Searching Lake Sakakawea is like swimming in coffee, according to Williams County Sgt. Ben White.
“Dark coffee. You can’t see anything. It’s just black,” said White, who is a member of the sheriff's department dive team. “To see things, you have to hold them to your mask if you’re under the water.”
Though siltier than the rest of the lake, the Williston end of Lake Sakakawea is just as vast. White said the lake’s sheer size is a primary challenge in dive searches. The Williams County dive team participated in early searching for Olivia Lone Bear, the New Town woman who went missing last fall, as well as her recovery last week from Sanish Bay near New Town.
Lake-related deaths occur so frequently on the Fort Berthold Reservation, MHA Nation Tribal Chairman Mark Fox says they seem to be a part of history. According to Tribune archives, at least 23 people have been recovered as dead from Lake Sakakawea since 1993, including 10 since 2008.
“Thank God, we’ve had some searches where people were missing and we found them alive, and that’s been good,” he said Wednesday. “But as you’re aware, we’ve had some missing persons here at Fort Berthold who have never been found yet.”
No search has been quite as extensive as that for Lone Bear. Fox said the search was frustrating and time-consuming, but the tribe gained experience in searching the vast reservoir for missing persons.
“We’ve learned the hard way of what we need to do better, and work towards that,” he said.
Lake Sakakawea has about 1,500 miles of shoreline — more than California’s Pacific Coast. The lake's surface area covers 480 square miles, with an average depth of 62 feet, according to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Doug Olson, game warden supervisor for northwestern North Dakota, said searches on the lake depend on a variety of conditions: weather, location, underwater topography and if the person had a “last seen point.”
“Some go very well, and others can take a long time,” he said. “It’s just one of those things. A lot of times Mother Nature controls if you’re going to be able to search or not.”
Every Game and Fish boat on Lake Sakakawea now has side-scan sonar, he added. It’s been “an excellent tool for us.”
“It’s like shining a flashlight on something that projects a shadow,” Olson said.
He and Chief Game Warden Bob Timian said they couldn’t pinpoint how many times Game and Fish has responded to search on the lake in recent years, but Timian said "it happens on a fairly regular basis."
“Sometimes it’s very serious and they’re people who are hurt, injured or lost, and sometimes it turns out to be somebody forgot to tell somebody else that they weren’t coming home right now,” he said. “But you have to treat each one as if it were a serious thing from the beginning until you know differently.”
The Williams County dive team has been called out six times in 2018 more than any year in the past eight, according to White, adding that could be due to Williston’s increased population and more people recreating in the lake. Four of this year’s searches were for recovered vehicles. White said the team mostly uses sonar to see underwater.
Olson said multiple agencies working together with a variety of technology can greatly help a water search on Lake Sakakawea, but there are risks and benefits to weigh as well, such as falling through ice and danger for rescuers.
“You deal with the hand that you’re dealt and do the best that you can,” he said.