Conservation officers help family stranded in northern Luce County

Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officers were called to assist in a search late Saturday night for a Livonia woman, four children and a family dog whose minivan was stuck in deep snow along a seasonal county road.

Conservation officers Justin Vinson and Cole VanOosten responded to the incident after they received a call to assist from Luce County dispatchers at about 11:21 p.m.

“Fortunately, this situation had a very good ending,” said DNR District Law Supervisor Lt. Eugene “Skip” Hagy. “However, it just as easily could have ended much differently.”

A Dodge Grand Caravan found early Sunday morning stuck along County Road 407 in northern Luce County by Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officers is shown.

Conservation officers remind the public it’s always best to know current, forecasted and local road and weather conditions and personal limitations before taking on excursions in unfamiliar places.

“People get an idea that something seems like a fun adventure and jump into situations without having any local knowledge or being prepared,” Hagy said. “Taking a two-wheel drive vehicle into an area with some of the heaviest snowfalls in the state, that is only accessible by snowmobile or ORVs at this time of year, is a recipe for trouble.”

Stephanie Rene Knapp, 37, and four children ranging in age from 10 to 14 – three of her children and one who was a family friend – had reportedly traveled north from Wayne County in their Dodge Grand Caravan to view the northern lights.

Earlier in the day, near the end of their roughly six-hour, 400-mile trip north, Knapp’s minivan ran out of gas along Luce County Road 407.

Another traveler from Lower Michigan, Brian Gorski, 39, of Allen Park gave Knapp a ride to Grand Marais to get gas for the minivan. Gorski said he was in the area to look for rocks along the Lake Superior shoreline.

During this time, Knapp contacted a friend to let them know where she was and that she was continuing on toward the Lake Superior State Forest Campground, which is situated 12 miles east of Grand Marais and six miles west of Muskallonge Lake State Park.

The campground remains open year-round, but portions of the road leading to it are not plowed during the wintertime. Knapp’s friend called 911 emergency dispatchers when they had not heard back from Knapp after several hours.

Vinson and VanOosten arrived at a staging area for the search at about 12:30 a.m. Sunday. Luce County Sheriff’s Deputy Zachariah Kitzman radioed the conservation officers that he had started on foot toward the last-known location for the vehicle.

As the deputy walked, he came across Gorski’s vehicle stuck in the snow on the road. Officers said Gorski had made it approximately 1.5 miles from where he had left Knapp before getting stuck himself.

The conservation officers used their DNR-issued snowmobile and all-terrain vehicle to travel to Gorski. Vinson assisted him in getting his 4×4 off-road capable truck moving again.

VanOosten continued ahead to reach Kitzman, who had walked nearly four miles, and returned him to his patrol vehicle. Vinson continued west on County Road 407 along the Lake Superior shoreline to find Knapp, the children and the minivan.

At about 1:15 a.m., Vinson found Knapp trying to dig the minivan out of the snow about six miles from the end of the plowed section of road. The children and the dog were safe inside the vehicle.

Knapp told Vinson that she believed the vehicle was almost free from the snow.

After evaluating the condition of the road, Vinson told Knapp that without the aid of an off-road towing service she would likely continue to get stuck and be unable to drive the van out until later in the month or in early May.

Knapp considered her options and then agreed it best to have a towing service retrieve the vehicle. While they waited for the wrecker, the conservation officers built a small campfire to help Knapp, the children and the dog warm-up.

At about 3:30 a.m., Great Lakes Towing Service arrived, freed the vehicle and towed it to the nearest plowed portion of County Road 407, located just east of Grand Marais.

As the conservation officers cleared the scene at about 3:45 a.m., they were traveling to the staging area when they again came upon Gorski who was now stuck again.

Gorski said he had spoken to the towing service operator. If Gorski could not get his vehicle out, the operator had said he would help him too.

“Our officers will always respond and use all available resources to find lost or stranded people,” Hagy said.

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