The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 24, 2013

Update: Rising river makes search difficult

Missing kayaker a popular teacher, coach

By Dan Nienaber
dnienaber@mankatofreepress.com

---- — COURTLAND — A missing man and two friends who capsized on the Minnesota River Saturday were experienced kayakers who had become close friends through a church in their hometown.

Searchers were still looking for 50-year-old Stephen Fritze Monday as rain and rising waters threatened to make the job more difficult. Fritze and two other men, John Carter and Cameron Buri, capsized in the river just west of Courtland and south of the River Ridge Gun Club.

Fritze, a sixth grade teacher at St. Martin's Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Watertown, S.D., will be missed by both his students and the church's congregation, said Paul Janke, an associate pastor at the church. Fritze also served as the school's athletic director and coach of the seventh and eighth grade boys basketball team. The school has students from preschool through eighth grade.

"He's coached a lot of children here," Janke said. "He just completed his 13th year of teaching at the school. He's taught 26 years, and 13 of them have been here.

"He's going to be greatly missed here at St. Martin's."

Fritze and his wife, Robyn, have a daughter Anna in seventh grade at the school, where Robyn also teaches. The Fritzes also have two adult daughters living in the Twin Cities area, Janke said.

Fritze attended Martin Luther College in New Ulm. His parents currently live in New Ulm, but Janke said he wasn't sure if his parents lived their while he was attending the college and earning an education degree.

Carter is also an associate pastor at St. Martin's and Buri is a member of the Watertown congregation. Janke said the three men were good friends who were experienced kayakers.

"The three of them have done a lot of kayaking together," he said. "They are very experienced. They might not have had a lot of experience with the river they were on, but they did kayak together a lot."

Two maps of the Minnesota River were hanging behind Nicollet County Chief Deputy Karl Jensen at the Courtland Fire Department as he explained the challenges of the search. It was in its third day Monday. At the same time nine boats filled with more than two dozen searchers from several area law enforcement agencies were on the river.

Sonar was being used to identify favorable areas to search, Jensen said. Those areas were then being probed with poles and dragged. The water was moving too fast to use divers.

Jensen said he was planning to use only three boats Tuesday if Fritze wasn't found before the search ended Monday. The water on the river was high and moving fast when the three men started their trip. The depth had risen two feet from Sunday night to Monday morning. Jensen was being told the water level could rise five more feet Thursday. That was without any more rain, and rain was in the forecast Monday night, Tuesday and Wednesday.

"With the water getting higher, I'm more and more reluctant to put boats on the water," Jensen said.

He was hoping to be able to use search dogs Tuesday, if necessary. The dogs are able to smell odors that could lead searchers to a general area to check more closely.

In addition to the searchers, other people were posted down stream to watch for Fritze's body. Jensen suspected it had become caught up in branches in the area where the kayaks capsized. Faster moving water could send the body downstream quickly, however. It could also get caught up again before it is found.

"The river is such a different animal," Jensen said. "You just don't know what's going to happen with the victim."

Jensen said he didn't know exactly where the three men started their trip, but he did know it was somewhere along the Cottonwood River. That river empties into the Minnesota River a few miles west of Courtland. Jensen also didn't know where the men planned to end their trip.

The work Jensen and the others are doing is appreciated by friends and family in Watertown, Janke said. Robyn Fritze is still there waiting for news. Several staff members from St. Martin's school met Monday morning to discuss the situation.

"I met with all the teachers who could make it," Janke said. "There were a lot of tears, but we also talked about God's promises.

"We appreciate all the efforts everyone is putting in to find Stephen."

The area where Fritze was last seen by Carter and Buri is a hard turn in the river where debris, such as large tree branches, have been gathering for years, said Les Zwach, manager of the River Ridge Gun Club.

"Every year, when the river floods, it seems like there's more debris," he said. "The problem is, when the river gets somewhat high, you don't realize how much debris is under the water. A lot of it is just a couple inches below the water. Before you know it you can be all snagged up in it.

"I just hope some good can come of this. The river is very unpredictable and it can be very dangerous."

Zwach had left the gun club a few minutes before Carter and Buri walked up from the river bank looking for help. There was a group of people still shooting when the incident was reported at about 8 p.m. with a 911 call, Zwach said.

Carter and Buri were wearing life jackets when the kayaks capsized. Fritze was not. He was last seen holding a kayak and floating through some branches before the current took him under water.