Max Westerberg fished on thin ice in his younger years without a second thought, once crashing into waist-deep water on West Rush Lake in Chisago County.
His core body temperature plunged while he scrambled to escape the icy water. In a panic, he ran to a random house for help. Lucky for him, the homeowner was there to open the door.
Such was the life of a self-described Hard Water Zombie before safety was much of a concern.
Westerberg coined the term after graduating from Cambridge-Isanti High School in 2005 and spending countless hours on the ice with friend Shane Schluck and other fishing zealots. Together they formed a popular Minnesota fishing page on Facebook while clinging to an edgy style that gave the “Zombies’’ a reputation for fearlessness on the ice.
Thirteen months ago, two key members of the group drowned during a November outing on Upper Red Lake. The Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office determined that the anglers got lost in the night darkness and drove their four-wheeler into a two-acre swath of open water.
Suddenly gone were Melissa Marie Seidenstricker, 29, of Princeton, and Zeth Knyphausen, 28, of Stacy.
“It changed us. Period,’’ Westerberg said. “You lose a couple of your closest friends and you think about it every time you go out on the ice.’’
The Zombies have absorbed the pain and reanimated themselves around safety. Their Hard Water Zombies Fishing page on Facebook has grown to more than 7,800 members and Westerberg is prepping for the group’s first T-shirt and sweatshirt sales. All proceeds will get poured back into the Zombies community and safety campaigns — possibly including a giveaway of ice picks, for anglers to use to pull themselves out of the water during mishaps.
“Before the accident I would brag, ‘Hey, I’m out on the ice and it’s only 4 inches,’ ’’ Westerberg said. “Today I was out there on 11 inches and I was still kind of nervous. I carry a safety rope at all times … I don’t care if there’s 30 inches of ice, I still have my picks on.’’
Schluck, a machinist who lives north of Mora, became a father for the first time Thursday. A month ago, he and his partner Lynn Lecy, were on a frozen bay of Mille Lacs catching walleyes. They were wearing safety gear that Shane purchased the day after Seidenstricker and Knyphausen were found in 11 feet of water, 1 mile from the lake’s southwest shoreline. There were signs that the two struggled after they submerged.
“It used to be: ‘Ahhh, it won’t happen to me,’ ’’ Schluck said. “Now it’s become so important for us to go out of our way to promote safety.’’
Sgt. Tony Petrie of Beltrami County joined the search for Melissa and Zeth on Nov. 26, 2017. He talked to Melissa’s brother, Jake Seidenstricker, who had rushed to Upper Red Lake as soon as she went missing. Jake, Melissa and Zeth were all part of the Zombies’ inner circle. Festive, annual group trips to Lake of the Woods or Upper Red were part of the tradition.
Petrie included a few references to the Zombies in his written report: “Seth and Melissa were not in a relationship and were up there to fish together as they are part of a large fishing group called the Hard Water Zombies. The Hard Water Zombies are known for fishing remote, hard to get to areas that can sometimes be risky.’’
The officer’s report also noted that some members of the group had been out fishing above rock piles on the southeast corner of Upper Red, ‘’which has very poor ice conditions.’’
Schluck said the Zombies never have been reckless, but he admits that outsiders might have viewed them in the past as “a little crazy,’’ especially considering the group’s logo of an undead ice fisherman dangling his own skull from a line and hook.
“It was understandable for people to think we were reckless,’’ Schluck said. “There’s a difference between being passionate and being reckless.’’
So devoted to winter angling were Schluck and Westerberg in their earlier years that they camped on frozen lakes for days on end, equipped mainly with cots and portable shelters.
“You leave the ice after that and you’re just like, ‘Ooomph. I feel like a zombie,’ ’’ Westerberg said.
Schluck still fishes every weekend and almost five times a week. Westerberg, a self-employed remodeling contractor, has three kids and fishes far less in the winter than he used to. But every year he savors a far-away ice-fishing trip — hitting the road by himself without pre-planning a destination.
He just starts driving north from his home in Cambridge. Last year he ended up on Kabetogema in Voyageurs National Park and Burntside Lake in Ely.
“That trip is my zen space,’’ he said.
Keeping up with the group’s Facebook page has required a passion of its own. Westerberg and Schluck approve members and monitor comments, deleting and blocking when they sense anything fake, overpromotional or uncivil. Touchy subjects aren’t off limits as long as the discussions are healthy.
There’s nothing in it for them besides an occasional spiff from a supportive resort — mostly in the form of a free road pass onto the ice. In the long run, Schluck thinks his Zombies connections will help him form a multi-species fishing guide business. Mille Lacs is his second home.
But for now, the two are satisfied to run a fishing group that shares good information. They foster fun, photos, friendship, dialogue, advice on where to go, condition reports, fishing tips, get-togethers, gear reviews, new baits, giveaways and safety.
They intend to create a larger audience with a vibe that encourages greater participation in ice fishing — ideally a community that extends beyond the Zombies’s core demographic of men 25 to 34 years old.
“I love helping people be successful catching fish,’’ Westerberg said. “I’m just as happy when they’re catching them … that’s my attitude.’’
Said Schluck: “I’d like to help people get out there … get more women involved … and see the sport grow. That’s my motivation.’’
Their dedication to the Zombies was strengthened in the days surrounding last year’s tragedy. The search for Melissa and Zeth actually began on Facebook with people asking where they were. Prayers and condolences followed in an outpouring of support that still touches Westerberg and Schluck.
Earlier this month, after two Minnesota ice anglers drowned in Fish Trap Lake, Westerberg posted his deepest sympathies for the families of the two men. His heartfelt note was coupled with a safety reminder: “No ice is ever safe ice. We are reminded again just how dangerous and unforgiving the hard water can be … Please, as always, stay safe Zombies!”