Newsroom Midwest Region

Heroes on the mighty Mississippi River

July 26, 2017

Lock and dam on the Mississippi River. Photo by USFWS.
Lock and dam on the Mississippi River. Photo by USFWS.

What is a hero? Ask any of the federal wildlife officers who work on national wildlife refuge lands across the country if they are heroes and they’re probably going to blush and look a bit uncomfortable. If heroes are people who repeatedly put themselves in harm's way to protect others, that’s exactly what they are.

While law enforcement officers have many examples of heroism in their day to day duties, a recent rescue at Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge really brings it home. On July 3, Zone Federal Wildlife Officer Dan Shamhart and Federal Wildlife Officer John Below were conducting a standard boat patrol in Pool 11 on the Mississippi River north of Dubuque, Iowa when the call for help came from a fellow boater.

Officers were flagged down by passengers on a boat who were pointing at a man and a young boy in the water floating downriver toward Lock and Dam Number 11, a 3,340 foot long non-overflow earthen dam with multiple roller gates and very turbulent, high velocity water. Without swift action, the two would have likely been drawn into the roller gates and possibly drown. The area 600 feet upstream and 150 feet downstream from the dam is restricted from entry by boaters to prevent such accidents and these two individuals were drifting toward this safety zone.

Officers Shamhart and Below responded to the scene and located the man and his son approximately 400 yards on the upriver side of the lock and dam, which was roughly 200 yards downriver from their boat. Time to save them was running out.

Officer Shamhart acted quickly, piloting his boat close to the man and his son, while Officer Below used a paddle to reach the man. Officer Below lifted the child into the boat and directed the man to the float deck and ladder at the rear of the patrol boat, where he was able to climb aboard the patrol boat to safety.

"National Wildlife Refuge System federal wildlife officers actively patrol refuge lands and waters to not only protect fish and wildlife resources, but also to ensure the safety and security of refuge visitors. This recent incident is an example of federal wildlife officers prioritizing the welfare of our visitors and taking the necessary actions to protect human life," said Refuge Supervisor Sabrina Chandler.

The man informed Officers Shamhart and Below that his son had dropped a toy into the river and jumped in after it. The man then jumped in after his son, but found the current was too strong and he was unable to swim back to the boat with his son. Both the man and his son were wearing life jackets at the time of their rescue. The officers returned them to their boat safely.

These officers are part of a small, but dedicated team charged with patrolling 240,000 acres and 260 miles of river year-round. While they can’t be everywhere all the time, they make a huge difference in the lives of visitors and the wild areas they come to enjoy. We’d like to thank Officers Shamhart and Below for their professionalism and dedication.

Learn more about safe boating with the boat safety checklist.