MOUNT DESERT — “And the whole thing ran through my mind, that this is how it happens,” Eli Strauss said of the moments after he, his daughter Julia and her friend Jolie fell into icy water when the snowmobile they were riding fell through thin ice last week on Long Pond.
He had hoped to be able to help the girls up onto the ice, but none of the ice was anywhere near thick enough to support them. He thought about stories of fatal accidents he had heard. “These people, they never … you never hear their story,” he said. “You never hear how it happened, what it’s like, but this is what it’s like.”
But then, just as quickly, another feeling rose to the surface.
When that fear of dying “rippled across” the three of them, he said, “the answer was just: No. No. No. Absolutely not. This … we’re just swimming. That’s all we’re doing. We’re gonna be fine. We’re gonna be fine.”
Strauss has been through cold water and ocean survival trainings many times, having worked on boats his whole career. “So there are things that, even with all the crazy adrenaline and the shock and all that, that come back.”
Working together, it took the trio about 15 minutes to make their way to shore, about 200 feet.
The snowmobile fell through the ice about 3:30 p.m. near steep cliffs on the southeastern part of Long Pond. They were traveling between 40 and 50 mph. “There was still plenty of daylight, but it was very gray, it was snowing really hard, it’s windy out on the pond. It didn’t look the way that it does in the [Maine Warden Service] pictures, where it goes snow, water — it didn’t look like that.”
It was a route Strauss had taken many times before, connecting from Somes Pond near his house. He had hoped to tow the girls on an inner tube on Somes Pond, but couldn’t get enough traction for that, so they left the tube and went for a ride on trails and fire roads.
The trails put them back on the ice on Long Pond near the boat launch at the southern end of the pond. They were headed back to Pond’s End at the north end. A family was ice fishing nearby, having apparently walked down the trail to the ice.
“I guess a bunch of people knew about this big section of open water on Long Pond, but I had not heard of it,” he said. “We’re the people — the kids and I take the drill down to Somes Pond, and we drill the ice, and we check thickness with a measuring tape.”
The Maine Warden Service reported at least six other people around the state had also broken through thin ice on snowmobiles Wednesday and Thursday.
Job one when they reached the shore was to get their clothes as dry as possible. They took off their boots to get the water out of them. “I think that was one of the only times we laughed,” he said. “I poured a lot of water out of those boots!”
Clothes were another difference between this trip and the dozens of others over the years. “I always, when I go on a snowmobile, wear three layers. Long underwear, sweatpants, snowpants, wool socks, all the technical layers on top … and [this time], I was just wearing blue jeans.”
He wasn’t able to get the fleece jacket he was wearing dry enough, so he left it behind. He gave the sweatshirt he was wearing to Jolie. Julia had been wearing tall, tight boots that she couldn’t get back on, so she began their trek half-wearing them, but they were gone by the time they were rescued.
“The whole time, from being out of the water, we were yelling for help as loud as we possibly could,” he said. “All three of us. I can whistle really loud with my fingers, and when I first got out of the water, I was whistling. That’s twice as loud as yelling. But within 20 minutes, I couldn’t whistle with my fingers.”
He knew they needed to keep moving in order to keep warm and keep their morale up.
By this time, he said, the cold was affecting his ability to think clearly. “I was just trying to think, ‘Where are we? Where do we need to go?’ It was really hard to come up with an answer. I couldn’t figure out that we were on the western side of Beech Mountain.”
He said he realized much later, once he was safe at home and had slept, that the shortest route to safety would have been to move along the shore south, towards the pumping station and boat launch, until the ice thickened up enough to walk back out on it, and walk out way they had come.
“That’s all we had to do. It would have taken an hour,” he said. “But the idea of getting back on the ice — it was like not even the remotest concept came into my head. We were on cliffs, trying to like claw sideways across them and still, going back on the ice never occurred to me.”
He thought getting to higher ground would help them figure out where they were and also make them more visible. “Once we’re on higher ground, we’ll know if we need to go left or right, or over the top if we can go over the top,” he said. “I just didn’t realize how tall what we were dealing with was.”
“When we’d feel really cold, I would open up my North Face jacket and get those two in and we’d all kind of wrap our arms around each other and try and close the jacket around everybody. We’d all get really close and stay there and you could feel the three of us warming up. It was amazing how well that worked. It would enable us to keep moving a little more.”
They climbed for nearly three hours. When Lt. Mike Miller of the Southwest Harbor Police Department first heard them at 6:45 p.m., it was from more than half a mile away.
“We could see a flashlight and hear people, and we celebrated,” he said. “I remember that powerful change cut through all the fogginess. I remember all three of us being like, “Oh my God, oh my God. They’re here.”
Eli’s wife Robin Strauss had called police around 5:30 p.m. She had found the tube they left on Somes Pond, headed to Pond’s End and saw the snowmobile tracks where they had started onto Long Pond.
“I saw that track going out, I got out, and I was looking at it, and I was thinking, ‘I’ll just walk out here and find them,'” she said. “But the machine moves really fast, and I stood down there, and I was looking at how much snow had covered the tracks already. I thought, ‘This is not that recent, and there’s no tracks coming back.’ I’m starting to get a little panicky.”
She saw Eben Salvatore, who lives nearby, out plowing his own driveway, and the two of them drove nearby roads with views of the pond to look for tracks. But it was still snowing hard and getting dark fast.
“Your gut says something’s wrong, right?” Salvatore said he asked Robin Strauss. So they decided it was time to call for help. But they also continued their own search while they waited for help to arrive. At one point, Salvatore estimates they were within a quarter mile of the missing trio, at a shorefront camp off the Beech Hill Road, but the wind was blowing the wrong way for them to hear Eli Strauss and the girls shouting.
Strauss said his wife did the exact right thing.
“Robin’s understanding, from the information she had gathered, of what we probably had been doing was vital,” he said. “Narrowing the search down to Long Pond, meeting up with Eben, the two of them making the decision to call in a timely manner. That’s a really hard thing to do, you don’t want to be that paranoid nerd that calls” when it’s not really necessary.
Robin Strauss said she was somewhat familiar with search-and-rescue procedure after MDI Search and Rescue assisted her mother, who broke her ankle hiking alone in February several years ago.
“It is insanely hard to sit on the sidelines,” she said. “But you realize that they really have a system, and there’s a reason for it, and it really works.”
Eli Strauss said he is struggling with replaying the incident in his mind, and all the things that could or should have been different.
Whether he was reckless or irresponsible is “for other people to determine,” he said, “but it’s one of those things where I felt like I had all of the information. And when the circumstances began to not match the information that I was pretty sure of, I was very sure of, it was a matter of seconds.
“It’s weird how the brain begins to process through powerful stuff like that,” he continued. “I don’t want any of it in my head right now, so it’s obviously going to take some time to try and work my way through it.”
Robin Strauss said she’s focusing on the present.
“You just keep thinking, if only I’d done this differently and this differently, but then it’s like, OK, this has already happened. We’re here now.”