DNR conservation officers locate lost Tahquamenon River paddlers

Contact: Lt. Eugene “Skip” Hagy, 906-293-5131
Agency: Natural Resources

Aug. 3, 2021

This image shows a wood-sided cabin where two canoeists broke in and slept overnight.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officers located two paddlers Monday morning who had been the subjects of an overnight search, after their canoe overturned on the Tahquamenon River.

Ezequiel Gianfranco, 19, of Homestead, Florida and Nathalie Hoste-Skrzypek, 20, of Chicago, Illinois were reported missing by friends Sunday night to staffers at Tahquamenon Falls State Park in Chippewa County.

At about 6:40 p.m. Sunday, Luce County Central Dispatch contacted conservation officer Cole VanOosten, telling him the two paddlers had rented a canoe from a park concessionaire at the Lower Falls, had paddled downstream and failed to return.

"They had traveled to the falls with some friends from the Chicago area for a day trip to visit the falls," VanOosten said. "The friends split into two groups after renting canoes. They left separately, at approximately 1:30 p.m., with a plan of canoeing downstream for a couple of hours and then returning to the falls."

At 6:30 p.m., when Gianfranco and Hoste-Skrzypek were overdue by almost three hours, their friends reported the circumstances to park staffers, who in turn, contacted Luce County dispatchers.

VanOosten was patrolling nearby and responded to the Lower falls to assist in the search. He arrived and questioned the other members of the group.

"It became readily apparent that the missing friends were ill-prepared for the trip as they had no food or water and they were unfamiliar with the area," VanOosten said. "They were also inexperienced in operating a canoe."  

VanOosten and park ranger Jen Smaltz used a small motored boat to start searching downstream from the falls for the missing paddlers.

Meanwhile, the overdue canoeists were able to make a short phone call to their friends. They told them they had capsized the canoe, made it back to shore and were walking an off-road vehicle trail, attempting to get back to the Lower Falls.

The friends told Gianfranco and Hoste-Skrzypek to stay put, help was on the way.

A short time later, the paddlers lost the ability to make any additional contact, after the battery died in the cell phone they used to contact their friends.

At 8:45 p.m., VanOosten and Smaltz found the canoe of the missing paddlers pulled up onshore at a remote campsite, situated about 5.5 miles downstream from the Lower Falls.

A boat is shown that two overdue canoeists were downstream in Monday morning after they abandoned their canoe.

The campsite matched the one described by the paddlers in their phone call, with an ORV trail leading away. The rental canoe still contained life jackets and paddles and was filled with a moderate amount of water.

VanOosten and Smaltz began to look for tracks on the trail when conservation officers Colton Gelinas and Justin Vinson arrived to assist with the search. A 7-mile radius of the last known location of the paddlers was searched with no sign of them found. 

In addition, park ranger Eric Johnson hiked into several remote cabins in the area and was unable to locate any signs of the lost individuals. Dispatchers were able to "ping" the cell phone of the canoeists, but because of the lack of service in the area, the location was determined to be inaccurate.

At about 2 a.m., a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter arrived, searching the river and the area where the cellphone was "pinged." Finding nothing, the search was suspended at about 4 a.m. until later Monday morning. 

The search resumed at 8:30 a.m. Conservation officers Justin Vinson and Mike Olesen used a patrol boat to start searching the river upstream from the Tahquamenon River Mouth boat launch. At about 10:15 a.m., they found Gianfranco and Hoste-Skrzypek coming down the river in a boat operated by a good Samaritan.

The paddlers told the officers they had capsized the canoe several times before finally making it to the remote campsite. They located a small fishing boat nearby and used it to move farther downstream, where they found a cabin. They entered through a window and spent the night.

Monday morning, they were helped by a neighbor who brought them downstream to where they met Vinson and Oleson. They were reported in good condition.

"Fortunately, this story had a good ending. This incident is a good reminder why people should be cautious when taking on an adventure in a remote area with no experience," said Lt. Eugene "Skip" Hagy. "The big lesson is to stay put once you know you're lost. This really narrows down the search area and the amount of resources that need to be used to find people. Had these folks done this, they would have likely been located shortly after the search began."

Check out additional DNR boating safety tips.

Additional entities assisting in the search included the Michigan State Police and the Chippewa and Luce counties' sheriff's offices.

Michigan conservation officers are fully commissioned state peace officers who provide natural resources protection, ensure recreational safety and protect citizens by providing general law enforcement duties and lifesaving operations in the communities they serve.

Learn more about Michigan conservation officers at Michigan.gov/ConservationOfficers.


/Note to editors: Accompanying photos are available below for download. Suggested captions follow. Credit: Michigan Department of Natural Resources, unless otherwise noted.

IMG_1740: A boat used Monday to bring two paddlers missing on the Lower Tahquamenon River in Chippewa County downstream to conservation officers.

IMG_1741: A cabin two canoeists broke into and spent the night while lost along the Lower Tahquamenon River in Chippewa County./