Rescue at Nutimik Lake

Circa 1977 and I have 4 years of service with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. During that time, I have been posted at a three-man detachment at Whitemouth, Manitoba. Whitemouth is the largest of several small mixed farming communities within the East-Man Region of Manitoba, hence the chosen location for the regional police office. Whitemouth also guards the western border of the Whiteshell Provincial Park. Hard working and law abiding, the population in all communities within the region was very pro-police and the local police officers were in turn very pro-community. Generally, the incidents of crime ranged from minor traffic accidents to personal and public disputes, while the “clients” most often encountered were more characters than criminals. For the most part, single man work-shifts were conducted throughout the region covering 16 hours of the day. The remaining coverage was on a call-out basis. Many complaints or calls for service were routed to us through the headquarters detachment in Winnipeg. Any overtime worked was unpaid and rarely rescheduled.

In the 4 years since my arrival at Whitemouth, activity within the Park had increased. Where once cottage owners mainly used the Whiteshell seasonally; camping, hiking, boating and other activities had markedly increased. The park was a year round destination, and the increased traffic had increased the incidents of general crime, lost hunters, hikers and berry pickers. Increased crimes such as impaired driving, cottage break-ins, thefts and domestic disputes challenged the service delivery offered by detachment personnel. It was not uncommon to work 16-hour days during the summer months, and call-outs after-hours and during non-schedules shifts were common throughout the year.

Acknowledging this trend, the RCMP Headquarters increased the manpower of Whitemouth Detachment by one constable and increased the rank of the Detachment Commander to Sergeant. The added Constable position was also given the responsibility for the enforcement of the Canada Shipping Act, Small Vessel Regulations for the 6 Detachment areas of East-Man Region; a geographical area of over 21,000 square kilometers. I was transferred into that position in July 1977 and my detachment commander at the time, Sergeant Al Merrithew, gave me free reign to plan and implement river and lake patrols in consultation with the other detachments’ managers. Most often, a summer student accompanied me on my patrols.

The RCMP boat was a 17-½ foot modified tri-hull hybrid that was specially designed as a security and patrol platform for the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal. Powered by a 200 hp Evenrude outboard motor, the craft topped out at 54 miles per hour and could turn flat on the water at full speed. It generated little wake. As a volunteer duty, I was also a member of the RCMP underwater recovery team. Tasks on this team included diving using SCUBA gear in search of drowning victims and evidence to support criminal investigations. “My” boat was the perfect platform for this; both for the cargo it could carry and the flat stability it offered in support of diving operations.

The front of the boat was wide, flat and low to the water; swept upward at an attractive angle toward the stern, merging into a fiberglass cabin about 1/3 of the way back. This cabin offered wind and sun protection for the operator and passenger occupants. The rear portion of the boat was open, with solid side gunwales and inboard storage compartments on each side of the stern. Three of these boats were assigned to the RCMP in Manitoba. While other operators were critical of their boat’s tendency to “porpoise” in higher waves, I preferred the sleek line as opposed to the traditional V shaped bow, wave cutter design. On the water and under power, the craft, in RCMP gold and blue colours, was an impressive sight.

Being a modified tri-hull, the boat was very easy to load onto its trailer. Padded rails tunnelled between the left and right hull. In conditions where I was able to back the trailer far enough into the water, I was able to power the boat onto the trailer, avoiding the use of the trailer winch. Towing as well was a breeze, and even though “my” new Chevrolet Suburban was not four-wheel drive, I was always successful at launching and retrieving the craft.

Within my duty area, the first weekend in September was the final official weekend of summer. Following this long-weekend, park campgrounds closed and cottage owners pulled their boats and docks from the rivers and lakes. Some stalwart owners kept their cottages open, although with water lines drained. Every weekend at the lake beyond mid September was a gift; only a handful expressed a hope for a final visit during the Thanksgiving holiday in mid October. Officially by mid September, I ceased water patrol activities and focused on fall hunting and regular detachment duties. Still, I was mindful of incidents that could require water transport support.

November arrived and detachment life slowed. November was an in-between-seasons time of year. Hunting and fishing seasons were closing, the smaller lakes were starting to freeze and the sun was setting much earlier in the day. The snowmobile season was weeks away and people were more focused on getting their Christmas lights up on their houses than heading out into the cold bleakness of rural Manitoba.

The morning of November 8th was cold. I had just returned from coffee at Johnnie’s and was alone with my thoughts, eager to plan my day. Johnnie was our regional Justice of the Peace; as well, he and his wife Martha operated a diner on the west outskirts of town. Coffee at Johnnie’s was a favoured way to start the day as it offered an opportunity to cajole with and get the local gossip from the businessmen and trades-people that stopped for “coffee and a chat” before the start of business.

