Sunday, Feb. 24 started like any other day at the cabin. Chores and good food, drinks. It was time to pack up and come back to town as my wife, Veronica, had to work the following morning.
This trip to the cabin included myself, Veronica, our twins, Ariea and Zain, along with our dog, Ruby. Our oldest boy, Daxx, stayed home with Grandma this trip as he had commitments with air cadets.
We departed the cabin at 3 p.m. in freshly-fallen snow with drifting and high winds from a recent storm. The dog rides the snowmobile well with me while the twins ride with my wife. We have the best sleds and gear money can buy and difficult conditions didn’t concern me much as we are both experienced snowmobilers.
Our cabin is located 32 km from the Causeway in the North Arm of beautiful Rainy Lake. A very recent purchase for us. A “bucket list” reality for both my wife and I to own a beautiful piece of waterfront property. I’m an avid fisherman in all the seasons so this remote getaway is a dream come true.
After riding five miles, we were faced with deep and very soft snow drifts and slush. No big deal for our wide-track sleds and experience. Alas, this was my mistake.
As we got close to the ice road at Greyhound Island, we encountered extremely deep slush. My wife, towing a sleigh, got stuck so I went back to help her get out. We unhooked the sleigh and I drove the snowmobile away from where she got stuck. We then pulled the sleigh to hard ground and reconnected to carry on.
I hopped over the banks of the ice road and we continued. Given the drifting and rough conditions, we thought at the time that by staying near the road, we’d be able to get home with little difficulty. This was another crucial mistake.
Not too far from Greyhound Island, we encountered more very deep slush and my wife stuck the sled two more times. I always carry survival gear and snowshoes in cases like this and wasn’t concerned at the time about getting out.
As I came around to assist my wife, I had decided at this point that it was going to require us to leave the sleigh and come back the next day for retrieval. There was slush everywhere and she simply was getting stuck by towing this anchor. So it needed to stay put on an island.
All at once, I hit a drift the wrong way and when I came down, I planted my snowmobile, a 2016 Arctic Cat Bearcat 7000, in very deep overburden. We now were stuck about 200 feet apart, it was getting dark, my kids were getting cold in the 25 km/h winds along with my dog, who was running around in chest-deep slush. It was time for a decision–we needed to call for help.
I put my wife on my snowshoes (hers were coming in the mail from a custom snowshoe builder in Newfoundland) and she and the kids walked to a nearby island while I walked in knee-deep snow and slush behind them. By now it was 4:30 p.m. and we had two hours of daylight left.
I always carry a few ways to make fire: a Bic lighter, firesteel, and petroleum hello soaked cotton balls in an altoids tin, along with an axe and saw in my snowmobile. It’s a precaution, mostly used for brewing tea over the fire or cooking smokies while out on extended fishing trips and making a warm cooking fire. This gear, however, saved our lives this night.
As we approached the island, I knew it would take some time to rally friends to come and assist for a rescue. It was going to get dark and we urgently needed a warming fire as my kids and wife were getting chilled in the high winds. I immediately landmarked all the available firewood on the island and stomped trails to it for retrieval if required.
Stumbling in knee-deep snow with an axe is can be dangerous, after dark even more so, but we needed reliable heat.
I shovelled an area to make the fire and piled the snow toward the prevailing winds (my survival training from a high school outdoors program was kicking into high gear). We sawed dry limbs and wood to make a good fire. After this was established, I cut more wood to stockpile for our impending wait.
At this point I took out my cellphone. I planned to make a call but it was at 10 percent with only one bar of service. I always carry a battery pack to charge things and this was really handy to charge my phone during this ordeal.
I called my son and told him where we were and that we needed help to get in stuck from the slush. The plan was for him to call my good friend with a new super-wide track to get us out. It now was 5 p.m., with about 90 minutes of daylight left.
I cut some more wood for the fire and decided I’d go out on snowshoes to prep the sleds for extracting when my friend was due to arrive.
At about 6:20 p.m. I saw headlights coming. Yay, we are going to be OK. As the lights approached, I noticed there was more than one sled. Perfect! Many hands make light work.
Soon I saw the lights of one sled and the glow of another one behind. As the close sled stopped and waited for the other, I’m thinking, “No, can it be? But yep, the second sled was stuck, too.” The close lights all of a sudden turned around to go back for the other sled and rider. I watched and waited–seeing them three-quarters of a mile away stuck. Now what?
