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Grim finds bring doubt of kayaker's survival

Doug Winter's kayak was found empty along the shore of Lake Superior last Tuesday, setting off a week of search and rescue efforts. There has been no signs of Winter since last Monday. Mike Creger1 / 2
Doug Winter's car is being held in Two Harbors by the Lake County Sheriff's Office. It was found unlocked at Cove Point Lodge last week. Mike Creger2 / 2

An empty kayak. An abandoned car. A life jacket. A paddle. Piece by piece last week, a disturbing reality emerged along the shore of Lake Superior around Split Rock Creek. Grimly, all that can be expected now is to find a body.

Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson confirmed the worst fears this week. Douglas Winter is presumed drowned after a week of searching.

Winter, from Milwaukee, was last heard of Monday, Oct. 19, just before 9 p.m., when he made a phone call to his girlfriend. He said he was a few miles out on the lake, likely from a starting point at Cove Point Lodge in Beaver Bay, and the waves were getting larger.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, a kayak was found bobbing on the shoreline near Twin Points. It set off a week of searching for Winter while a northeast wind whipped up large waves on Superior along with rain.

The regular forces were called out after the kayak was found: county search and rescue, the Coast Guard, a helicopter from St. Mary's Hospital in Duluth. A serial number on the kayak led police to where the kayak was sold and then to Winter.

A question remained after a thorough land and water search Tuesday. Was Winter still the owner? The one solid confirmation of the week came the next morning. Staff at Cove Point called police about a car in its lot belonging to someone who should of checked out of the resort the day before. A concerned neighbor of Winter had called from Milwaukee. It was Winter's car. The blue Chevy Cavalier was unlocked with the keys inside, along with a clothing bag, checkbook, and wallet. Bloodhounds tracked a scent to the water.

With a name to go on, further confirmation came from friends and family that Winter had gone up to the area Sunday with intentions of staying at Cove Point through Monday night.

Weather held back attempts for more water searching until the weekend. Officials have relied on finds by those hiking along the shore. On Saturday, a life jacket was found on Split Rock beach.

It had a prescription pill bottle in it with Winter's name. On Monday, a call came in about a GPS unit found in the Split Rock area over the weekend. Six hours later, a call come in about a paddle found in the same beach area.

The location of the items southwest of Beaver Bay is consistent with the northeast wind that has calmed since Sunday. The case remains open but no further active searches are expected, Johnson said.

Details about Winter have emerged from family and friends as the case remains open but without an active search effort.

A brother said Winter was experienced on the water. A friend and fellow paddler who helped him with kayak skills wrote in a blog that "we continue our vigil as the clock ticks."

"He was an avid swimmer, scuba diver and outdoorsman," Ric Winter of Appleton, Wis., said. "A kayaker, obviously. We lived on water all our lives."

Family members said he was a teacher in the Milwaukee public schools system but was on leave. He reportedly mailed letters containing money before his disappearance, one on Cove Point stationery. He also gave away items to a neighbor before leaving for his trip to the North Shore.

All add mystery to a case where police are looking at any clues to what might have happened to Winter, Sheriff Johnson said.

Perhaps the last piece of evidence will be found on Cove Point security cameras. One viewing confirmed Winter's arrival Sunday. Now investigators will try to find any footage of Winter entering or exiting the lake with his kayak to pinpoint when he may have run into trouble.

Richard Silberman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Winter was " a good paddler. He tended to go with the people who paddle fast and far."

Silberman, a kayak instructor, said he has known Winter for three years and once gave him lessons on rolling, a technique to right a capsized kayak. He keeps a blog online about paddling and is keeping others informed on the case.

He wrote Friday as bad news kept trickling in. "Now and then I read of paddlers going amiss, some famous. I care about those stories because they are, after all, fellow paddlers. Doug is more than that. He's one of our own."

Any information on the case should be directed to the sheriff's office at (218) 834-8385.