A New Year’s dip
On a freezing cold New Year’s Day, three divers submerged under the ice at Kaplan’s Quarry outside of Owatonna, and one of them was 75-year-old Don Matejcek.
Matejcek, whose interest in diving was inspired by Jacques Cousteau as a youth, has participated for 52 of the dive’s 56 years. The tradition began on New Year’s Day in 1963, when Matejcek and a few others, prompted by a dare from some adults the night before, jumped into the frigid waters of Lake Kohlmeir. The Owatonna Diving Club was formed that spring.
Prior to that, there were initial classes given through the Owatonna High School by two teachers that were self-taught divers in the fall of 1961 that spurred Matejcek’s life-long hobby. “When they offered it in the fall, we wanted to try it,” he recalled.
Serving in the United States Army Aviation branch during Vietnam meant that Matejcek wasn’t able to dive every year of the event. But he was able to do some diving off the coast of the southeast Asian country.
Since then, he’s dove in places as remote as the Philippines, Central America, the Grand Cayman Islands, and the Florida Keys, as well as destinations a little closer to home, like the Great Lakes.
“That’s my main love of diving,” he said of the Great Lakes dives. “I like saltwater a bit, but I like the wrecks in the Great Lakes. They stay like how they looked when they went down.”
Around here Matejcek has participated in dives in Lake Kohlmeir, the quarry, and the Straight River before the new dam went up, among other places.
“The best place we did the New Year’s dive was before they redid the dam. There was a large hole there, and we found wedding rings, a billfold, and even a stolen car someone had driven into there,” Matejcek recalled fondly. “You’d never know what you’d find.”
At the quarry there isn’t necessarily all that much to look at, but one thing he hopes to find under the ice is a late 1940s pickup truck, which he’d encountered on a warm-weather dive one summer. “That’s what we’re looking to find,” he explained.
Other things worth noting are the broken trees and fish, which the divers will be able to spot at any given time, depending on the visibility. Bass, northern pike, walleye, and pan fish all inhabit Kaplan’s Quarry, and can be seen by the divers at differing occasions.
“It depends on the rain in the fall,” Matejcek explained of the visibility. “Last year was the clearest I’ve ever seen in Kaplan’s Quarry; the visibility was 30 feet.”
To perform the dive the divers all wear dry suits with scuba gear. “You actually sweat in a dry suit,” Matejcek revealed before adding, “I was never warm in the winter in a wetsuit.” They used wetsuits prior to adopting the dry suits.
Ropes are attached, both a primary and backup, and one diver is submerged at a time. “The only way to find the way back is with the rope,” he said. The divers are down there under the ice around 45 minutes at a time.
Although he’d never gotten himself into any dangerous situations while diving, Matejcek does recall a close call back when he was a little greener. “When I was still young and foolish the person on the rope dropped it so I went back but by then he had pulled it in and we met at the hole, but now they anchor the rope.” The ropes are used as signals as well as safety precautions. By tugging on the rope, the diver ensures that he is still okay.
Matejcek said that there was a lot more participation in the club back in it’s heyday during the 1970s when there were around 125 families. Now there are still a decent number of participants with 80 to 90 families taking part, but with more expensive equipment the hobby has become difficult for novices to pick up so easily, that and, as according to Matejcek, “it’s not something you learn in one or two nights.”
At 75, he hopes to become one of the oldest divers ever, but he still has a way to go to catch up with world record holders in their 90s. And despite diving all over the world, the New Year’s Day dive still holds a special place in Matejcek’s heart.
“It’s to start the New Year off right,” he said of the event. “I’m planning on going in again.” Sure enough, on a cold New Year’s morning, the veteran diver plunged into the frozen Minnesota waters for another celebratory dive.