Steamboat divers save wedding day

Equipment helps men find ring mired in muck of lake

Danie Harrelson

— Two Steamboat Springs diving enthusiasts added a nice ring to the wedding of Katy Edwards and Mark Fiedler last weekend.

Jim Johnsen and Denis Freeman recovered the bride-to-be’s engagement and wedding ring from the murky bottom of Steamboat Lake Friday, just 24 hours before the big event in Breckenridge.

Johnsen, the owner and diving instructor at Steamboat Scuba and Water Sports LLC, and Freeman, a Professional Association of Diving Instructors divemaster, discovered the star sapphire ring on their second trip to the lake.

While Edwards and her friends were enjoying a bachelorette party about 3 1/2 weeks ago at a campground near the Sunrise Vista Trail, the ring given to her by her future mother-in-law slipped off her finger and into the water.

She called Johnsen for help, and he enlisted the help of Freeman.

“He’s one of the few people I feel strong about assisting me with these searches,” Johnsen said.

Both men have been scuba diving for a long time.

Some of Edwards’ friends had tried to retrieve the ring, but their efforts only stirred the silt at the lake’s bottom, possibly making the ring harder to find, Johnsen said.

A foot of muck and dirt often covers the bottom of reservoir lakes, making it almost impossible to find an object as small as a ring, he said.

“It has a suction quality to it,” Freeman added.

Complicating matters was poor visibility, which was never more than 1 1/2 feet, he added.

“You are in such a different environment down there,” Freeman said. “You can’t see in front of your face.”

Johnsen and Freeman wore dry suits to prevent hypothermia in the 10-foot deep, 60-degree waters.

Edwards and Fiedler, both of Breckenridge, eagerly watched them from about 50 feet away on the shore.

As one person searched the lake bottom for 15 to 20 minutes, the other person monitored weather conditions from the boat.

“Our ultimate responsibility was our own safety,” Johnsen said. “We were always keeping track of each other.”

They tried to remain parallel to the lake bottom as they sifted through the muddy bottom, using a makeshift grid that Freeman constructed out of PVC piping.

The grid, which consisted of four squares measuring 2 1/2 high and wide, resembled one used for an archaeological dig.

Sifting through such isolated areas of sediment ensured thorough coverage of the area.

Freeman spray painted the piping bright yellow, red, blue and orange to help them differentiate the four squares in the murky water.

When they finished sifting through each of the squares, they could turn the grid over to further search the lake bottom.

The men worked for 2 1/2 hours before poor weather conditions forced them from the water.

Their search yielded fishing lines, beer bottle caps, twigs and other debris but no ring.

“But we were both committed to giving this another shot,” Johnsen said.

They charged a salvage fee for their first attempt, but they wanted to try again free of charge.

Edwards helped them find someone who might be able to improve their chances at finding the lost ring. Jeff Luppert, the president of a Denver treasure-hunting club, offered his services during Johnsen and Freeman’s return to the site Friday.

Luppert, who had only five dives under his belt, ran his underwater metal detector while Freeman and Johnsen searched through the silt.

If the metal detector picked up an object within one of the grid’s squares, Johnsen or Freeman would continue to take sediment from that area until it no longer indicated the object.

The silt was then placed in a sifter.

“This was a team effort,” Johnsen said.

It took only one hour, using both the grid and the metal detector, for the team to discover the hidden ring.

The men took several precautions not to lose the ring after it was found. Johnsen attached a floatable probe to the ring so its location could be seen from above the water, and a light indicated its whereabouts from below the water.

“We were prepped for the possibility that we could lose it again,” Johnsen said.

After their incredible find, Johnsen gave Fiedler a call.

“He was just flabbergasted,” Johnsen said.

Johnsen’s wife, Janeen, delivered the precious item to a grateful fiance in Silverthorne at 10 a.m. the next day.

That was less than five hours before the couple’s 2:45 p.m. wedding.

Johnsen and Freeman credit Edwards and good fortune with finding the ring.

“It’s amazing that she gave us such an exact location,” Freeman said.

Johnsen and Freeman said the dive held more meaning than past searches.

About five or six years ago, Johnsen was involved in another search for a ring lost by an Arizona couple on a tubing trip. The ring was worth more than $10,000.

This ring, however, had been passed down from generation to generation and was an important family heirloom.

“That’s the beauty of this one,” Freeman said. “It held so much sentimental value.”

Finding the precious piece of jewelry was a mental task for the two seasoned scuba divers.

“I’m a firm believer that if you really think there’s not a chance that you’ll find it, you won’t,” Freeman said. “This was like looking for a needle in a haystack blindfolded.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.