Clinging to Hope in Icy Waters

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Dennis Hoppe describes part of his ordeal. “I was going under. And I felt—I felt the water coming into my mouth. I felt like I was starting to drown.”

Bert Eggers tells how it started. “We were capsized in the water. And that’s when the desperate situation began; the really tough situation for us.”

In the early spring of 2014 Dennis Hoppe and Bert Eggers took time from their men’s retreat to go fishing on a nearby lake in northern Michigan. Ice had covered the lake just days before, and despite poor conditions the men went ahead with their plans.

“It was about 40 degrees, blustery, windy, a little bit of rain,” says Dennis.  “I didn’t wear my life jacket because it was so –I had to have such warm clothes on I couldn’t fit in a life jacket.”

Problems began as they crossed the lake into open water.

Dennis explains how the outing unfolded. “The motor actually broke away from the boat. And we were in trouble from that perspective. And so I had to lash the motor onto the boat again.”

Bert continues. “But at the time we had it fixed we were virtually deep far, far out into the lake. And fortunately the motor was able to get us back a little bit closer to shore.”

They crossed the lake back to where they had launched the boat and began fishing. Soon after, Dennis’ leg cramped. As he stood up to stretch, the boat rolled and capsized. “I’ve never capsized a boat before, but this one just went over immediately and threw me backwards into the water. Because I those heavy clothes on, I was immediately in deep trouble. We were able to grab onto the boat, and that held us stable for awhile.”

The two were able to flip the boat back over but it remained swamped. They spent what little energy they had left yelling for help. “There’s no other fishermen because of the conditions,” says Bert, “(There was) no one on shore. No one heard our cry for help except the Lord. It was just a waste of time to be yelling for help.”

Dennis adds, “Yelling was useless because there literally was no one there. We had a good vista to see down the shoreline that there was no one there.”

Bert knew what could happen. “If we were to panic; I know we would’ve been just drained emotionally and exhausted of any energy that we had left after the hypothermia was working on us. Hypothermia; it’s a killer. It drains you away. It numbs your thinking eventually. So, you really need to respond quickly and without panicking.”

Bert knew hypothermia would soon take their lives. He decided the only hope was to swim for shore, leaving Dennis with the boat.

Dennis could not join Bert in swimming to shore. “I couldn’t –I couldn’t swim. I couldn’t do anything because of these heavy boots that I had on. So he said, ‘well Dennis, I have to go to shore, you know, because the cold is getting us.’ And so he started swimming to shore and I was left holding onto the boat.”

While Dennis was holding onto the boat, Bert was running into trouble.  “My fingers were so numb I couldn’t get my boots off. I had to swim with boots and all this heavy clothing and everything like that. I shouted, ‘Dennis, you know, if you go unconscious, try to tie yourself to the boat. I’m going to try to get help.’ And when I got to shore I was so weak I fell on my knees, literally, because I was so weak. Then I just prayed and prayed and prayed for Dennis. And of course I was totally concerned for him. It was almost like survivor’s guilt, you know. Where you make it and your loved one doesn’t, your friend.”

Dennis clung to the submerged outdrive with his legs; his hands too cold to hold the boat. In the stillness he prayed. “I felt a peace. And I looked up to the sky and I just said ‘God, I am helpless. There’s nothing I can do. I have no capacity to help myself at all. You know, it’s up to You. If it’s now my time to go, I’m ready to greet You in heaven, and if it’s not, then You’ll find a way to save me because I cannot save myself.’ And He just brought peace over me. And I thought of my wife, I thought of my children, my grandchildren. And I was kind of amazed at how quiet and the solitude that I felt hanging onto this boat.”

Bert, now safely on shore, ran to a nearby road and flagged down a car. They drove to a ranger station where a rescue effort was launched. All he could do now was pray, and hope for his friend’s survival. “Dennis is out there, Dennis is out there. And that was so frightening and so difficult and painful to desperately, desperately, desperately want the Lord to save his life as well; it was very, very painful for me.”

Dennis remained alive and conscious in the frigid water for over thirty minutes until help finally arrived.  “And then suddenly I heard someone rowing closer to me. And a man came rowing up in a boat to save me. He came up close enough that I was able to let go of the boat and grab onto the gunnel of his boat. And then he literally just rowed me to shore. And I was able to kind of roll onto the shoreline. ‘Cause my legs and that were so cold, I couldn’t even stand up. And right at that moment, the ambulance drove right up.

Soon after, the two men shared a joyful reunion at the ranger station. Dennis and Bert say it was the presence of God that kept them from perishing that day in the near freezing waters of Michigan.

“Dying itself I wasn’t afraid of,” says Dennis. “God was with me. Because I think left on my own, relying on my own ability, I had every reason to be panicked. But I really felt strongly that He was with me. And for that reason, I stayed calm. Because I knew He could do it, I couldn’t.”

Bert understood the magnitude of the situation. “There was this peace, and that peace really enabled us to keep our heads, not to panic, and ultimately that was a wonderful gift from God that helped save us.”

“People say you were lucky. Luck is a roll of the dice. Luck is chance. It’s one of the worst of the 4-letter words because it robs God of His sovereign power, His grace, His continuous mercies. This experience was a time when it was just obvious how God’s mercies were with us. So many things just fell into line and fell into place that there is no coincidence. There is God who is sovereign who takes care of us every minute of our lives. And I was so glad the way it turned out. I thank God every moment, you know, every time I see him.”

Dennis concludes, “It was God’s presence in the situation and in my life that made all the difference in the world. And if I can hold onto Him and cling onto Him, then I’ll be –I’ll be safe in whatever situation I’m in.”

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