***Editor's Note: A photo at the end of this story shows the severity of the injuries and may be disturbing to some readers.***
DULUTH, Minn.—Ryan Kesselhon couldn't figure out what was happening to his 11-year-old daughter, Maren. One minute, Maren had been peacefully dangling from her family's paddleboard in Island Lake on Wednesday afternoon. The next second she was screaming wildly.
"I couldn't figure out what she was screaming about," Ryan Kesselhon said. "Then she lifted her foot out of the water, and I could see it was filleted open in many places."
Closer examination revealed she had been cut in 25 places, mostly on her upper ankle and on top of her foot, Kesselhon said.
"There were nine deep lacerations that required stitches," Kesselhon said.
Nobody knows for sure what attacked Maren while she was hanging on the paddleboard near the Minnesota Power boat launch on the east side of Island Lake. But Maren has her hunches.
"My daughter, right away, when I pulled her out of the water, she thought it was a fish," Kesselhon said. "She could feel her foot in its mouth. She kicked it with her other foot. It released, but it left a torn-up foot."
Maren had to undergo surgery at Essentia Health to repair her tendon and to stitch up her wounds, Kesselhon said in a telephone interview Thursday. Doctors there told him they thought it was likely that a fish had caused the lacerations.
But she seems to be taking the traumatic event in stride, her dad said.
"She'll be back in the water," he said. "She's not too shaken. She knows this was a freak incident and that she'll never experience this again."
The Kesselhon family had been trying to beat the heat on Wednesday at Island Lake. Ryan Kesselhon, in an old 16-foot boat with a 5-horsepower outboard, was letting his three daughters take turns riding atop a stand-up paddleboard towed behind the boat. When they'd get hot, they'd just jump in the water to cool off. That's what Maren was doing, wearing a life preserver, holding onto the paddleboard, waiting for her dad to swing around in the boat and pick her up, according to Ryan Kesselhon.
That's when the screaming started.
Ryan and Lora Kesselhon's other two daughters, ages 9 and 13, were in the boat with him. The attack occurred about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. Ryan Kesselhon said the family didn't get home from the emergency room until about midnight Thursday.
Physicians who treated Maren weren't sure what caused the lacerations, Kesselhon said.
"The doctors debated whether it was an otter or a fish," he said. "Had it been an otter, there would have been rabies shots. The doctors felt very confident it was a fish by how razor-sharp all the cuts were. Some were down to the bone, like it was done by the sharpest knife you could use."
Island Lake is home to large muskies and northern pike. A muskie 55 inches long was caught by an angler on Island Lake last year. He released the fish. On Wednesday, a Duluth fly-fisherman caught and released a muskie that was 47 inches long.
In August 2012, an otter attacked an Anoka, Minn., woman who was swimming in Island Lake while training for a triathlon. The woman suffered 25 bite marks, according to that report.
Immediately after this week's incident, Maren climbed back in the boat. Kesselhon motored to the boat launch, where another family had a first-aid kit. Maren's wounds were wrapped in gauze and bandages.
Maren is currently using crutches to help her get around, her dad said.
And there's one unusual twist to this ordeal. For all of his kids' lives, Ryan Kesselhon has told them a tall tale about a fish he calls "One-Eyed Jake."
"He's harassed our family starting with my grandfather," Ryan Kesselhon said. "My dad messed with this same fish. Whenever we get out on a lake, I swear I see his face. His goal is always to get us. Now, this story is getting bigger, at least regarding One-Eyed Jake."
Maren doesn't think One-Eyed Jake was after her, her dad said.
"She just rolls her eyes," Kesselhon said.