Summit Water Rescue Team recovers lost wedding ring from Lake Dillon

A diver enters the water at Lake Dillon to find Valdis Zebauers’ missing wedding ring.
Courtesy Summit County Sheriff’s Office

The Summit County Water Rescue Team spends most of its time training for emergency situations — jumping into action for a water rescue, recovering bodies and assisting in underwater investigations with evidence recovery.

But on occasion, the team has a chance to go above and beyond to help out community members, even when the stakes are low.

One such occasion presented itself last month, when a long-time boater at the Frisco Bay Marina had his wedding ring slip off his finger and into the lake. Luckily, 10 days later, the dive team was able to recover it — something Summit County Sheriff’s Office special operations Sgt. Mark Watson called a “one in a million” find.

“This is another example of how our search and rescue team, the water rescue team, and this community of emergency responders helps our community in many ways,” Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “They can go in and rescue people and save lives in water environments but can also rescue the community in other ways. This was an emotional rescue. And to me a win is a win. If we can bring some happiness and closure to someone in the community like this, then that’s awesome.”

Valdis Zebauers, better known to some by his nickname “Zeke,” lives in Golden with his wife of 46 years, Yvonne. Zebauers — a Latvian native and former platoon leader and engineering company commander with the U.S. Marina Corps during the Vietnam War — said he has a slip at the Frisco Bay Marina and has been coming up to Summit County to boat a couple of times a week during the summer for more than 20 years.

But things went awry during one excursion last month.

Zebauers said he was out sailing with friends Aug. 17 and his unique wedding ring — casted from wax models he and his wife had made when they were married — fell into the bay as the group was putting the boat to rest at the dock.

Valdis Zebauers’ ring, which was recovered from Lake Dillon.
Courtesy Summit County Sheriff’s Office

“It was just a horrible feeling to see that thing go in the water,” Zebauers said. “I thought that it was gone forever. My wife and I have been married for 46 years, and I didn’t have the ring off the entire time. I felt like I lost a part of me.”

Zebauers reached out to employees at the marina, who in turn contacted the Summit County Water Rescue Team to see if there was anything they could do. The team — a volunteer group that operates under the authority of the Sheriff’s Office — decided to act.

The team went to the marina Aug. 22 with a special underwater camera and was able to locate the ring 16 feet under the surface and mark it with washers lined with marking tape to help locate it again once divers were available.

“We were really fortunate to actually see the ring with the camera. There was some luck there,” said Watson, who provides assistance to the team on the land-based side of operations. “Our biggest concern is that it would disappear into the mud below, especially being such a small, little object.”

Divers arrived Aug. 27 to retrieve the ring. Though even with the markers in place, the mission was no picnic.

“The biggest problem is visibility,” Watson said. “Even at just 16 feet, you can’t see because it’s so murky. So they dove down a couple of times. Fortunately, they managed to clear the silt from the area, and the next time they went down with their lights, they managed to get a glimpse of it glimmering below them. It’s sort of one in a million that things came together and the ring was recovered considering the conditions in the lake and the size of the object. … But for the team, it was a great satisfaction to help out. It’s a good group of guys with a passion for diving and helping people.”

For Zebauers and his wife, the sense of relief was palpable.

“She was horrified when I told her about it,” Zebauers said. “She was totally distraught like I was. The alternate plan was to re-create the ring somehow, or find something that looked sort of like the ring she was wearing. So she was, of course, thrilled like I was when it was found. … I initially had no hope of seeing it again. But the dive team did a remarkable job.”

Valdis “Zeke” Zebauers and his wife, Yvonne, show off their wedding rings following the recovery.
Courtesy Valdis Zebauers

Summit County Water Rescue Team

According to Watson, the Summit County Water Rescue Team is one of just three volunteer-based dive teams in the state. The group typically assists with water and ice rescues, body recoveries and other work like helping to recover pieces of evidence for criminal investigations.

Though according to Watson, sending divers into the water is often the group’s last resort because of the heightened dangers of diving in high altitude locations.

“Diving at altitude is very dangerous,” Watson said. “We don’t want them to go down over 60 feet because all of the dive tables change due to the altitude. So if you’re down 60 feet, it’s probably the equivalent to around 100 or 115 feet at sea level. So that plays a big part because it changes your bottom line, it changes how you come up to the surface, and it changes your timeline if anything did happen.”

A diver enters the water at Lake Dillon to find Valdis Zebauers’ missing wedding ring.
Courtesy Summit County Sheriff’s Office

Instead, the team will use an underwater remote operating vehicle equipped with a camera and claw to complete — or at least help to plan — missions before sending divers into the water. The group also has a side-scan sonar device it can tow on the back of a boat to get sonar images on the side of the lake.

Watson noted that the team doesn’t often take on missions such as ring recoveries, though it occasionally will help out community members when schedules line up. Watson said that on Thursday, the team took six hours to help raise a sunken boat at the marina back to the surface using airbags.

Nonemergent situations can provide valuable practice for the team for when real problems arise.

“They got to train their skills for if they’re ever doing an evidence search,” Watson said. “It helps build their confidence. It’s good to do a real life mission and make sure you’ve got everything working correctly. And it’s exciting to have that success. They really did feel a great sense of accomplishment, and it’s a great reward to get that back to someone who’s worn it for 46 years.”

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