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REGIONAL- A South Dakota couple whose rental houseboat ran aground in Voyageurs National Park last summer is still at a loss to explain what led two park rangers to board a service boat operated by …
REGIONAL- A South Dakota couple whose rental houseboat ran aground in Voyageurs National Park last summer is still at a loss to explain what led two park rangers to board a service boat operated by Justin Ebel and then tase the local business owner twice.
Steve and Fran, who asked that their last name not be used, had long dreamed of such a trip after having first visited VNP over 30 years ago.
“I don’t remember exactly what year it was, but it was when we had one child instead of two, when we were up there, and we rented a cabin and a boat,” Fran said. “It was a lot of fun. We loved being there. We love national parks. So this has been on our bucket list like forever. Finally being retired, it was just like, yes, we can do this.”
Steve said it was a billboard that first keyed them in to Ebel’s Voyageur Houseboats, and the couple was so impressed by the business’s website that they decided to rent a houseboat from them. As a first-time houseboat pilot, Steve said he got a thorough orientation when they arrived.
“The one we had was not their biggest by any means,” he said. “It was, I think one of their smaller ones. But it was new experience. They were really good about giving me the basics.”
But no amount of orientation could prepare them for the winds they encountered on their third day on the lake. Gusts on Saturday, June 25 were blowing in the range of 25-30 mph, creating a big challenge for Steve as he drove the high-profile houseboat.
And in the midst of that challenge, Steve made a rookie mistake. He drove on the wrong side of a navigational buoy.
“Coming back with that wind behind us, it had a lot of push to it and I was getting tired kind of stressed by fighting that wind,” Steve said. “That was the first time I had ever been on a place where navigation required you to stay in lanes. I went to the right of the sign that marks the rocks close to the Ash River (Visitor Center), but I had to stay left. So, that was the mistake I made that we ended up on the rocks. We got most of the way over and then there was a scraping noise and we stopped. It was a spooky experience. That was stressful.”
Per the instructions they had received, they radioed Ebel’s to request assistance, and shortly thereafter Justin Ebel left on his service boat.
Meanwhile, as Steve and Fran waited, they fielded inquiries from people on shore asking if they needed help, and responded that Ebel was on his way. They also saw a VNP boat nearby with two rangers in it.
“They were hanging off to the side, but they just stayed in the area,” Steve said. “They came over and asked us if we needed help and we told them the same story.”
The rangers stayed in the area as Ebel arrived and pulled the houseboat off the rocks. Unable to inspect the boat for damage because of the conditions, Ebel told Steve and Fran that they should follow him to safe harbor in Sullivan Bay, where they would be able to dock and he could inspect the boat.
Just before the boats entered the narrows leading to Sullivan Bay, Ebel said he had his first contact with the rangers in the boat, who approached him and appeared to want to talk.
“They basically said thanks for pulling the boat off,” he said. “I might have said I’ve had three of them today, then I just kind of proceeded to go on. They motored back up to me and asked if my guests’ trip was over, and I said no, they’re due in tomorrow. I said I had plans of getting them to Sullivan Bay, and that’s all I basically said to them. And I kept proceeding and doing what I was doing.”
Ebel looped around to retrieve a boat that had come untied from Steve and Fran’s houseboat, then headed on toward the narrows.
“It was about that time that those two rangers came back and yelled at us and said they wanted to talk to us,” Steve said. “It was definitely not a suggestion that they were making to come out and talk to them. It felt more forceful than that.” Steve estimated the rangers were 20 to 50 feet away at the time.
“It was close enough that you could hear them pretty clearly,” he said.
Steve and Fran said they had no idea what the rangers wanted to talk to them about.
“We never got a why,” Steve said. “We’d been hung up for quite a while if they had questions. Why did they not come over and ask the questions then while we were stuck on the rock? That part never made any sense to me, because they were not doing anything else. They were in the area, and they were in their boat watching us. They did not go to see anybody else. They were just hanging around.”
But with the angle of the houseboat and the wind, Steve found it impossible to turn the boat and follow the rangers back out into the middle of the bay where they wanted Steve and Fran to go.
“I was trying to turn the boat to point the bow back towards where the rangers were waiting,” he said. “With the wind blowing I just could not get it to do that because I needed forward speed, and forward speed was going to run me right into an area where I was concerned about running aground. It was not that far to the shoreline, and I was not going to run that thing aground again. So I tried backing up, and there was no way it was going to go backwards into that wind to get out to them. I was at a loss of what to do.”
At that point, Ebel looked behind him and saw that the houseboat wasn’t following him.
“He radioed us and asked us what we were doing and we told him, and he said go into the bay and I’ll talk to the rangers and let them know it would be a safer place,” Fran said. “I was really scared because we were asked by the park rangers to do something but it was physically not possible and the boat was swaying. It was really, really scary.”
“And I was pretty exhausted at that point, stressed and emotionally exhausted as well,” Steve said. “I was having no luck trying to do what the rangers asked us to do.”
So per Ebel’s direction, the couple set course again for Sullivan Bay as Ebel turned around and went to talk with the rangers. They said they did not see or hear what transpired when Ebel came into contact with the rangers.
“Justin told us to continue with the plan and the rangers could come to us,” Fran said. “Their boat goes much faster than our houseboat, so if they wanted to come and visit with us, there’s no place for us to go going into the bay.”
They were headed for an island in Sullivan Bay where they could tie up for the night, but then received a communication from Ebel’s base to keep coming in and they would come out to meet them and drive the boat the rest of the way.
“At the point we were at that sounded like the best idea we’d heard in a long time,” Steve said.
A few days after the incident, Steve and Fran were contacted by someone from VNP to ask them to describe their recollection of events. They said it wasn’t an interrogation, but rather an opportunity to relate what they knew.
Steve and Fran are still upset about what happened to Justin Ebel and clueless as to how the rangers acted toward them.
“That was completely unjustified from our viewpoint,” Steve said. “The way those rangers had been lurking there just waiting for as long as they did made no sense. It was kind of like they were looking for an excuse to write us up. I don’t really know. They were kind of like vultures circling around. This is what it felt like.”
“We’ve been racking our brains over what would cause their concern that they would want to come talk to us, and we don’t know,” Fran said. “We are still very concerned for Justin. He was looking out for the best interest of us, and safety first. He was doing what was best for us, and it breaks our hearts. Literally, we are heartbroken with what happened.”
“One of our retirement goals is that we were going to go around visiting national parks. We love national parks and enjoy them greatly,” Steve said. “We have zero interest in ever returning to the Voyageurs park after that experience, with the rangers’ responses and what they did.”
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