Another routine morning coffee practice at Johnnie’s was playing the “number game”. In this game, Johnnie picked a number between 1 and 100 and, by rotation, everyone who was in the game guessed a number. If you guessed the number, you paid the entire bill, and it was an exciting push to the climax as the range of numbers narrowed until someone was “caught”. On that morning, I was caught, and just my luck, there were 8 players in the game. $2.00 lost to a gambling vice; no chicken dinner for me at lunch!

The phone rang. I took the call and quickly realized that I wouldn’t be getting a lunch break that day anyway. On the phone was Tommy Johnson, the owner of Whiteshell Air Services at Nutimik Lake. Tommy and his wife Jean were the only commercial air carriers in the Whiteshell and catered mostly to fishermen and hunters looking to access the many secluded lakes in the northern regions of the park. We also used their service and their planes as required to search for lost hunters and berry pickers or to gain access to investigations in remote areas. Tommy and Jean were friendly and accommodating and their equipment was dependable and safe.

Tommy advised that two hunters had just arrived at his dock in their small boat. They had been hunting for deer across the Winnipeg River since the day before. They had meant to return to the mainland before dark, but the third hunter in their group got separated from them and was lost. Both had spent the previous afternoon looking for him without success, and rather than leave him, they had camped overnight hoping he would see their fire. Tommy relayed that the lost hunter was familiar with the woods, but he also indicated that the two in his house right now didn’t seem to have all that much experience. Both were wet, cold and miserable. Jean was warming them up with hot soup and warm blankets. Tommy was fearful that the lost hunter was worse off and in serious trouble.

Tommy and I spent the next few minutes discussing options, as Tommy knew the geography better than anyone in the area and was confident he could pinpoint the staging camp of the three hunters and the probable location of the lost party. He informed us that in the area across the river there were many swamps, and that if a hunter became lost, he would also be very disorientated trying to navigate through or around these natural barriers. Realistically, Tommy continued, he should likely be within a mile of the base camp. Having said that, even after the short time, there was a real probability that the lost hunter was suffering from hypothermia and was possibility severely injured.

Of course the natural solution to this incident would be to search by air, but Tommy advised that the ceiling was too low and that the next day’s weather forecast would curtail his business for the foreseeable future. Further, Tommy advised that the weather for the next three days forecast snow and blowing snow. The rescue window of opportunity was quickly closing. Looking out the office window, I saw that snow was already falling. I called my boss Al.

Al and I were the only members working the detachment area that week. We had split our shifts and on-call responsibilities equally. I was now calling him out for his advice, but knew that without asking, we would work as a team to resolve this logistically difficult rescue. The decision was made to bring the RCMP boat out of storage and use it for the rescue attempt. Al had already called for the services of the regional dog handler; he would meet us with his search dog at Nutimik Lake. The boat would easily provide safe and reliable transportation for Al and I, the dog and handler and the rescued hunter, when found.

Within the hour we had dressed for the weather and I had pulled the boat from storage. Stopping at the local service station to get fresh gas for the boat, I was met by Bert the owner and a quizzical look.

“Don’t ask, I said”, but then proceeded to tell him our task for the day.

“Geez Bill, you’ve got bad weather coming. We’re expecting four inches of snow before tomorrow and more coming in behind that.”

“Yeah, it’s going to be touch and go. We’ll figure it out. I’m just picking up Al and we’re heading out. If we can make it to the lake and find this guy, then we’ll worry about getting back after that.”

“Good luck.”

As Al and I headed out of town he was in radio communication with the dog handler. His expected time of arrival mirrored ours. Driving was actually easier than I had expected. It was snowing and as we moved down the asphalt highway I could see our tracks in the snow from my side-view mirror. But the truck was dependable and the weight of the boat and trailer kept us on track. The trip to Nutimik Lake took just under an hour. There was not much competition on the road, but we were mindful that our rescue effort could be the hunter’s only hope. We didn’t want to slide into the ditch!

We arrived at Whiteshell Air Services and were greeted by Tommy and Jean. They were glad to see us but also concerned about the health of the lost hunter and the increasing concern being expressed by his friends. Now that they had warmed up, they wanted to head back across the river, but their boat in the deteriorating weather would have made the trip suicidal. Another concern; Tommy had been down to the boat launch and didn’t think we could launch the boat. The launch was fairly steep and drifting snow would add another element of danger and risk of failure. If the boat could not be launched, or was disabled in the attempt, the lost hunter would surely die. Al and I decided to split up.

Someone needed to calm the two hunters and stop them from heading back onto the water. I needed to launch the boat. The decision was made that Al would work on the logistics of the rescue with the hunters and Tommy. Tommy had topographical maps that would be used to map out and then guide the rescue effort. Al would also meet and brief the dog handler and have everything ready to go when I arrived with the boat. I drove 12 miles down river to a better launch site.

My drive to the boat launch and the launching of the boat was uneventful. I had grown accustom to the snow covered roads and although the drifts were building, their navigation posed little threat. Launch complete, I left the truck and trailer on the ramp. I didn’t expect that I would be blocking anyone else from launching a boat within the next 6 months. Besides, I wanted to ensure that the tires were on the best traction possible for my subsequent exit later that day.

Engine started, life jacket on, I headed up-river. Within 500 feet I encountered an unexpected impact of the cold river water hitting the frozen Plexiglas windshield. Instant ice! The windshield turned opaque, I couldn’t see anything. I reduced my speed to 25 miles an hour, but even then, I was just a boat waiting for a rock to happen. I powered down. Looking out my side window the trees on the river’s shore were obscured by the frozen water on the glass and the swirling snow in the air. The beautiful sparkling summer waters of the Winnipeg River were now grey and ominous. Without a sightline, I was basically dead in the water. A problem to solve, a solution arrived.

The side Plexiglas windows were friction fit into rubber gaskets. A couple of punches dislodged the glass on my side and within minutes I was flying back down the river, navigating around the rocks and reefs. My head was now hanging out the side window and the ear-flaps of my fur hat were pulled down tight to my jaw. I had adjusted the fur hat brim to partially protect my eyes from the frozen spray and stinging snow. I reached Barrier Bay within 10 minutes.

The Winnipeg River runs 146 miles in length and drops 344 feet in elevation from its source at Norman Dam in Kenora, Ontario to Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba. An original highway for the First Nations people, fur traders and explorers, modern times had harnessed it for its hydroelectric energy. Six hydroelectric dams had been constructed along its length. One dam, Seven Sisters was about 15 miles downstream from Nutimik Lake; another at Slave Falls was about 10 miles upstream. Dam construction had flooded many of the rapids and gorges from source to destination. One of these areas just down-river from Nutimik was Barrier Bay. The strong water flow and currents flowing through this pass tossed boats around regardless of their size. Another area at the inflow to Nutimik Lake, Sturgeon Falls, actually created a 3-foot drop from the upper river into the lake. It was this torrent that we would have to climb in order to reach our search area.

Passing through Barrier Bay and into the big lake, I angled to the right and passed the now deserted park campgrounds; setting my course for the visible dock of Whiteshell Air Services. As I grew closer, I could see a group of people walking toward the dock, and it was somehow comforting to see a large brown and black German Shepherd police dog leading my welcome party. Not stopping to secure the boat, Al, Reg the dog handler and Reb the dog climbed into the boat; we were off. The crossing to Sturgeon Falls took less than 5 minutes. Al had given Reg the passenger seat and Reb was tucked into his legs on the floor. Al had the maps, a search plan and he even brought a scraper for the windshield. Reg and Reb had the skill to find the hunter; I only had to get everyone into place, and with me intermittently hanging out the side window and Al scraping the ice off the front windshield, we approached the falls. I slowed the boat, creeping forward to survey the winter water outflow and plan my point of entry.

The outflow over the falls was considerable but I had learned during my first summer with the boat that the best point of entry up into the section of river known as Numau Lake was between the solid granite shoreline and an offspring boulder that had, before my time, split and fallen from its land-based kin, creating a 20 foot gap. And although that gap trumpeted the most visible current and drop, the water surface was smooth; in practice it was like driving up a hill. Typically, I liked to sort of ease my way into the fall, almost coming to a stop against the current. Then, when everything was aligned, apply power to the engine and shoot up the gap to the river level above. But every best venture has an anomaly.

As I got into position and applied power, the nose of the boat went under water; the “porpoise” effect that other operators had identified. At that point in time, I’ll admit that it caused me momentary pause, but I had to continue. To stop meant giving way to the current, perhaps to be pushed sideways and out of control. I applied more power and the 200 hp Evenrude responded. Ploughing through the water with increased speed, the water advanced up and over the bow, up to the front of the cab and then remarkably shed to the left and right, spilling over the sides. At this juncture, I felt in control and was starting to enjoy the experience, but my quick glance sideways caught the dog master gripping tightly to the crash bar in front of him; a horrified look on his face. I’m not sure if he understood the term “porpoise” but he certainly knew the expression “submarine”. Increasing the throttle yet again, the bow lifted and the increased speed shot us up and over the falls. Next stop, the hunting camp.

The adrenaline rush of the past five minutes had warmed us all and compressed time. We arrived at the camp in a seemingly short time and I pulled out of the current and up to the shore. Al got out of the boat and secured the bow and stern with ropes to the closest trees. Next, the dog handler climbed out. Reg directed Reb to stay in the boat, then looked at me and said,

“He can’t get his feet wet.”

“Who?” I inquired.

“Reb, he can’t get his feet wet.”

“OK, what does that mean to me?”

“Someone has to carry him out of the boat.”

“He’s your dog,” I politely replied. (perhaps a bit sarcastically)

“Well I can’t carry him, I can’t balance on the boat and climb off with him in my arms.”

“Why can’t he jump out?” I asked helpfully.

“He might slip, the boat is covered in ice.”

Seeing he had made some valid arguments, and while I was trying to decide if I was up to carrying a 75 pound German Shepherd over an ice covered gunwale, Al appeared. Al wasn’t much for discussion at any time, he only needed enough information to make a decision and he didn’t need any more information than what he had just heard. Stepping ankle deep into the water in his shin high boots, Al leaned over and coddled Reb into his arms and efficiently swivelled him onto the dry riverbank. Tongue hanging out and happy to be on dry land, Reb went exploring the abandoned camp.

As Al and Reg departed I heard them pushing through the bush, following Reb as he barked for them to keep up. Shortly after their departure, all became quiet and I was left alone to wish and hope their way to success. Over the next half hour I stayed with the boat and started a small fire to warm my bones while in the makeshift camp. I had kept the Evenrude engine running; this wasn’t the time to have anything freeze up. The big motor puttered away making smoke bubbles as the exhaust escaped from just above the water line. I heard a shot, a rifle shot, but the direction of the report was unclear. Although the shot was clearly audible, I held my breath, waiting for another sound or signal. But nothing further reached my senses.

I heard Reb’s return first as he was more prone to travel in a straight direction, impervious to obstructive branches and bushes. He wasn’t barking; more like woofing, and I wasn’t sure if that was a message of sorts or not. Then I saw Al; he was still wearing his blaze orange life jacket. Smart man, smart move, for although it was doubtful that any hunters were still present in the area due to the deteriorating weather conditions, Al was a bear of a man and in limited visibility could be hastily mistaken for large game.

Beside Al was Reg, and between them was the lost hunter. Their pace was slow for they were literally carrying him, one under each shoulder, and the unspoken message was to me, let’s get out of here! In the time they took to reach the boat, I had extinguished the fire and untied the ropes. Standing now in the water and holding onto the gunwale, I grabbed Reb and hoisted him into the boat. The bottom of the boat was wet, but dry feet now were not a major concern. I climbed into the boat as Al and Reg brought the hunter to the shore. Together we got him into the craft and seated in the passenger seat; he was wet, ash grey, trembling and incoherent. Time was of the essence. He needed immediate aid.

Casting off we headed for Whiteshell Air. Going down Sturgeon Falls was uneventful, or if it wasn’t, nobody noticed. All thoughts as to our safety paled compared to the immediate health needs of the hunter. We approached the gap too quickly but the current caught us in all the right ways. We shot through and down the gap with ease. Unfortunately in 1977 there were no cell phones! As part of Al’s plan, as we departed from Whiteshell Air earlier that morning, Tommy had called for the local ambulance to attend at this location and it was waiting for us with two paramedics. They saw us coming across the water, and to ensure they understood the emergent situation I activated my red light and hit an occasional blast of the siren.

The hunter was loaded in the ambulance and the paramedics covered him in blankets and prepared him for travel. His two recovered buddies had retrieved their vehicle and followed him to the hospital. We would monitor his progress as the day passed.

Ordinarily after such an incident, we would pause for coffee, Jean’s hot soup or some alternative beverage, but we had other priorities. We had to get the boat back home. So, after a few words of thanks and congratulations, Reg and Reb departed for Winnipeg and Al and I boarded the boat to head down river and the boat landing at Otter Falls. The trip back was slower, and even with the limited visibility of hanging out the side window or looking through small gouges scraped by Al in the ice covered windshield, I took some moments to enjoy the river. Coming back though Barrier Bay was a different experience than going through and I played through the swirls and currents, and smiled at the snow covered trees along the shore and the gray sunless sky. All too soon we reached the landing, or perhaps just in time. I estimate that the boat had accumulated 250 pounds of ice on its structure during the curse of our adventure. Some larger sheets of ice we were able to break off, some was shed in transit, most travelled back with us to Whitemouth. Loading was difficult and pulling the trailer up from the ramp tenuous, but at the end of the day we made it back, parking the boat once again in storage.

Footnote: There was an accumulation of 3 ½ inches of snow by the next morning and a further 7 inches by the afternoon of November 10th. That amount of snowfall and accompanying wind created whiteout conditions throughout our detachment area. No traffic was moving. November 9th was my 3rd wedding anniversary; your Mother and I took advantage of the snow day. I went on call, but nobody called. The hunter recovered without any lasting affects; the gods were seriously looking kindly on him. In the spring, Reb received a Purina Dog Chow award for heroism.

Al and I toasted him with a beer.

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