It’s a perfect day to be on the water.
The June sun is bright and cheerful and has yet to take on midsummer’s ferocity. By all accounts, Lake Norrell, just north of Benton, should be full of fishermen and pleasure boaters. Instead, the water is quiet and still. The only things moving are two boats, one idling against the current to maintain position as the other slowly sweeps back and forth, back and forth, trailing behind it a slender device shaped not unlike a torpedo. A pickup with a fishing boat on its trailer crests a hill nearby, but when its driver sees the words emblazoned on the boats idling just offshore, he thinks better of it and hightails it out of there.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s dive team is looking for something, and it’s best not to get in the way.
Today, the team’s quarry is a new-model Dodge Charger driven into the lake three weeks earlier during a high-speed chase, and it’s the divers’ job to get it out. Relatively speaking, it’s a simple task: All they have to do is locate the car with their trailing sonar device, drop anchor and send the first diver down—backed up by a second for safety—to attach a hardline to the car. Then, the two divers in the water will either float the vehicle to the surface with giant inflatable airbags or, if it’s close enough to shore, attach a tow cable to the car so it can be pulled out by the monster tow truck waiting nearby, and all this while keeping a close eye on their time and depth to avoid decompression sickness.
“You never know what is going to happen,” Brian Gaskin, the sergeant in charge in the field, says from behind the dive boat’s wheel.
Still, it is easier than most calls the team gets. The water is cool but not freezing. The visibility is low—only 6 feet or so—but it’s not a total blackout, the kind where you can’t even see your hand when you touch it to your mask. And most importantly, there is no grieving family on the shore, desperate for news of a missing loved one.
As a statewide search-and-recovery dive team, the one female and five male wildlife officers who volunteer for this extra assignment spend the majority of their time recovering drowning victims. It can be a heartbreaking job, as Gaskin knows all too well. As a small-town cop, he was certified as a search-and-rescue diver with the Izard County sheriff’s office before even joining the AGFC. And as the last remaining charter member of the commission’s dive team and a game warden for some 30 years, he’s seen it all, above the surface and below.
But today, he’s weeks away from hanging up his hat. And as he and Scott Basham work the surface while Jody Pendarvis and Jeremy Bishop dive the site, Gaskin tells us his story in his own words.
“We all work as wildlife officers. We are assigned to a county just like all wildlife officers, and wildlife officers all depend on each other. But when you do this right here, it just puts you that much closer because when Jody goes under, he is totally dependent on Jeremy right there to get back to the surface if something happens.
“The thing about having a team is that everybody has their own specialty, whether it’s cold water and being able to stay there longer, not freezing out, being able to clear—to equalize the pressure—and go on deeper dives quicker [or] the speed that they search. If I had to pick one, I guess [I’m better at] diving deeper quicker. That and searching in black water.
“When we get a call, we all go. We just get the first diver in the water and establish a rotation. The depth determines how long you can be down, but the temperature will determine how long until you want out of that water. They are all bounce dives. You can’t just go searching. There just isn’t enough time. Usually, if we are looking for something in deep water, we try to find it with this sonar and go down and identify whatever it is. We [get] a lot of logs, a lot of rocks and things like that, but you [still] have identified them, so you can move to the next spot.
“And the divers have the easy job. The stress factor is high up here because you don’t know what is going on down there.”
“This is not fun. This is very dangerous. If it was fun, everybody would do it. When you only have six people that want to be on the team in the whole organization, that kind of tells you the risk involved.
“Nobody likes black water. If I am going to describe black water, I am going to say it is not just zero visibility. I could go in here and stir up the bottom and have zero visibility, but you still have ambient light. Black is black. It’s like going into a cave and turning off every bit of light: That’s black water.
“Can you smell all that? That is a huge hazard right there, all that gas and oil. On the last car we recovered, the divers’ skin was burning from all the gasoline. There are all kinds of hazards.
“When you get hung up on something, that is about the scariest thing. Notice how they have a pair of scissors up here and a knife down there? Those are the same scissors that EMTs and such use. You could cut a quarter in two with them.
“I did a dive around Greers Ferry Lake near the town of Greers Ferry, and there was a bridge that people would fish off of. And when they cast out there and get hung up, they break it off. Well, when I went down, it looked like spider webs going everywhere. You’d swim and feel it pulling you. That’s the kind of entanglement that can be bad.
“Jody went in the Ouachita River, and the currents were so strong he could hardly make any progress on his search line. When he came up, there was a circle hook right here on his mask. So if that hook had been attached at the other end, it could have ripped his mask off.
“This was an easy dive for the guys, but there is always that risk.”
“It’s the one where you go home and you don’t bring closure to a family. That is the heartbreaker. That and children. You don’t always find them. Maybe they fell out of a boat going across the lake, or maybe a fisherman’s boat has washed up, and his truck is upstream. He could be anywhere. If you don’t have a distinct area that you need to search, you can’t just search a whole lake.
“We go communicate with the families. When you are searching for their loved one, you need to go and let them know what is going on or why you are doing something. This is a sonar boat; we use it to locate items underwater. We have another boat, and they have to wait for the sonar operator to find something and mark it before they can dive on it. So that boat may be sitting there doing nothing, or it looks like nothing. So you explain that to them. It helps them understand it a lot better. You can’t just go jump in the water. There is a reason to all the madness.”
“I didn’t wake up when I was 6 years old and say I wanted to be a game warden like some kids say they want to be a fireman or a policeman. I was a police officer two years prior in a small town, and I was looking for more of a long-term career. I felt law enforcement was my calling, and this is the job that I got. But I love wildlife. I love the outdoors.
“In the past 30 years, I have seen big changes, but I think the [AGFC] is on the right track. We have always had the same goal, but I think people look at us as more professional these days. They look at us more as law enforcement rather than as ‘just the game warden,’ if that makes sense.
“The mission that the commission has, protecting the resources for the state and the sportsmen—I believe in it. I am so glad somebody thought way ahead of us about what we game wardens need to do to protect these resources. Just think about how much money people spend to do what we are doing every day. Even though we are out there protecting the resources, we are out there enjoying it just the same, as long as you look around and don’t take it for granted. It will be a short career if you take it for granted. And by a short career, I mean that it will go by real fast.”