A Galesville man who fell through ice on the Black River on Tuesday and was found by a Tribune reporter is home from the hospital.
George Wallner, 60, was treated for hypothermia and an irregular heartbeat and released late Tuesday.
Wallner planned to ski from La Crosse to Trempealeau after dropping off his car with a mechanic. He had skied on the Black River several times before, but never from La Crosse. He hoped to link up to the Great River Bike Trail in Onalaska.
After 3 miles of solid ice, Wallner was on cruise control.
“I was no longer concerned for encountering open water,” he said. However, near Airport Beach, Wallner entered a questionable area.
“I wasn’t quite sure how or where to head,” he said. “The route I picked was the wrong route.”
Wallner, who can’t swim, plunged through the ice about 30 feet from shore just north of the beach. “I did a fair amount of floundering in the water,” he said, but his double-lined jacket and wool shirt provided some buoyancy.
Wallner made several failed attempts to pull himself out. He held himself up on the hole’s edge while calling for help for several minutes but saw no one in the area. He made a last push to escape.
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“I figured I just gotta try something else,” he said. He kicked off his skis and broke ice until he reached a stable area, and then he hoisted himself from the river. “I never gave up hope,” Wallner said.
He initially encountered a couple walking their dog near the shore. They alerted police.
Wallner began walking down Fishermans Road. “I just wanted to walk to keep circulating,” he said, but soon “I didn’t really have my sense of direction. I was pretty delirious.”
In the water, the chill didn’t hit Wallner immediately. But he knew he was in trouble once he got out.
“I could feel the sleeves of my coat freezing up,” he said. “I felt myself really getting cold. I was shivering like I had never shivered before.”
He tried to flag down several cars before a Tribune reporter found him along Fishermans Road several hundred yards north of the area where he fell into the river. Wallner estimated that 10 minutes had elapsed since he broke through the ice.
The reporter delivered Wallner to police, who had left the beach area, minutes later. The La Crosse Fire Department responded, and an ambulance arrived shortly. He was transported to Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse and released at 8:30 p.m.
Wallner had a cellphone with him as a safety precaution, but it was useless once submerged. He regretted not having a life jacket.
His enthusiasm for cross-country skiing wasn’t dampened by his experience. “If it snows, you bet (I’ll ski),” Wallner said. “Just probably not on the ice.”