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Update: Big Miracle brings back a lot of memories

Rick Kelley was commissioned to create this painting, called Gateway to Freedom. He created it in 1988-1989. Prints of this painting were given to President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.1 / 3
Rick Kelley was commissioned by Kasco Marine to create a painting depicting the whale rescue. Hudson Star-Observer file photo by Bob Zientara2 / 3
A children's book was also produced about the rescue.3 / 3

For some people the recent release of the movie "Big Miracle" brings back a wealth of memories.

For Hudson resident Jason Davis, former area wild life artist Rick Kelley and Rick Skluzacek, the son of Lakeland business man Bill Skluzacek, who flew to Alaska with the deicing units that ultimately saved the whales, it is an event that remains engraved in their minds. Each played a unique role in the true story behind the movie.

It was October of 1988. Rick Skluzacek received a call from his then brother-in-law Greg Ferrian had heard of the attempts to rescue three whales off the coast of Alaska.

"Greg said that Kasco should get involved. That our deicing units could be a help," said Rick Skluzacek, during a telephone interview from Florida.

"I was hoping we could just ship the units up there. But we couldn't get a positive response no matter who we called. One person said they would not work in Alaska. We wanted to make a difference and showcase the product."

The product was a deicing unit, invented by Rick's father Bill who owned Kasco Marine, a spin-off from the Windmill Marina which Rick's parents bought in 1955. The little company manufactured the units so people could keep their boats in the water year round if needed.

Undaunted by the rejections, Rick and Greg bought airline tickets and arrived in Alaska the next day.

"We thought we would go up for a couple of days and we would be done," said Rick. The duo ended up staying for ten days and found themselves in the midst of a growing international story.

Upon arrival it took a bit of convincing, talking to the leadership of the rescue effort before they were told they could give the deicing units a try.

"At 3:30, we were walking out of the room still unsure when a couple of biologists found us. They wanted to give it a try."

Greg and Rick flew out to the whales in a helicopter, something neither of them had done. At age 32 and 28 at the time, they were still pretty young compared to many others working on the rescue. The first unit was slow to start, due to the extreme cold. It was 30 degrees below zero. Once they got the machine started it pushed back the broken ice covering the breathing hole, which was about 20 feet by 20 feet.

"One of the whales came up in front of the deicer and did a 180 degree turn in the current," said Rick. "By morning the biologists determined the whales' breathing rate had returned to normal, or what they would expect the whales to have in open water."

Rick spent that first night out on the ice near the breathing hole in a four foot by eight foot plywood shack. It was heated by a Coleman lantern. He spent the night on a stool with the lantern close to his face for warmth taking 15 to 20 minute naps. In reality there were three juvenile whales, not the family a portrayed in the movie and before Rick and Greg had arrived the youngest and the smallest had already succumbed.

The whales learned that the sound of the deicer meant open water and a chance to breath.

"Now we had a way to move them into deeper water," said Rick. "The Eskimos cut the holes and we installed the deicers."

"People didn't understand during the rescue that part of their (the Eskimos) lifestyle is stewardship of the whales as well as harvesting them," said Rick. "Their preferred whale is the bowhead but if it came to a point where these were not going to survive, they would have harvested them. "

Soon, the whales and the rescuers reached a pressure ridge in the ice, which extended 40 to 80 feet below the surface. It was then the Russians sent their ice breaker in.

"No one saw the whales swim away," said Rick. "They went out the next spring looking for whale carcasses and none were found that matched their description."

During the 10 days Rick and Greg were there, they always had to have a shotgun in the vehicle they used.

"One time I was in a suburban with Cindy Lowry, the woman from Green Peace and she said 'if a polar bear comes don't shoot it to save me,' I never forgot that," said Rick.

"It was a crazy ten days," said Rick. "Every time you thought you had seen everything in the Arctic you saw more."

Kasco Marine moved the operation to Prescott. Today the company has 20 employees with sales personnel in four states. They still manufacture the deicers and other water related items.

"The deicers are rugged. What we make has to run day after day and they have to be efficient," said Rick, whose wife Joyce still works daily at the company.

Rick viewed the movie at a Washington, D.C., screening.

"They portrayed us like we were from Fargo, sort of like offering comic relief as well as being uncommon heroes, " said Rick. "They sort of did it over the top and they could have cast us younger."

He was consulted a number of times by Tom Rose, the author of the original book. Kasco Marine deicers are actually used in the movie.

"In my life it was a chapter I am proud of," said Rick, who was invited to the White House reception. "The whole event was a very broadening experience. I met a lot of great people during the rescue."

Jason Davis, a veteran television journalist, was accustomed to working and traveling in the arctic weather, having covered Will Steger's expeditions. His footage from the event was used heavily by the movie production crew for research and some of it is actually included in the movie.

"The decision to go was so instantaneous a helicopter landed on the roof of the station. They flew me to my home, landing in my yard," said Davis, who had called his wife to tell her to pack his cold weather gear. "We loaded my gear and flew back to the St. Paul airport where I boarded the corporate jet and was off to Alaska.

It turned out that the owner of KSTP, Stanley Hubbard's son was a classmate of Rick Skluzacek. When Hubbard heard about the rescue, it was decided to load the plane with deicers and go.

Rick and Greg, however, had already left. Jason Davis and the rest of his crew and additional deicers were just a day behind.

"They (Rick and Greg) are the heroes of the movie," said Davis. "They were the legitimate heroes."

By the time Davis arrived in Barrow, the producers in the Twin Cities had secured an old snowmobile and a truck for them.

"We had wheels," said Davis. "We had this advantage so we got out to the site much quicker and easier than many of the network people. Plus we ran into people we had met before, like the chief naturalist."

"Technically it was amazing," Davis continued. "The community had state of the art equipment. Without those resources we would not have been able to get the story out."

"It was a worldwide sensation," said Davis. "It had been bubbling along for about a week before the networks picked it up.

The community had three restaurants: Mexican, Chinese and Italian. Davis ended up staying in someone's house as the community was swamped with journalists from around the world.

"It was a huge news story and we had the advantage having been there before," said Davis. "We were used to working in the cold weather and in the dark."

Rick Skluzacek and Greg Ferrian flew back with Davis on the KSTP plane after their ten day Arctic adventure.

Following the events at home, it wasn't long after the October rescue that area wildlife artist Rick Kelley was commissioned by Kasco Marine to create a painting of the event.

Kelley traveled to KSTP's studios to view the footage from Davis' trip to the Arctic, before he started to paint "Gateway to Freedom."

"I started on the painting as soon as Rick's father called me," said Kelley. "It was an amazing effort. All the people were very genuine in what they were doing."

Prints were made of the painting and two of them were framed and sent to President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premiere Mikhail Gorbachev.

Some prints of "Gateway to Freedom," are still available through Kelley Frame and Fine Art Galleries.

'Big Miracle' is playing at the Hudson 12 Theatre.

Jason Davis' original 1988 reports can be seen on the KSTP website.