Carnegie Hero Helmer M. Aakvik was awarded the Carnegie Medal in October 1959, along with $500 to be spent on “a worthy purpose.”
Carnegie Hero Fund records indicate that Aakvik’s attempted rescue occurred Nov. 26, 1958, the day before Thanksgiving.
Despite exceptionally rough water, strong winds, and temperature of 14 degrees, Richard M. (Carl) Hammer, 26, fisherman, went out onto Lake Superior in an outboard motorboat to check his fishing nets. When he did not return for several hours, Aakvik, 62, fisherman, of Grand Marais, Minnesota, feared he was in grave danger and went to search for him in a 17-foot outboard motorboat.
Aakvik proceeded alone a mile to Hammer’s nets but failed to find him. He then moved 5 miles farther from sbore into increasingly rough water, where the gas line of the motor became frozen. Aakvik attached an anchor to the boat to slow its drifting and placed the gas line in his mouth to thaw it.
As the winds drove the boat farther from shore, Aakvik bailed water and chipped ice from the craft lest it become too heavy to remain afloat. Two Coast Guard boats and an airplane failed to find either Hammer or Aakvik before night.
In the darkness, Aakvik drifted 15 miles farther before he succeeded in thawing the gas line 20 miles from shore. Still searching for Hammer, he piloted the boat toward shore but made little progress against winds up to 60 miles an hour and waves as much as 15 feet high. To conserve fuel, he stopped the motor. Aakvik continued bailing water and chipping ice as the temperature fell to zero and the boat drifted 10 miles.
By dawn the wind and waves had moderated but the temperature was only five degrees. Aakvik restarted the motor and again began searching for Hammer as he proceeded shoreward. After his boat ran out of gasoline, Aakvik started to row and soon was picked up by the Coast Guard. He had been on the lake approximately 25 hours.
Because his boat was so heavily encrusted with ice, Aakvik allowed it to be abandoned. He was hospitalized four days for exposure and two frozen toes, and upon his release, he was ordered to stay inside for a month, which cost him $350 in lost wages. Hammer was never found.
However, in recognition of Aakcik’s act, his community donated a new boat, a new motor, and $560 in cash to him, as well as paid his $92 hospital bill.