimon, Pewaukee Lake only has about 4 inches of ice near the shore, with plenty of open water.
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