PACTOLA LAKE | The square piece of high-visibility orange vinyl has a simple purpose.
The flag is meant to be seen flapping from the prow of a boat on Pactola, Sheridan or any of the lakes throughout the Black Hills and beyond.
A closer look reveals a border of simple phrases intended to have a profound effect: “Have fun, be safe!” reads one side. And another: “Lifejackets save lives!” A third: “Boats don’t have brakes!” and finally, the fourth: “Respect each other!”
The flags are the result of a collaboration of friends and family of Joshua R. Haugen, an enthusiastic, friendly 17-year-old who died in June 1999, just weeks after his 17th birthday and only two months prior to beginning his senior year at Stevens High School in Rapid City.
While jet-skiing with friends, Josh fell from a personal watercraft and disappeared beneath the waves of Pactola Reservoir. None of the youths on the two jet skies involved in the accident were wearing life jackets.
Despite a prolonged search and recovery effort, and because of unusually deep, cold and murky waters, it wasn’t until Aug. 6, 2000, that Josh’s body was recovered by local divers who refused to quit searching. Just two days before, his family installed a memorial bench for Josh at an overlook on the Pactola Dam. It appeared then that the lake would be Josh’s final resting place.
Every year since 2009, Josh’s family has held the JRH Memorial Campout at Pactola, sharing time and fun on the water and celebrating his memory and the values he exemplified as a young man. This year, 20 years since his death, Josh’s family decided to make his death stand for more than the tragedy. They wanted to help make recreation on the region’s lakes and rivers safer for everyone by teaming with the local community and raising awareness.
On July 27, Josh’s family joined members of the Rapid City Fire Department, the Rapid City-Pennington County Water Rescue Team, the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office and the Rapid City Chapter of the South Dakota Walleyes Unlimited to share their story and help keep their fellow boaters’ sense of safety front of mind.
“We finally made it come together,” said Louise McDaniels, Josh’s mother. “It’s been 20 years now, and we have to make a difference.”
The event was held at the North Boat Launch of Pactola Reservoir and included demonstrations of life-jacket fittings, a display of one of the watercraft and much of the gear that the Water Rescue Team (WRT) uses, and a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) that can carry cameras and sensitive equipment deep underwater to aid in recovery efforts. The family also shared custom-made safety flags with boaters and accepted donations to the WRT.
“We made over $1,200 for the rescue team,” she said, noting that the family’s efforts will continue this summer.
McDaniels was joined by Josh’s father, Orv Haugen, and Josh’s siblings, Ben Haugen and Kori Ewing.
Offering the flags to boaters was awkward at first, but before long the family was inspired by the public’s reaction.
“We said, ‘Would you like a flag?’” McDaniels said. “We lost our son.”
Some longtime area residents remembered the long summer of 1999 while the search was an everyday sight at the lake.
Official searches were conducted until early April 2000, according to news reports. Funds had come in from across several states to help pay the costs. It was tough for McDaniels to think about a halt to the search.
“But I know they kept looking, the local guys,” she said. “They continued. They were determined they were going to find Josh.”
McDaniels can list the names of the key searchers, one of them no longer alive, but she knows there are so many people who pitched in and she didn’t know how to thank them all.
The family made 250 durable vinyl flags emblazoned with positive, safety-focused messages, distributing about 80 flags at the event on July 27. Coincidentally, the event marked the opening of the lake’s boat ramps, which had been closed for weeks due to high water levels.
This wasn’t the first time Josh’s family had stepped up from their grief for a positive cause. After the 1999 recovery effort was called off, the family dedicated the remaining funds from the community donations to purchase a new rescue boat for the WRT.
Gary Shepherd, former chief of the Rapid City Fire Department and one of the developers of the WRT, said Josh’s death and the long recovery search showed the need for improvements.
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Although the WRT was formed in 1986, at the time of Josh’s death the team was using two smaller boats that couldn’t hold all the gear needed for an extensive diving operation. Shepherd used his own boat to aid in the search for Josh, and others did the same.
“(The boat) was much needed. We had a couple of Zodiacs (inflatable rafts),” Shepherd said. “For these kinds of environments, you need something you can work out of, do the diving operations out of."
“Back before that, anytime we had an event, we got anybody that had dive gear in their closet. Recreational volunteers, who had no specific training for this,” Shepherd said. “We were in deep lakes and not using some of the precautions that are needed in these environments.
“Josh was found in 90 feet of water, where the temperature was 44 degrees,” Shepherd said. One factor that led to the delay in finding Josh was an ongoing drought, which had led to low visibility.
Shepherd and RCFD Chief Rod Seals were on hand for the July 27 event. They said they appreciated the Haugen family and the others who are contributing to the cause of water safety.
The Rapid City chapter of South Dakota Walleyes Unlimited was also present. President Calvin Modlin said the chapter got involved in purchasing the remote operating vehicle, a device about the size of a portable power generator. The ROV can carry an underwater camera to depths that are dangerous for divers.
“We have been supportive of (the WRT) needs over the years,” Modlin said. “We are all about access for fishing and the safety of boating.”
Modlin said the rescue team has mostly been training with the ROV.
“This is a way better thing than anything else they could use,” he said. “It will save their divers.”
The chapter and its 120 members held fundraisers and helped with about a third of the $80,000 price tag for the ROV.
“People who are making it safe need to have the equipment to do it,” Modlin said.
The flag doesn’t carry a heavy message. The simple reminders around its borders frame a design that includes Josh’s name and sweeping lines that blend the shape of a cross with that of an eagle’s wings.
“We just wanted it to be short and sweet,” McDaniels said. “There’s a lot of rules out there.
Honoring Joshua while promoting water safety was a positive experience. McDaniels said Josh would be proud of the family, and his nieces and nephews got into the flag distributions.
Asked what she wanted people to consider the most, McDaniels said it was the need to be prepared for the unknown.
“We lost our son,” she said. “We just want to be safe out there. (Drowning) only takes a second.”
Family thanks supporters
“We just wanted it to be short and sweet,” McDaniels said. Honoring Joshua while promoting water safety was a very positive experience for our family and friends. Our flags were excepted by the community with much gratitude. When asked what our message to the community was, it was stated, “we want you all to be safe on the water so you don’t experience the loss of a loved one as we have.”
As a family we are excited to make this an annual event.
Thank you everyone for your generous donations and everyone in our community who participated to make this event successful.
Sincerely, Josh’s family and friends