Whitehorse Daily Star

RCMP Chopper plucks five from lake

After drifting for 15 hours on an icy Bennett Lake in temperatures close to -40, five Carcross residents were rescued by an RCMP helicopter Tuesday.

By Whitehorse Star on January 5, 1990

The Whitehorse Star, January 5, 1990

RCMP Chopper plucks five from lake

After drifting for 15 hours on an icy Bennett Lake in temperatures close to -40, five Carcross residents were rescued by an RCMP helicopter Tuesday.

The trip began last Saturday, when Rick Halladay took four passengers down by boat to visit Jim Ambrose and his family on Bennett Lake.

"We'd taken some supplies in - just a Christmas/New Year's visit,” Halladay said in an interview Thursday.

Halladay had Ambroses's father, Ron Avery, and four other passengers on board - Curtis Pugh, his wife, Janet and their daughter, Anna, all of Carcross.

They made the two-hour trip from Carcross to the Ambrose house on the west arm of Bennett Lake in Halladay's 8.4 - metre aluminum boat.

On New Year's Eve, after staying one night with Ambrose, they loaded up the boat and headed for Carcross, but strong winds forced them back.

In the morning, they tried again. But engine problems Halladay calls "mysterious” delayed their departure.

"We couldn't find anything wrong with it,” Halladay said. "There didn't seem to be any apparent mechanical problem. It just wouldn't fire - we had spark, we had fuel.”

Halladay and Ambrose worked on the engine all day. "Then mysteriously, it started late that afternoon,” said Halladay.

Conditions had been good all day. Winds were moderate, and visibility was good except for some fog.

"The engine finally started, for some mysterious reason. As mysteriously as why it wouldn't go, it went.”

The two men let the engine idle. In the meantime, New Year's dinner was almost on the table in the Ambrose house. Halladay and his passengers thought they might as well stay and head out after a good meal.

In the 14 years he'd spent on Bennett Lake, this was the first time Ambrose had guests for New Year's dinner.

"In fact,” said Halladay, "we'd broken the record for boat arrivals there by a good three weeks.”

Fearing the lake would be frozen in the morning, Halladay declined the invitation to stay the night, and headed out after supper.

At 8 p.m., with fog so thick they couldn't see more than 15 metres, the four set out after supper.

On the lake's main arm, the fog hung onto the water, making it impossible to see the pack ice until they were on it.

Skirting the ice, they almost made it to the mouth of the Wheaton River - the journey's half-way mark. Then the engine problems began. It would start, but carburetor problems kept it from running. After repeated starts and stalls, the battery died.

Although Halladay said he was used to these adventures, for the other four, "it was a very novel experience.”

"They were somewhat nervous. We were in heavy fog and nobody was certain as to where we were. They only had my word to go by.”

A few trees and a rocky shore line were all they could see as the boat drifted on the lake.

Half-way home, they navigated by a glow Halladay said he could see coming from Carcross.

While he hooked up a spare battery and worked on the engine. Ron Anesty kept his eye on the distant light to keep their bearings.

But engine problems persisted. "It would run for half a minute and then it would quit,” said Halladay.

Before the spare battery had gone completely flat, Halladay gave up. An hour after they'd left the five were drifting back toward the Ambrose house.

His passengers were bundled in blankets under a tarpaulin, coming up periodically to ask where they were.

"They could see about as much as I could underneath the tarp,” said Halladay.

At 10 p.m., he called Daphnie Mennell in Carcross on his radio phone. She relayed his message to the RCMP - he'd be calling them on the hour.

They drifted along the shore, too steep and rocky to land on, hoping to make it back to the Ambrose house, paddling only to keep away from the rocks. "If we'd hit the beach, we would have been wrecked,” said Halladay.

For 7 1/2 hours, they drifted in temperatures close to -40 below. "The ladies sang some hymns for awhile,” said Halladay. "I think they were water related.”

Halladay said he didn't doubt they would survive. "My main concern was if the weather should take a turn for the worse, then you had something to be concerned about... if it had come to that, I could have pulled in at any one point. I would have jeopardized the boat, but I could've got people onto the shore line and started a fire.”

Since they'd started that night, ice had formed across the lake making it impossible to return to the Ambrose house. "It was in sheets, but it had cracks in it. It was just enough that you had to pound on it with an oar to break it.” Halladay said.

They broke the ice, inching their way toward a shore line suitable for landing the boat and the helicopter Halladay thought would be needed to get them home - the RCMP boat already in dry dock.

By 4:30 a.m., they were gathered around a fire only a kilometre from their starting point, Halladay said. But a rocky shore and a ridge too steep and icy to climb meant they had to stay where they were.

Finally, after almost 15 hours after they left, the helicopter was coming. "I could hear it through the fog,” Halladay said. "Everybody was straining their ears. Then it showed up out of the mist.”

They were airlifted, cold but safe, back to Carcross in a Trans North Bell 206 helicopter, leaving Halladay's boat and gear behind. But Haladay says he's going to go back this weekend by snowmobile and canoe to get it.


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