It was at that point I knew we were in real trouble and needed help. Not just for us but now my two good friends, as well. This was not a good situation.
I also knew our sleds were going to remain stuck at least for a few days. I shovelled as much snow as quickly as I could around both our sleds to make retrieval easier in the coming days.
I looked to the island to see the glow of a dwindling fire. It was time to call for real help. This is the no guff–a very serious situation. Not just for me and my family but also my friends now stuck in the middle of the North Arm, three-quarters of a mile from land, with no chance for a fire like we had.
I made it back to shore to see a low fire and my wife frantically working to keep it going. She hadn’t landmarked the dry wood like I had and she was frantic trying to keep it going. I told her that both our friends were stuck and we needed help. This was serious.
Spotty cellular service and pour communications made things even more difficult. Fortunately, I managed to text a picture of our exact lat/long co-ordinates to my brother and told him we needed the OPP ERT team to come and facilitate a rescue.
These guys are an elite team of survival experts who come to the aid of stranded, missing, and lost people in the woods in our area. They train for this and it was critical that we needed help. I knew my friends were standing in water in less than ideal conditions. It was 7 p.m. by now and it was dark.
In short order we knew that help was coming, but it takes time for the OPP to assemble and rally to facilitate a rescue. During this time, my survival training had me checking with my family every five-10 minutes.
I cut more wood in anticipation of a long wait. We also cut pine boughs to put down for the kids and the dog to sit on and get up off the snow. I mounded up more snow with my shovel to keep us out of the wind and warm by the fire. I also had been in further contact with family and friends to let them know we were OK and waiting for help.
At about 10:30 p.m., we saw lights coming from the south and I knew a rescue was close. I had saved some small dry wood to make a big signal fire for the ERT folks to find us–it was time to put it on.
We were never so happy to see those five guys. Given the conditions when they arrived, I knew that my wife and kids needed to go first. It was decided. I had told the team lead that my friends in the middle of the lake would need assistance afterwards immediately. He confirmed that they had wet feet and were in not too good of a situation.
I said I’m good here with the dog, with lots of wood. Come get me last.
Their plan, with it being so late, was to take us to Donna Howells on Birch Island as they live on the lake year-round. The team lead had spoken to her and she was preparing for us to spend the night with them (her residence was about eight km from our location).
They left with my wife and kids. I then cut more wood, stocked up, built the fire up, and waited. I sat with my Lab on my lap in front of a warm fire and watched the moon come up. It was a beautiful starry night.
At about midnight, I heard the sleds coming back. It was time to go. I left all my gear and climbed aboard a sled with one of the team members. My dog, Ruby, readily jumped on with another fellow.
It turned out that my two friends were in rough shape with poor footwear for the conditions. It also turned out that Don Cumming, his wife, and a few friends were a lot closer to where we were stuck at their cabin on Rebecca Island. My two friends and my family had been taken there instead of Donna’s.
It was during this time that I finally realized how cold I was getting from being sweated up working frantically in slush and snow, building a fire, and keeping my wife and kids warm. After a short ride, we were at the cabin. Everyone was inside, warm and safe. Boy were we lucky.
The next day, it was time for everyone to get off the lake and the ERT team returned with a few extra guys and sleds to help get us off the lake. A huge thank you is owed to both Denis Barnard and Scott Gobeil for their assistance in getting us off the lake the next afternoon.
I’d also like to thank those five guys from the OPP ERT team who came out in less-than-ideal conditions to come and get us in a very serious situation.
After having some time to reflect on things and to think about what I could have done to prevent this situation, there was really nothing. Except going ahead of my family and looking at the conditions prior to taking them on the lake. Boy, was I glad that I made the decision long ago to carry survival gear 100 percent of the time. It saved our lives that night.
My oldest boy, Daxxen, really needs to be commended, as well. He was instrumental with his air cadet training in ensuring that the proper co-ordinates got to the ERT team for them to find us. He’s a trooper.
How did we get the sleds back? That’s a story for another time. I will say it involved a chainsaw, shovel, high lift or Jackall jack, a couple of axes, and a few determined men. Boy, was I tired after that weekend of rest and relaxation.
Let’s go do it again.