MARINETTE (AP) – Marinette County Sheriff Jerry Suave has plenty of reasons why he always calls the same man to help during a search and rescue mission.
It’s because Conservation Warden Dave Oginski has the right tools, good rapport with deputies and a willingness to lend a hand.
But most importantly? He has the brains.
Oginski helped track and find at least six people lost in the woods last year, which is more than any other warden in Wisconsin.
He’s not a specialist, or at least not any more than his colleagues, but – even as a 29-year-old – his reputation as a quality tracker has grown.
He’s the warden stationed in the Department of Natural Resources’ Wausaukee ranger station, where he’s responsible for patrolling the eastern half of Marinette County. More people have been lost in his territory than any other region in the state. It’s sparsely populated and a destination for hunters, snowmobilers, fishermen and others seeking recreation.
Oginski has personally helped find at least 12 lost people since starting his job in 2007. He did six search and rescues in the most recent gun deer season alone.
“This guy has just been Johnny-on-the-spot for us numerous times. He has a knack for determining which way somebody went while finding lost people,” Suave told Press-Gazette Media. “Dave’s just been a real good partner up here and a real solid conservation warden.”
For Oginski, it’s just part of the job. He has his phone with him all the time and will leave at a moment’s notice to help.
“Once you hear somebody is lost out in the woods, everything else is dropped, especially with the weather as cold as it is,” he said. “If you’re dealing with subzero temperatures . we want to do as much as we can as quick as we can. The longer they’re out there, it could be a life-threatening situation.”
Oginski received many calls during the 2013 deer hunting season. In one incident, an 80-year-old man had separated from the rest of his hunting party after dark in the swampy area around the town of Pembine. He couldn’t find his way back, and the other men couldn’t reach him on their two-way radios because of poor reception.
Just after 8 p.m. – nearly four hours since the man went missing – Oginski was able to get just enough reception to tell the lost man to fire a round from his rifle. Oginski pinpointed the sound, drove his vehicle close and made verbal contact. Oginski hiked a half mile into a thick swamp and escorted the man back to the road.
“He had a whistle, a flashlight, extra rounds for his gun, but he just got turned around,” Oginski said.
Not all rescues are so easy. On the opening day of the 2010 deer hunting season, Oginski responded to a late evening search and rescue for a man who didn’t return to his hunting rendezvous. Nobody had seen the man since 6 a.m. About four inches is snow had fallen, covering his tracks.
“We didn’t know if he was hurt. He didn’t have a compass, a GPS, a cellphone or flashlight,” Oginski said.
It was too dark to call in air support. Too dangerous to search by foot.
So Oginski turned on the emergency siren on his truck and just waited. About 30 minutes later, the man walked out of the woods following the sound and lights.
“That’s where a lot of people get frustrated. You see a lot of law enforcement standing around, and you ask why aren’t they out looking? … Folks have the best intentions, but if you have a dozen people out in the woods searching it becomes a big mess,” he said.
Those who’ve watched Oginski work recognize his extraordinary method and skill.
“He has a very uncanny knack for finding people,” said Conservation Warden Supervisor Ben Treml.
“Natural resources don’t talk. We have to use our resources and investigation skills to make it all come together. Whether it’s a deer hunting incident or a search and rescue, the warden’s job is to gather as many facts as possible and use as many skills as possible to make it come together.”
Oginski said he just does what’s necessary to keep people safe. Part patrol officer, part environmentalist and part detective, tracking is part of the warden’s everyday routine.
“My job involves looking for stuff all the time, whether a guy calls and says there’s an illegal bait pile in the woods or I’m tracking people who might be poaching or you talk about a lost person,” he said.
Oginski said he thrives on the challenge and has a deep concern for protecting wildlife. His father is a conservation warden, and he was exposed to the job’s demands since the age of 10.
“But ultimately, I think, my motivation boils down to serving people and the (natural) resources,” he said.