Wisconsin Angler Survives Near Drowning

Last April, Wisconsin angler Wes Burling, 83, got swept away by the Brule River's current. Burling tells the story:

"IT WAS A spot where I'd fished for steelhead hundreds of times, and the water looked high but fishable. The riverbank was muddy and really slippery. I tried to walk carefully but lost my footing and literally skied down the hill, landing feet first in the river. The current was rough.

I'd been in the water for several minutes when I spotted an alder branch hanging over the ice about 60 feet downstream. I positioned myself to grab it, and when I did the current smacked me against the ice and about cracked my ribs. But I held on. I secured my right arm around the branch and tucked my right hand inside my waders to keep my arm in the locked position. I tried to get onto the ice, but I was too weak and my waders were too heavy. The alder was only 2 inches thick, and I couldn't see much else downstream for me to grab if it broke. The water was absolutely frigid, and gradually my mind started to slow. I started to worry about hypothermia.

I'm not sure how long I had been standing in the water when I heard a voice. Two anglers were coasting down in a pram, and one of them asked if I was okay. I said, "I'm in trouble," and he rowed the boat across the river.

John, the angler who called to me, tried to pull me up onto the shelf, but he kept slipping on the slick ice. So he took hold of the alder and stepped into the river. On "1…2…3," he gave me a boost and I twisted just enough to get my fanny onto the ice. After John got out and dragged me to shore, he ran off and found someone with a cellphone to call for help. An ambulance arrived and rushed me to a helicopter, and I was flown to the hospital.

I never really gave up, but hearing John's voice was a miracle. My wife calls him my guardian angel. I call him my hero.

--AS TOLD TO COLIN KEARNS