Northland river robs, then relinquishes one-of-a-kind ring

By Lisa Kaczke Duluth News Tribune John Doberstein was an hour into a four-hour canoe trip down the Brule River when he realized his wedding ring wasn't on his finger anymore. The Duluth man had stopped to swim and picnic on July 27 with eight fr...

John and Jill Doberstein (foreground) had their wedding rings made at Jewelers Branch in downtown Duluth. Father-son jewelers Mark and Joby Furo helped John Doberstein search for his ring after he lost it on a canoe trip on the Brule River on Jill’s birthday in July. (Steve Kuchera /

By Lisa Kaczke

Duluth News Tribune


John Doberstein was an hour into a four-hour canoe trip down the Brule River when he realized his wedding ring wasn’t on his finger anymore.

The Duluth man had stopped to swim and picnic on July 27 with eight friends for his wife, Jill Doberstein’s, birthday when he noticed the ring was missing.


“My heart falls to the floor,” he said. “I look down and it’s gone. I’m sure my face turned white.”

A friend noticed John touching the spot where his ring once was and asked, “You lost your ring, didn’t you?”

After searching for a while for the ring in the water around them, he said he called it off because he didn’t want to ruin everyone’s good time more than he had. The birthday party carried on paddling down the river.

“Everyone asks us, ‘How was the Brule?’ Oh, it was great, except one minor detail. We lost this nice ring,” he said.

A month later, the story turned in a new direction. You might say it came full circle.


“Bacon Band”

John and Jill married in Bayfield in 2011, but were saving money at the time so they didn’t spend a lot of money on John’s wedding band.


Jill surprised him in March with a new wedding ring, created by Joby Furo of the Jewelers Bench in Duluth - one that contained an agate matching the agate in her wedding ring. The waves in the ring’s brown-red agate earned it the nickname of the “Bacon Band.”

It took a lot of work to curve the agate to the band, Furo explained. His father, Jewelers Bench owner Mark Furo, added that a lot of time, effort and craftsmanship went into the ring and they were heartbroken when Jill emailed explaining that the ring was lost and they would need a new one.

Fifteen minutes before John noticed his ring was missing on that July trip on the Brule in Northwestern Wisconsin, Jill had had him show it to their friends. John normally isn’t able to easily pull the ring off his finger, but being in the cold river that day must have made it possible for the ring to slip off, he said.

Jill said she wasn’t upset, just disappointed when John broke the news that the ring was missing. They tried to keep the rest of the canoe trip positive considering it was Jill’s birthday, but there was a sadness to it, John said.

“We’re Minnesotans. It’s like you don’t want to be the cause of someone’s empathy, that’s inconveniencing them; I don’t want to do that. I felt bad, but mostly I felt bad because Jill’s heart and soul went into it. It was heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking. I felt terrible,” John said.

When the Furos heard about the loss, they suggested trying to search the river with their underwater metal detectors.


Searching the river


The Furo family has been finding items using a metal detector for decades, usually at old logging sites and portages.

“It’s not too often that we get to find new rings,” Joby said.

Mark told John that if he knew a few possible spots to search, they were confident the ring could be found. If they didn’t find the ring, at least they would have spent a day paddling down the river, John said.

By the time the permit to use the metal detectors in the river was secured from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, a month had passed and two rainstorms had gone through the area - and John believed they had a “one in a million, bazillion chance” of finding it. Jill was equally incredulous and didn’t have any expectation of seeing the ring again.

“I thought there’s no way. A month later, no way,” she said.

But Mark and Joby thought the ring’s weight meant it probably still was in the same spot where it had fallen. John had stopped at two places on the river between the time he showed the ring to his fellow paddlers, and when he noticed it was missing - although he wasn’t certain he could identify those spots again.

“In my mind, it was way too overwhelming. It could have floated down the river. Why would I waste my time? But those guys were so confident and they know their stuff,” John said.

John, Mark and Joby set out to find the ring on Aug. 26, a pleasant day lacking sunshine to warm the water. Even with waders on, they were shaking with cold from having their arms in the water to inspect shiny objects detected on the river’s bottom.

“We found so many pop tabs, I can’t even tell you - of course they look just like rings and you’re hopeful when you’re looking - and just nails, old pop tabs, scraps of aluminum and other litter that were driving us nuts,” John recounted.

The first spot had a bottom of muck that made it unlikely a search would turn up anything. After about 45 minutes of searching at the second possible location, Mark was warming up on shore while Joby searched with the metal detector, using a grid system to ensure they didn’t miss a spot.

“I stood on a rock and said, ‘Joby, I have a really good feeling about this rock,’” John said.

He reached down and underneath the rock and found nothing there. Then he moved an adjacent rock and waited for the bottom to settle down.

“Immediately, I see something shiny. But you start seeing things. You’re hallucinating almost. Every little speck looks like it could be it and I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” John recalled. “The dust is settling, the dust is settling - all of a sudden, I knew it. I see it. I could see it sitting there.”

He grabbed it off the bottom and victoriously punched his fists in the air.

“I just go, ‘Guys, bacon!’ I scream and hold it up in the air and we all just scream. It’s just unbelievably euphoric and I can’t even describe it,” he said last week, putting his fists in the air to re-enact his reaction that day.

John put the recovered ring in a zippered pocket of his raincoat, balled up the raincoat and secured the coat into the kayak to ensure that the ring would make it home.

“It was a fun day, but we won’t repeat it,” Mark said.

Throughout the day, Mark and Joby’s calm, collected demeanor provided a salve for John’s nervousness.

“I can’t thank them enough. Their confidence, their kindness, their willingness to do it,” John said. “Talk about customer service. Who does that? Who goes out of their way?”


Ring’s return revealed

The week before John and Jill married, they canoed down the Brule River with their wedding party.

“Jill and I are ahead of the pack, thinking how lovely this is, how great it’s going to be to get married, but also very nervous, very stressed. There’s this eagle that just swoops down right over our heads almost. We could feel the rush of it and it just went right around the corner. It was just a beautiful thing. We were like, ‘Aw, what a great sign,’” John said.

Eagles also flew over John and Jill as they married on the shore in Bayfield. An eagle sat in a tree watching the group of paddlers in the moments after John lost his ring. And on the day that John was searching for his ring with the Furos, the trio had six eagle sightings along the river.

“The fact that this eagle is looking at me when I’m desperate and so heartbroken that I lost my wedding ring, I’m thinking, ‘Did the eagles turn on me?’ Then to have the experiences with the eagle after we found the ring was like, ‘thank you.’ It meant so much,” John said.

John decided to keep the found ring a secret from Jill until the next day - their wedding anniversary. Although Jill said she didn’t want them to exchange presents this year, John explained the story to Waters of Superior in Canal Park and they obliged in wrapping his wedding ring so she would think he was giving her a piece of jewelry from that store during their anniversary dinner at New Scenic Cafe that evening.

Jill said she had a pouty look on her face as he handed her the present because she had said they weren’t exchanging gifts.

John explained, “She’s like halfway mad and I pull out the phone and start taking a video and she’s not thinking anything of it. She’s like, ‘aw, man’ - not super-excited, saying, ‘I told you no presents.’ She’s taking the wrapping off … Then I scream, ‘We found it!’ She screams. I scream. We get up and hug. People around us are like, ‘What is going on?’ We found it!”

Searching for the ring
Joby Furo searches for John Doberstein’s wedding ring in the Brule River. (Photo courtesy of Mark Furo)

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