Newsroom Midwest Region

Working with tribes: Airboat safety training on Mille Lacs Lake

May 15, 2018

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service airboat safety instructors teaching Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe staff how to maneuver airboats onto ice from shallow water. Photo courtesy of Mille Lacs Messenger.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service airboat safety instructors teaching Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe staff how to maneuver airboats onto ice from shallow water. Photo courtesy of Mille Lacs Messenger.

As a federal agency, we have a distinct, unique obligation and opportunity to work with tribes based on trust responsibilities, treaty provisions and statutory mandates. We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service play an important role in supporting tribes as they exercise their sovereignty in the management of fish and wildlife resources on the more than 55 million acres of Federal Indian trust land and treaty reserved areas. Our staff work hand-in-hand with the 36 federally-recognized tribes in the Midwest Region providing resources and technical assistance in support of their natural resource management activities. One example is our recent efforts with the Mille lacs Band of Ojibwe to provide airboat and water safety training to improve public safety preparedness and to expand their resource management capacities. Learn more from the following story written by Vivian LaMoore and republished with permission from Mille Lacs Messenger:

Airboats on Mille Lacs Lake

The unique design of an airboat mandates specific training

They are part boat and part plane. Airboats are a unique and, if not properly trained, a dangerous vessel to operate. Dave Wedan is a logistics management specialist and Midwest regional watercraft safety coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wedan was at Mille Lacs Lake during a well-coordinated and sophisticated airboat training session with the Mille Lacs Band Tribal Emergency Response Team, Police Department, Department of Natural Resources and Great Lake Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission on Tuesday, April 24.

When a 5.3 liter V8 automobile engine is combined with the propellers of an airplane and placed onto a 16- to 20-foot flat-bottomed vessel, the result is a vehicle that can practically fly across the water – or ice for that matter. The airboat has become a very unique tool in the toolbox for emergency rescue situations as well as biological and conservation uses in Minnesota.

Here in Mille Lacs County there are three airboats available with two of them belonging to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Department of Natural Resources. The third airboat is property of the Mille Lacs County Search and Rescue.

The Mille Lacs Band Department of Natural Resources shares the airboats they have with local search and rescue and the tribal police department when needed. The ultimate hope is to never have to use it for search and rescue. However, if they do, they need to know how.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service falls under the umbrella of the Department of Interior. “We have a very good working relationship with the tribes, and we value that relationship very

much,” Wedan said. “We work very well together with the Mille Lacs Band. We are very proud to be working with them on so many areas, and especially today with the airboat training.”

Airboats are designed for use in shallow water, wet vegetation, snow and over ice, Wedan said. The airboat can travel from open water to ice and back again. “If you power up or power down at the wrong time they can flip or sink,” Wedan said. “They don’t have additional floatation built into the airboats itself. If they were capsized or filled with water, the airboats would simply sink. They sink like a rock. Personal Floatation Devices, throwables and safety gear are mandatory for each crewmember and airboat. ”

Airboats are safe to operate with the proper training, Wedan said. “That is why we are here. We want to teach and certify these men to safely operate these airboats during the winter,” Wedan said.

The operating system is much like operating an airplane, Wedan explained. There is a stick, a rudder and a gas pedal. Unlike a car, the airboat does not have brakes. And stopping a regular boat on open water uses the water itself to slow it down or stop. On ice or snow, the airboat will slide and skid for a long way before it comes to a complete stop. Sometimes operators will spin a donut in an effort to stop the skidding.

“You have to plan ahead,” Wedan said. “There is no reverse on an airboat, so you have to think about what you are getting yourself into. You don’t want to get yourself in a position that you can’t get out of.”

The training lasted for two days on Mille Lacs Lake near the mouth of the Rum River. There a portion of the lake was open water with the majority of the lake still encapsulated by ice. This gave the perfect conditions for training maneuvers to go from open water to ice and back. Airboats can break up areas of soft ice as well. Operators practiced these maneuvers as well as steering through a course of orange cones. They practiced starting and stopping on the ice as well.

Wedan and his team of well trained instructors provide airboat training in both the winter and summer months. Because the airboats are made for shallow water, they are less safe to operate in deep water. Federal policy mandates Safety training is mandatory for Department of the Interior personnel who operates an airboat, Wedan said.

During the summer the airboats can operate on the water, in shallow water and in marsh areas where other boats may not be able to get to. The same general safety rules apply in summer as in the winter regarding no reverse, stopping and starting, “and you really have to be mindful of your situation whenever operating an airboat,” Wedan said.

Airboats are a valuable tool when it comes to search and rescue, the airboat can also be used by Department of Natural Resources biologists for collecting a plethora of data for several areas of conservation.

“As federal government we have tribal trust responsibility. We work well with the tribes, and we just happen to enjoy it,” Wedan said. “This partnership is a high priority to our regional managers.”

In addition to Wedan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife training instructors were Duane King of Rice Lake, Tyler Paulson of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge and Jim Graham of Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge.

The participants in the training session were Robert Wall and Jason Rice, Jeff Schaffer and Monte Fronk of the Mille Lacs Band and Mike Burns Conservation Warden for Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.