Lake of the Woods, MN – News of the two men found dead in a fish house Sunday on Lake of the Woods hits a little too close to the bone for Paul McWaters, Crookston, who nearly met the same fate 16 years ago.
An autopsy found that Ronald Dean Dunford, 53, and Daniel Fillmore Erickson, 47, both of Owatonna, Minn., died of carbon monoxide poisoning, the Lake of the Woods Sheriff’s Office reported Tuesday.
Their bodies were found about 7:30 p.m. Sunday inside their fish house on the lake north of Baudette, Minn. Other fishermen had noticed their vehicle hadn’t moved for some time. The men were brothers-in-law, and their funerals will be held together Friday, said a funeral home official in Owatonna.
McWaters was 37 back in 1992, when he went ice fishing on Lake of the Woods, also in mid-January, with his brother, William, 50, and his friend, Mark Henderson, 36. He and his brother were experienced and had ice-fished since childhood.
That day, they noticed right away there was enough propane exhaust in their ice house to sting their eyes, but they thought they fixed the problem and soon fell asleep.
Later, McWaters woke up, disoriented and sick and managed to stumble outside and honk the horn of the vehicle until help arrived. His brother and friend died.
McWaters figures he survived because his face happened to be near a slightly open window, he said.
Lake of the Woods County Sheriff Dallas Block was the deputy who investigated the 1992 fish house deaths. At the time, he told the Herald the problem seemed to be the way the propane heater was vented out the side of the house, facing west. That day, the wind was strong and southwesterly. I think the wind blew the fumes right back inside the trailer, Block said in 1992. It’s very likely it wouldn’t have happened at all if it had been vented at the top.
Block hasn’t released many details of the two deaths discovered Sunday.
McWaters said he was saddened by the news of the deaths of Dunford and Erickson. It’s too bad that happened, he said Tuesday. And it led him to reflect on his own experience.
I still do go ice fishing, he said Tuesday. It never deterred me from fishing at all.
I don’t sleep out overnight anymore, not that I don’t want to, but I just don’t have a house I’m able to sleep in.
But he still has the pull-behind fish house he nearly died in. It’s too cumbersome to haul around, he said. Instead, he tends to use a tentlike portable fish house that’s simple to move.
If he used the old, permanent fish house again, he would modify it.
I would put a regular chimney stack on it or change it to what I use now, a vent-free propane heater with an oxygen sensor that kicks out if the oxygen gets too low.
And he did add one thing. We did buy a carbon monoxide detector for the permanent fish house.
That’s one thing Kelly Petrowske recommends.
He has rented fish houses on Upper Red Lake for years. He also was sad to hear of the two deaths Sunday.
That is too bad, he said. To avoid that, all ours are direct-vented furnaces. And all ours have carbon monoxide detectors.
He avoids the new stoves designed to work ventless and to shut off if the oxygen level in the fish house goes down. I just don’t trust them, Petrowske said.
All his fish houses are sleepers, built to let fishermen stay the night on the ice.
One of the rules of the house in our rentals is to always keep a window cracked (open), Petrowske said. I will pay for the extra propane, but you always have to have fresh air.
Petrowske said he’s never heard of a fatality due to carbon monoxide poisoning on Upper Red Lake.
He has heard of a case or two when someone got sick from carbon monoxide overdose in a fish house, but another person got them out, he said.
Such fish-house deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning are rare, compared with the thousands of such houses on thousands of lakes each winter, experts say. A search of news accounts found only a few in Minnesota over the past decade or two.
In 2002, a 13-year-old girl died of apparent carbon monoxide poisoning in a fish house on Elm Island Lake in Aitkin County.
In 1996, it happened to a Coon Rapids, Minn., man on a lake in Hugo.
Back in 1992, McWaters spent several days in United Hospital in Grand Forks. Carbon monoxide poisoning can hurt the kidneys and have other long-term effects. But McWaters doesn’t have any serious effects now, he said.
I still have (pain) in my right leg; it’s a little numb from it, around the knee. I don’t think it will ever come back. I can still walk pretty decent and go hunting. But the cold weather does affect it. It stiffens up pretty fast.
McWaters, now 53, works for Ziegler Inc., the Caterpillar dealership in Crookston that sells construction and farm equipment.
His two grown sons, Matt and Andy, still ice fish, too. But not as much as I’d like them to, he said with a laugh.
He doesn’t talk much about his brush with death 16 years ago, but it comes up now and then, he said.
I have a friend who passed out because of it about three or four years ago, in his fish house. The furnace just burned up enough oxygen it got so thin he passed out. His son got him out.
McWaters still fishes the big lake, too. Yeah, I go to Lake of the Woods. I haven’t been there yet this year. But, yeah, I do.
The joint funerals of Dunford and Erickson will be held at 11 a.m. Friday in St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Owatonna.