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Snowmobiler, 37, recounts rescue on forest trail

A Blaine, Minnesota, man whose snowmobile broke down along the Gandy Dancer Trail on Thursday, March 7, spent several hours walking the trail in search of help before Douglas County rescuers found him.

"When they found me, it was about the turning point when things were probably going to start getting pretty bad," said Matt Merritt, 37. "They kind of found me in the nick of time."

Although shaken from the ordeal, he was uninjured.

"I'm happy to be holding the phone with all five of my fingers," he said Saturday, March 9.

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office responded to a lost snowmobiler call in the town of Summit at about 6 p.m. Thursday, according to a report from Deputy Joshua DeLong. Merritt's ordeal started earlier, however.

The Twin Cities man was in the area visiting his parents, who have a cabin in Union. After lunch at the Danbury casino, Merritt headed out on the trails alone. He asked a cashier for advice on a trail to take. But he took a wrong turn.

"I didn't realize I had headed into the Nemadji (State) Forest," Merritt said.

About 25 miles north of Danbury, around 3 p.m., the track blew off his snowmobile.

"When you blow up a track, you need a tow," Merritt said. "It's like blowing all four tires on your car at once."

The most recent signs he'd seen, miles down the trail, were Moose Junction 11 and Belden 3.

Merritt's cellphone had been charged to about 90 percent in Danbury, but the weak battery had lost its charge in the cold. It was down to 5 percent power and dropping rapidly.

He shot a short, cryptic text to his father and brother: "SOS. Snowmobile totally broken near Belden. Help. Come get me."

Immediately after he sent the second message, the phone went dead.

Merritt's father tried to find him, driving along the Kingsdale Road at the forest's southern edge, then called 911.

Douglas County dispatchers attempted to ping Merritt's phone. They could determine which cellphone tower the text came from, but not the phone's direction from the tower. Deputies responded to the Belden marsh area in Summit.

The town of Superior and Summit volunteer fire departments were called to assist with the search on snowmobiles and ATVs. A command post was set up at the Dry Dock Tavern. Bonnie Nikstad with Summit fire and rescue coordinated efforts and recruited patrons, including cousins Mark and Dave Nault, to help search.

Merritt spent hours walking along the forest trail, where the only sound was his feet crunching through the snow. He found an emergency shelter with a map, but no provisions to start a fire. He walked to a parking area shown on the map, but it was a bust and he had barely enough strength to make it back to the shelter.

He was starting to doze off when he heard what sounded like a snowmobile in the distance.

"With what energy I had left, I went out to the trail," Merritt said. He saw lights coming up the trail. Then he saw the two machines stop and turn around. The glow of the taillights faded.

"I stood there on the trail praying, 'Come back; please come back,'" Merritt said.

About 10 minutes later, the snowmobiles reappeared. It was the Naults.

"Are you the guy?" they asked.

The three shared high-fives and hugs, then the cousins brought Merritt to Drifters. According to the sheriff's report, they located him at about 7:30 p.m.

The next day, Merritt returned to the Nemadji Forest to get his machine. He was unable to get any cellphone reception from that spot. They hauled the snowmobile from the middle of the forest to the closest road, Kingsdale, then stopped at Moose Junction for dinner.

"I was pretty lucky," Merritt said.

The forest is roughly the size of the Twin Cities metro area, he said, and he walked from the middle to the north end of it.

A Facebook post he made about the rescue has gone viral.

"I kind of feel like a moron because of the mistakes I made," said Merritt, but he hopes sharing his story will help others think twice.

The moral of the story, he said, is to be more prepared than you think you need to be. Don't ride alone. Have a plan. Know where you're going and tell people exactly where you're supposed to be. Have reliable communication. And no matter where you're travelling, have survival gear along.

"It sounds pretty basic, but I got careless," Merritt said. "I've already had a couple personal friends of mine, they've been kind of doing the same thing and now they're packing survival gear and they're pairing up, so it's already made a difference."