Zach Handler

October 9, 2011

Todd Ellison Dies in Boating Accident

Todd Ellison, Hoigaards Canoe Derby, June 8, 2006

Many of you may have heard already through word of mouth or through the media that Todd Ellison died on Friday October 7th on lake Mille Lacs.

This is devastating for everyone, but most of all Todd's mother, JoAnne his sister, Lisa, and immediate family. I know that you all have questions. My goal here is to provide a complete factual account of what occurred. This is to spare all of you from any misinformation that may develop as rumors spread, but also to spare everyone involved from having to recount a painful story too many times. Please forward this to those who know Todd and are not on this email list. I do not have everyone's contact information.

Here is what happened:

Five of us (Todd Ellison, Zach Handler, Mike Brumbaugh, Jon Sanborn, and John Abrahams) left in surfskis from cove bay at the south end of lake Mille Lacs. The goal was to paddle north by northeast to Malmo, a 16 mile down wind run. This is a typical surfski trip for us. Conditions were not extreme: Air temperature 77F, water 60F, wind 20 - 30 mph from the south, sunny skies. Waves were moderate. Perhaps 4 to 6 feet from trough to crest in most sections of the lake, but some sections were much flatter. These are not extreme conditions in a surfski. However, there are areas in the lake where "reefs" of piled stone come close to the surface and cause large waves in a very small area. Some of these isolated waves associated with these reefs may have been 12 feet tall. Those were large waves.

The plan, from before we got on the water, was that one of the most experienced paddlers in the group would escort Todd, the least experienced in terms of big waves, in the event that Todd was having any difficulty. Todd was in one of John Abraham's surfskis, a custom kayaks Synergy. This is an extremely stable boat in big water, which is why we insisted that Todd use it. It was much more seaworthy than Todd's own surfski.

As far as safety equipment, this is what we had: Everyone had on neoprene, a life jacket, and a leg leash. We had 3 vhf radios and 4 cell phones. Todd was wearing a 3mm farmerjohn wet suit and two rashguards on top. He had a life jacket on, a leash from his ankle to the boat, and a cell phone in a waterproof case.

Todd was actually handling the waves just fine, though at a slower pace then everyone else. This was not unexpected given his smaller amount of big wave experience. That said, he was paddling well, and enjoyed surfing waves for 80 to 100 yards at a time. Todd was having a great time. But because he was slower, and also getting pushed slightly off course, we did implement the agreed upon plan, which was that one of the strongest paddlers would be next to Todd's boat at all times.

Everything was going fine until about half way across the lake. This was in the area of "three mile reef" which is about 2.5 miles off the east shore of the lake. At that point, Todd capsized, likely caused by one of the bigger waves associated with the reef. A capsize in a surfski is like taking a fall downhill skiing. It happens all the time and is an expected part of the sport. The fact that Todd had only one fall in that distance of paddling shows that he had been handling the conditions quite well.

The catastrophic event was that when Todd came to the surface of the water, he was no longer attached to his boat. Examination of the boat the following day revealed that the failure was in the velcro wrap that secures the leash to the ankle. In the several seconds it took for Todd to get to the surface and get his bearings, his boat was already blown out of reach. He swam to the the boat that was escorting him, and tried to climb on, which caused that boat to capsize. The waves were very big at that point, and the escort surfski was one of the tippy racing models that the vast majority of us paddle. At that point Todd climbed onto the escort ski, and was balanced there without a paddle. The escort paddler, in the water at this point, separated from his ski and made a desperate attempt to swim for Todd's boat. This was unsuccessful. He returned to his boat. At that point Todd was back in the water. It is impossible to simply balance in one of these boats in big waves without a paddle. Given the size of the waves, and the tippyness of the boat, there was unfortunately no way for one of them to paddle as the other held on to the boat. The boat would simply capsize immediately when they tried that.

So at that point it was the two of them, holding onto the boat, bobbing along in large waves. They did that for about 10 minutes. They did not have a means of communication because the cellphone was on Todd's boat, which was long gone. This is where a decision had to be made. There were only two options. One was to simply bob along like that hoping that they washed into shore. The other was for one of them to leave the other floating, and to make a desperate attempt to paddle to shore and get help. Between the two of them they decided on the latter plan.

Zach Handler chasing Todd Ellison, Tri-Loppet, June 27, 2009

This was clearly the correct decision to make. By paddling to shore, a search party could be mounted within an hour. If they had stayed with the boat, there would have been no search party. That is because it was expected that Todd and his escort could have taken up to 2 - 3 hours longer to make the crossing. By the time the others already on shore had decided something was definitely wrong, it would have been getting dark and no effective search could have been mounted. A loose surfski blows across the water fast, but a ski anchored by two people in the water does not. The trajectory the wind was going would have blown them 8 - 10 miles before they hit shore. They would have been moving at perhaps 1/2 mile per hour.

So the escort paddler had to abandon his good friend in the water. Todd was calm and in agreement with the plan. The escort paddler, full of adrenaline, raced to shore like hell in large and breaking beam waves. He aimed for resort on shore. It took 45 minutes to get to shore and call 911. Very soon there were multiple search boats on the water. It was too windy for a helicopter, so a fixed wing airplane was flying a grid pattern above the waves. This started by 4 pm. Sunset was 7 pm. The search continued until about 9pm and then was halted for the night. The rest of us, in the company of the sheriff deputy and other rescue personnel, watched from shore until 9pm.

The reality is that in large waves, it is nearly impossible to spot another paddler, not to mention a swimmer's head bobbing along. Todd was wearing a blaze orange hunting cap which we had tied to his life jacket. The authorities knew this and were looking for that color.

The following morning the search resumed. We were up at day break to resume the search ourselves from boat and by foot. Just after daybreak, one of the 4-wheelers that had been driving the perimeter of the lake through the night, located Todd's boat. It was exactly where we expected it would meet land. We immediately drove to that location to begin our own search of the shoreline in our surfskis, looking for any signs of Todd. Shortly thereafter we were alerted by the sheriff that Todd's body had been located. He was found dead in the water, about a mile from where he was capsized. This was the area in which all search efforts had been concentrated the previous afternoon.

Kate Ellis accompanied by one of her close friends came up in Friday evening to assist in our search the next morning. Kate's friend went with the sheriff and confirmed that the body was Todd.

At this point we do not know why Todd died. Preliminary assessment by rescue personnel found his chest to be tight, suggesting that he drowned, rather than dying of hypothermia, but that is purely speculation. They believed he had been dead quite a long time. We do not know if he had a heart attack from the stress of the situation, or if he got pushed against a submerged rock by a large wave. It is all a guess. The medical examiner will do an autopsy to determine the exact mechanism of death. We do not know the time frame on getting that completed, but we will keep the paddling community informed.

We are all devastated by this experience, and none of us are doing very well. We lost a cherished friend and paddling partner. All of you have also lost Todd. Personally I cannot fully express my grief. I hope that this account gives all of you some comfort.

As a group we have decided that all media requests should be directed to Kjell Peterson, who knew Todd the best of any paddler other than Kate.

We were all blessed to have the opportunity to know such a fine human being, and he will never be replaced.

At some point in the next few weeks we will have some sort of a memorial/celebration of Todd's life. We will let the paddling community know the details as we figure them out.

Zach Handler
On behalf of Jon, John, Mike, Kate and Kjell.