Warden Dave Oginski: The human tracker of Marinette County
By Joanne M. Haas/DNR Bureau of Law Enforcement
Warden Dave Oginski Jr. has a way of finding people.
Missing somebody in the north woods… when it’s dark and cold? Call this guy.
The latest example of Oginski doing his night tracking was Sunday when he helped find a hearing-impaired snowmobiler who had been lost on the Marinette County trails for several hours.
“I was expecting to find the guy dying. He had been out there for seven hours,” Oginski says. “It was about minus 17 when I dropped my snowmobile to start the search.”
But that 3 a.m. call for help had a happy weekend ending, just like the one on another Sunday -- Father’s Day 2012.
That was the first time Warden Wire checked in with Warden Dave. His wife was on her way home from her job on this particular holiday when he got a call about 10 p.m.from the Marinette County Sheriff’s Department. Oginski's two kids were in bed by this hour and on their way to dreamland when he picked up the phone to learn a mother and her baby were lost in the very, very dark woods in the Amberg area. What had started as a fun holiday hike for that family took a turn into lost land. And the official ask of the warden on his day off? Could he go look for the missing woman and child because the sheriff's deputies were tied up on other calls.
Absolutely. Once Warden Dave's wife drove into their home driveway, he fired up the warden truck and drove out.
Once on site, Oginski put his all-important flashlight in one hand and his equally important cell phone in the other. He got the missing mom on her phone and told her to stay put and to stay on the phone with him. They worked out a communication system. Eventually, she saw the flicker of the flashlight and yelled out. Mom and baby were in good shape. And Oginski was back home before Father's Day hit midnight.
Then, there are the annual gun-deer seasons which always have missing person calls for Oginski. This past season, there were about six -- or so. “I think there were six. There might have been more,” he says.
There were the hunters who knew they were lost, so they built a fire until Oginski showed up to lead them out. That was smart. There was the hunter who simply walked out to Oginski after being lost. That might have been instinct.
There was the 80-year-old man who had some radio communications but not enough to let anyone know exactly where he was. So, the hunter fired a shot into the air. “I was able to pinpoint where he was and went into the woods, made a beeline and found him.” Let's hear it for good hearing... and that Oginski, who became a warden in 2006 and has been stationed in Marinette County since 2007, is ready to go search at any hour and in any weather.
Take the case of last Sunday's rescue request when Oginski's phone rang at 3 a.m.
“Whaddya doing?” Oginski says was the greeting when he pulled the phone off his night stand. It was the Marinette County Sheriff's Department. “We got a lost snowmobiler.”
And with that, he was out with a Marinette County deputy in search of the man who hadn’t been seen since the party of three split up when one of the sleds ran out of gas. To add to the search complexities, besides it being dark and way below zero temperatures, the missing man was hearing-impaired.
As the story went, the missing man, his wife and a friend were snowmobiling. The missing man's machine ran out of gasoline. The friend took off to get fuel while the husband and wife stayed behind. Once the friend did not return, the wife took off in search of gasoline. That was a mistake, Oginski says.
“It is better to stay together. If possible, get on one machine to leave the area in search of gasoline,” he says. “In this case, all three became disoriented.”
The friend found his way and got gasoline, but then couldn’t find his way back to the out-of-fuel snowmobile and the woman. The woman, after a number of hours searching, managed to meet up with the friend who left. And after more time, both were able to find an open tavern and get help. By this time, the husband had left the machine and now was walking -- and was lost – and unable to hear. But the search for the missing man didn't start right away after the first two found help.
“Because they were hearing-impaired, it took a while to figure out there was a missing third person who had been out there for several hours before we initiated a search.”
Now, Oginski and the deputy were definitely under the gun to try and find the missing man. “There are 50 miles of trails and it can be remote out there. It is a lot of county forest and big country.”
What to do? Oginski talked to the people who knew the area the best. Those are the people who dedicate hours to grooming the popular trails. Using the groomers' information, Oginski and the deputy determined their search route.
They narrowed their search to about 15 to 16 miles. “We went in and started to backtrack,” Oginski says. It was so cold that Oginski thought he might find the missing man slumped against a tree. Then, he noticed something ahead. “I saw these small flashes of light ahead of me... I thought: 'What's that?'"
Turns out those small flashes were quick reflections bouncing off the missing man's jacket as he came toward Oginski’s snowmobile and its headlight.
“He was walking on the trails and was keeping himself warm." Oginski got the missing man on the back of the snowmobile and to warmth and safety.
Oginski says the story could have had a tragic ending because the missing man had no cell phone, no GPS tracking device, no flashlight, no food – nothing.
The story serves as a reminder of safety measures to take before getting out to enjoy the snowmobile trails.
“Have a cell phone and a GPS. You need some kind of communication device,” Oginski says.
A flashlight also is a good idea, as well as a travel plan all members in your party know and honor. Oginski asks snowmobilers to please review safety tips covered in snowmobile safety courses – stay sober, control your speeds and stay on designated trails.
“Always stay together. Leave the snowmobile behind. You can always come back for it," Oginski says. "And, please don’t leave anyone behind.”
That’s one thing Oginski will never do.
Learn more about snowmobile safety and safety courses, including an online option for those 16 and older. All riders at least age 12 and born on or after January 1, 1985, are required to have a valid snowmobile safety certificate: