I would like to share a story of one of my near death experiences. Maybe it will save someone from making the same mistakes. In my early years, unfortunately, I was not as cautious as I am today as far as ice conditions go.
I started my career in fur trapping in the late 70’s as a young man in my early 20’s. I thought I was invincible and never took all the precautions I should have or the advice from my Dad who was always sharing the knowledge he had gained from working in the bush his whole life.
I was living at home during this time period, and my Dad and I each had our own trap line. Everyday we would each go in different directions and tell each other in which general direction we were headed in case we were to encounter problems. In those days, a trapper’s main problem was usually a snowmachine breakdown. Starting out I could never afford anything good; mind you in those days none of them were very reliable, and I would have to rely on my Ski-Doo Elan to get me around my 30-mile loop each day, which usually took the whole day.
My parents and I would look at the thermometer every morning over coffee at the kitchen table. We’d always comment on the temperature, but whether it was minus 20 or minus 40 it didn’t affect our work schedule since we had to check our traps regardless. We just dressed for the conditions and dealt with it. I would leave the house everyday with a lunch and some waterproof matches in my pocket. I would drive for about 20 miles in my car hauling a snowmobile on a trailer, and then unload it to start my 30-mile trek. I can always remember at our many chat sessions at the breakfast table with Mom and Dad that my mother was always very cautious and somewhat paranoid. She was always questioning me as far as how thick the ice was that I was traveling on, or whether I had waterproof matches with me. My Dad would always remind me to check the ice, and he would explain that if I was traveling anywhere that there was the slightest amount of current, that after a heavy snowfall the weight of the snow on the ice would cause the current to increase and the ice to thin out. I guess after lecturing me several times and thinking maybe I wasn’t listening as well as I should be, my mother figured she should do a little extra so at least she would have peace of mind….
When looking back at the time period it was pretty amazing what trappers like my Dad and I would go through on a daily basis. We would take off in the morning around 8:00 AM on our skidoos, and it could easily be minus 30 to 40 Fahrenheit on the trap line. Many times we were either stuck in deep snow or slush, sometimes for hours going through the process of cutting down trees and dragging them out on the ice to make a trail for the skidoo to get out. We would stop at some point in the day to eat our frozen sandwich, our faces numb with frostbite. It was all in days work and we never thought much of it. In the evenings, my Dad and I would do our skinning in his shop and share stories of our daily travels. There was always a lot to talk about.
My clothing consisted of long underwear, good socks, heavy sweater, work pants and a one-piece canvas material snowsuit, which was warm, but didn’t keep out the moisture. Basically, it was just adequate to get you through the day.
My Mother continually asked me every day if I had my waterproof matches in my pocket, and she asked how I would access them if I were to go through the ice and start to freeze up. I always replied, “no problem”. I guess this answer was not quite good enough for her, as one morning when I was putting on my suit I noticed that there were waterproof matches attached to my left shoulder with Velcro. I chuckled a little, but I thanked my Mom and went on my way. This was around the first week in January, 1978.
Throughout life we have many different experiences, most of which we forget, but there are a few that remain crystal clear in our memories no matter how long ago they occurred. Well, here is one of those days that I will never forget. It was about the middle of January, 1978. That morning the temp was -32°F with a light wind. In those days, going to work at this temperature with the wind was totally normal and we never talked about or considered wind-chill factor. What was a little different about this morning was that we had had a heavy snowfall of about 7 inches overnight. To us trappers, 7 inches of fresh snow was a hassle because we had to go out and dig out all of our traps and reset them or they would not work properly due to the deep snow. Along with that, the snow always meant more slush on the lakes and that you had to break trail and pack your old trail, which was easier said than done when all you had was 12 HP Elan Skidoo. My journey on this particular day would consist of a 30-mile loop, including three lake crossings, several portages, and miles and miles of bush road.
At approximately 8:00 a.m. I arrived at the old Camp 17 road off of highway 105, about 15 miles north of Vermilion Bay. I unloaded my skidoo and sleigh, at which time I had to make a decision on how to deal with the fresh snow and the challenges that it would undoubtedly present. As many of you would remember, the Skidoo Elan was quite capable of breaking trail provided one did not encounter too much slush and could still see the old trail to follow. However, pulling the sleigh would be a bit of a stretch in these conditions. I made the decision to leave the sleigh behind, took my two-gallon can of spare gas, and my axe, which my Dad had told me to never leave behind. I always carried my axe on the running board of my Skidoo by my right foot. By leaving my sleigh behind I sacrificed my snowshoes, which my Dad also had told me to never leave behind. I figured if I were to have a breakdown I would still have a bit of a trail to walk on. My plan was to travel light and pack down my trapping trail with the skidoo. Well, here I go… just another beautiful day. This sounds like a tough way to make a buck, but once you experience the beauty that Mother Nature has to offer, with the pure white, sparkling, powdery snow covering the ground and all the trees covered in the snow you soon forget about the minus 30 degree air. You see all the fresh animal tracks, and as a trapper you read all of this like a map.
In general, my start was fairly uneventful, although I had to stop a couple of times to clean the ice out of the carburetor, but this was totally normal. Around 9:30 a.m. I was getting to the first lake that I had to cross; it was called Norse Lake. I had marked my trail across the lake with spruce bows on a previous trip so I never had too much problem staying on the trail. After I crossed Norse and a couple of other small lakes and portages I came on to Meridian Lake. By this time, it was around 10 a.m. and I was reaching the mid section of my 30-mile loop, which put me about 15 miles from highway 105 and my vehicle. As I reached the other end of Meridian Lake, my trail took me down the middle of an outflowing creek before getting to the shoreline. I had run this creek about 8 trips prior to this one and had checked the ice on my first trip to make sure I had at least 6 inches. As I reached the mouth of the creek and started down it, I was at a point where the creek was about 50 feet wide when all of a sudden I felt the snowmachine sinking. At first I thought it was slush and I wasn’t that concerned, but unfortunately the next thing I knew I was up to my shoulders in the water, standing on the seat of my skidoo, in minus 30°F temperatures, and a very long way from home. It is amazing how fast your life can take turn.
This being my first of many life-threatening experiences, a person never knows how you might handle it. Luckily, I’ve always been one to make split second decisions right or wrong. As I remember, here are some of the thoughts that were running through my mind. At first I was simply pissed off and was rattling off some curse words, as I knew my whole day was shot and that this was going to be a real set back. Other thoughts were that this might be a very short trapping career for Wayne Clark, and in fact might just be the end of the road. Luckily, I have never been the type of person to panic, so I began taking steps to get out of this predicament. At first, I realized it was cold but not unbearable when it dawned on me that my axe was on the running board of my skidoo. I wasn’t excited about what I knew was my next move, but I also knew that if I made it out of this situation alive, and did not have my axe in my hand, my Dad would have been so pissed at me he probably would have wanted to kill me himself! I then did what I had to do… in one quick motion I went underwater and grabbed my axe. The most unpleasant thing I remember about doing this was that when I briefly opened my eyes, my eyeballs hurt from the freezing water. It was a good thing that I decided to go for the axe because I used it to help pull myself out. I was about 20 feet from the shore, and I had crawled about 15 feet when things started to get serious as the cold was really starting to penetrate my body. I tried to stand up, but in that short of time with my body cooling off and my canvas suit rapidly freezing solid, my legs wouldn’t bend. I only had a few feet to go to get to shore. It was amazing how fast and how short of distance it took for me to tighten up because the next thing I knew the only thing I could do was drag myself on my elbows. That last distance to get me into the bush was maybe 10 feet but it may as well been 100 feet. By this point, I couldn’t even drag my axe with me so I figured I was pretty much done.
I have never been a religious person or even thought there was ever someone or something looking out for me, but here is what happened next… you be the judge. As I struggled to get to the shore, my toque was frozen like a helmet. I can remember turning my head and being hit in the face with a clump of nice dry marsh grass, and along side that grass was the top of a dead bushy balsam tree. Having realized what was in front of me gave me renewed energy. Suddenly, I realized I had matches on my left shoulder that my mother had sewn there. I went to grab them, which sounds simple, but when your hands are numb and you cannot bend your arms because your suit is frozen, getting these matches was a chore. I did manage to pull the Velcro off and get the matches in my hand. Slowly I gathered some dry grass and stuffed it under the top of the balsam tree. I reached in and grabbed a match and with no word of a lie, with my first scratch the match lit. I put it to the grass, which then lit the balsam tree instantly. I couldn’t believe it. What are the chances of that happening! I had everything at my frozen fingertips to actually survive. As I try to remember what was going through my head, it was then that I realized I was going to get through this. I remember just being very cold, and when you are that cold I don’t think you can get very excited about anything. I remember thinking I would definitely like to live longer, but if I didn’t, that’s just the way it goes and if I was going to die, there could be a lot worse ways to go.
As the fire picked up and worked it’s way into the balsam branches I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to thaw out. First were my hands, and then I dragged myself almost on top of the fire. Once my one-piece suit got soft enough I was able to take it off along with my pants and sweater. With just my wet long underwear on, I warmed up enough to get my axe and get some more braches for the fire. Once the fire was going good I took off my long underwear and was going to dry it, so I just keep turning my naked body around in the meantime. Well, standing outside in minus 30 degrees, I found out that you couldn’t turn around fast enough to keep from getting frostbite! I got my long underwear back on after I wrung it out and then dried it while on my body. This was the only way I could do it. It is also not an easy task to dry clothing while making sure you don’t burn it. I made a platform out of spruce bows to stand on while drying my felts.
After about 2 hours, probably getting close to 12:30, I realized my body was stabilized, and I was getting hungry. I knew I would have to get by without lunch since I was not prepared to go back into the water to get my soggy lunch from the box on the skidoo. It made me feel good to be hungry, as I knew this was a very minor problem after what I had been through.
After getting all my clothes back on, mostly dry, I warmed my hands up and picked up my axe and started walking. I knew it would be tough on my semi-soft trail, but I knew I had all day so I might as well start walking. I knew my Dad would come looking for me at some point, but that it would be late in the day, as he would also be working until dark before going home. Being around noon, I knew it was going to be a long day. Might as well walk to keep warm rather than try and get enough wood to stay in one spot. It was not easy to keep a fire going with an axe and deep snow. Walking was going to be tougher than I thought on the soft trail. The calves of my legs were getting sore after the first couple of hours. I stopped and made fire, drank some water out of the creek, warmed up and then carried on. After a long afternoon the sun was hitting the trees and with my legs getting worse, I knew I couldn’t walk much further. At this time I knew I was only about 2 miles from my vehicle and Highway 105, but there was no way I could make it. I also started thinking that my Dad would probably get someone to come with him and get some equipment together to come looking for me. Of course, my Dad wouldn’t even realize I was late until about 5:30 or 6:00 p.m., as I had always told him not to worry because a lot of times I like to work until dark.
As I am standing on the trail about 2 miles from my truck with sore legs, I can hardly walk another step, and help might not come for another few hours, I realized this would really suck to die here from exposure after all I had been through at only 2 miles from the highway. I had about a half hour left of daylight, so I’d better use the last of my energy to get some firewood as I was going to start a fire to keep warm in one spot for the next few hours. All of a sudden things became very serious again. I made a trail to the bush to gather wood, as it was getting darker and darker. Once I got a fire going, I noticed what a beautiful clear night it was, cold but no wind. I had no idea what time it was getting to be but it seemed like I was sitting watching the stars for hours. I tried to conserve wood as best I could, but as I threw my last piece in the fire I figured if someone doesn’t come soon I was going to have to get more wood in the dark. It was pretty bright out so it wouldn’t be too big of a problem. As I went to stand up, a chill went through me as I realized I could not walk anywhere; my legs were done. After sitting for a while, they had seized up and I just couldn’t move. Just as I realized that my situation was once again getting worse, I thought I could hear a snowmachine in the distance. Sure enough it got louder and here came two snowmachines breaking through the darkness. It was my Dad and my future brother in law, Dan Rob. They had something hot for me to drink and two sandwiches… I ate them both! After getting home, it was 4 days before I could walk again. Then Dad and I went back to get the snowmachine. We took it apart, drained the water, got it running, and drove it home. They don’t make them like that anymore!
This story could definitely have gone a very different direction with a very tragic ending, but through a combination of Loved Ones looking after me, keeping a cool head, and a very large dose of good fortune, this taught me one lesson I will never forget… ice conditions are very serious, and can change dramatically in a very short time… you always have to be prepared for whatever comes your way!