A blog of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation

Warden Search & Rescue

Sunday, March 7, 2021

I received a message from Warden Bailey JOHNSON at approximately 9:17 PM on Saturday 3/6/2021 about lost kayakers, somewhere on the North Canadian River above Canton Lake.  Warden JOHNSON advised Warden Lt. Mark WALKER and Warden Blake PEARSON were on scene would be using their assigned boat to access the river via the lake.  Warden JOHNSON said he was headed to the area to assist.  I began organizing a group of Wardens to assist and was headed to the area when we were told the two men (ages 40 something to 50 something years old) had built a fire and were comfortable.  We were advised they would attempt to make it out to safety at first light on Sunday 3/7/2021.

Approximate location information was obtained and we knew they were able to communicate with their fellow camp members via handheld radios.  I arranged to meet Warden JOHNSON in the area no later than 7:00 am on Sunday to assist.  Warden Tucker BLACKBURN requested to assist as well, so I picked him up and we headed to Canton WMA.

Warden JOHNSON met us near the group’s camp and we borrowed their handheld radio and were told the lost kayakers had turned the radio off to conserve battery, but advised they would turn it on around 8:00 AM.  Warden BLACKBURN asked pertinent questions about the kayakers and obtained useful information regarding the health and well being of the two men.  We were told one of the men had been very distraught over the incident and experienced a rash and severe anxiety.  We were also told the kayakers had ditched their kayaks, the night before, in their attempt to walk/wade/swim out of the area.

We were joined in the search and rescue efforts by Warden PEARSON, Biologist Thad POTTS and Technician Chase KOKOJAN.  Wardens BLACKBURN, JOHNSON, and I went to and area closest to the last known location of the kayakers.  We traversed through a wooded area to the edge of a marsh/slough that is south of the North Canadian River.   Warden PEARSON, Biologist POTTS, and Technician KOKOJAN were on the north side of the river and Wardens BLACKBURN and JOHNSON were on the south side of the river.  At approximately 7:30 AM, we attempted to make contact using the handheld radio borrowed from fellow camp members of the kayakers.  We had no response on the radio when we tried to reach the men.  Warden BLACKBURN took advantage of a good vantage point and the light winds to yell for one of the kayakers named Mark.  Almost immediately after Warden BLACKBURN yelled, “Mark”, we heard a responding yell from across the marsh/slough, directly north of us.  It was difficult to make out all that was being said during an exchange of information, but we were able to get the men to turn on their radio so we could communicate better with them.  We were able to confirm both men were, “Okay” and still had a fire going to keep them warm.  We were also informed the one man was, “better” and was not experiencing any extreme anxiety currently.  The men advised they were hungry and tired, but otherwise okay.  We were able to see their exact location from our vantage point, but unfortunately the approximately 300 yard wide marsh/slough was surrounded by thick cattails and reeds that were approximately 50-60 yards wide before open water.  The open water was determined to be at least chest deep (likely deeper) and with air temperatures in the upper 30’s to lower 40’s and water temperatures in the 45-50 degree range, and  increasing south winds, would be extremely dangerous to anyone entering.  Also, the sometimes deep and thick mud would also hinder physical movement and make the trek almost impossible.

Luckily, one of the camp members had driven home and retrieved a 4 person canoe to attempt the rescue.  We did not have paddles for the canoe, only some push poles, a round point shovel, and a trolling motor.  We dragged/carried the canoe through sometimes thick timber to the edge of the marsh/slough where we’d seen the men, earlier.  We were assisted by three of the campers, but it was quickly determined an attempt to drag the canoe across the very thick, matted, muddy, and increasingly deep water in the cattails would be extremely difficult and then trying to enter the canoe from such an environment would be nearly impossible.  Not to mention the fact there were no paddles to propel us across the open and unknown depth of water (trolling motor and battery were deemed to be too heavy to drag with the canoe in the first place) was too risky to attempt.  Also, we were advised by the stranded men they did not believe they could physically endure attempting to walk/wade/swim any further due to exhaustion, hunger, and exposure to the elements.

At this point, Warden PEARSON, Biologist POTTS, and Technician KOKOJAN were on the south side of the river, and were attempting to find another better access point to the open water of the marsh/slough.  Also, I contacted USFWS Federal Wildlife Officer (FWO) Ken GRIFFITH near Salt Plains NWR for assistance with his Air Boat.  FWO GRIFFITH was bringing his air boat, but it would take approximately 2 hours for him to arrive.  It was approximately 9:30 AM at this time, and the winds were increasing out of the south.  Wind gusts were over 30 mph, but thankfully the air temperatures were increasing into the upper 50’s and lower 60’s.

We abandoned the effort to traverse the cattails and were notified by Warden PEARSON, they had found a better access point to the open water of the marsh/slough, approximately ½ mile west of us.  Our hope was to launch USFWS FWO GRIFFITH’s air boat from that location and rescue the stranded men.  Upon further inspection, it was very unlikely the air boat could be launched from the spot, but it was believed the camper’s canoe (along with trolling motor) could be launched and a rescue successfully completed.  Warden JOHNSON requested use of the canoe, again, he and Warden BLACKBURN entered the canoe on the marsh/slough and began the trek of approximately 1/3 mile to the stranded men.  Luckily, we had a digital handheld radio (issued by Beckham Co. Emergency Management) and Biologist POTTS had an identical handheld radio, so we could communicate with Wardens BLACKBURN and JOHNSON.  The gusting winds made the trek across the open water more difficult and dangerous in the lightweight canoe.

Warden BLACKBURN radioed they’d reached the men and were going to load one man in the canoe and return with him.  After a longer period of time than believed necessary for us to see the men returning, I radioed them and asked about their status.  Unfortunately, Warden BLACKBURN stated they’d become lodged on a submerged stump and were having difficulty getting free from it.  Warden BLACKBURN advised the man they were rescuing had become extremely anxious and he was worried about his mental and physical well being.  Warden BLACKBURN asked if USFWS FWO GRIFFITH had arrived with the air boat, as they may need to be rescued as well.  I made contact with FWO GRIFFITH and he was nearby awaiting my assistance in guiding him to our very remote location.  I immediately went to FWO GRIFFITH and led him to the only possible spot we might be able to launch the air boat.  Fortunately, upon our return we were advised Wardens BLACKBURN and JOHNSON had freed themselves from the submerged stump and had successfully returned the kayaker to shore.  Wardens BLACKBURN and JOHNSON were already on their way to retrieve the second kayaker.  Survey of the location revealed we probably wouldn’t be able to launch the airboat, anyway.

Thankfully, they were able to get the second man back to shore and safety before the trolling motor battery gave completely out.  The mission was completed at approximately 12:42 PM, over 5 hours after it began.  Both men were very tired and hungry, but extremely grateful and thankful for being rescued.