Fortville man survives ordeal on Lake Michigan island

Jim Stohler survived an adventure on the waters of Lake Michigan.
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Jim Stohler set off on a kayak trip from northern Michigan to North Fox Island, but the trip didn't go as planned. What started as a side trip during last summer's vacation became a story of survival.

Stohler had a plan and he worked for months to achieve it. He rigged a kayak with an electric motor, powered by a battery and charged by a generator for a 23-mile trip across Lake Michigan to North Fox island. He tested the craft, including taking it for an extended run on Geist Reservoir.

He was ready to go.

He spent the weekend in Northern Michigan at a family reunion and planned to set off from Leelanau State Park to the Island at midnight on Monday, July 18, 2011. The 60-year-old Stohler knew the area well and knew that the lake is calm and forgiving at night. It was the best time to go. But, disregarding his own plan, he decided to leave the previous afternoon.

It turned out to be a fateful mistake.


A few hours into the trip, the waves kicked up and Jim knew he was in trouble.

"Instead of calming down, the waves got rougher, the winds got stronger, and gradually it built up into a storm, an unusually intense storm in a real isolated area for a brief period of time," he said.

Wind gusts of up to 90 miles per hour swamped his boat and pushed him miles off course.

He eventually made it to North Fox, but by that time, he had been on the water for 27 hours. He was exhausted, dehydrated and hallucinating.

"I started seeing people working on projects," he said. "I could hear them, couldn't hear what they were saying, but I was hearing voices."

But Jim was alone on a deserted island. He hunkered down on the beach, rationed his food, and ended up drinking lake water to survive. He was so disoriented, he tried to get help from the people in his hallucinations.


The imaginary people offered no help, which Jim found frustrating. He walked around the island following footprints the next day to try to get the islanders to help him. The footprints were his. No one could help him until the Coast Guard sent out a helicopter three days later.

Through it all, he said he kept his head and kept analyzing the situation.

"I was thinking of the excuses I was going to give the authorities, because I was camping on the beach and I've been in trouble for camping on the beach before," he said. "So it was like, 'This is not camping,' this is an emergency survival shelter."

In hindsight, he admits that his kayak set up was not a good one.

"A gas-powered trolling would have been better," he said.

Nevertheless, he is not planning to make the trip again - at least the same way. He is working on his pilot's license and, if he gets it, he may try to take North Fox by air next time - some day.


Stohler knows that he was fortunate to survive his last trip to the island, but that won't keep him indoors in the future. The full-time shop foreman at Indiana Aircraft Hardware in Fortville says he will continue to be a part-time outdoorsman, spending as much time in his beloved wilderness as he can. Now he's a little wiser, with a great story of survival to tell.