Phil Waldner wasn’t expecting to come across a stranded family of five when he went out for a snowmobile ride in rural Manitoba after Christmas last month.
The Steinbach, Man., resident was on a trail near Whitemouth Lake, which is nearly 130 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, when he saw car tracks, which seemed odd.
“It was about 15 or 16 kilometres in when I came upon the car that had broken through the ice, and in the car there was an elderly gentleman and two young children,” Waldner said.
“They were huddled up in blankets trying to keep warm and I asked them, ‘What in the Sam Hill are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?’ and they said they’re going to Toronto.”
Waldner believes the children’s parents, from Calgary, Alta., were using their cellphones for directions and were misguided. The area has poor cell reception, he said.
They apparently had tried everything to move the vehicle, but it wouldn’t budge from the ice. They had been there for more than 24 hours, Waldner said.
As a last resort, they left the safety of the vehicle in sub-zero temperatures to go for help.
Waldner hopped back on his snowmobile to go look for them, and they’re lucky he did.
“They were pretty much in a shutdown mode because they were so cold they couldn’t walk anymore. It was -15 C. They were just wearing runners in six or seven inches of snow,” he said.
Waldner took off some of his layers for the couple to wear. He took them to a nearby warming shelter maintained by South East Sno-Riders and built a fire before returning to the car to pick up the children and the grandfather.
Once the family was out of immediate danger, Waldner set off an SOS beacon, which the RCMP’s Steinbach detachment received.
Mitch Gobeil, the president of the Sno-Riders, said he and another member of the group were called by RCMP to help them get to the remote spot where the family was stuck.
The group reached the warming shelter six hours after Waldner had taken them there.
Waldner, who is an avid outdoorsperson, said the family is “extremely lucky” to be alive, partly because of the temperature, but also because of the wildlife.
Bears are hibernating now, so they aren’t a risk, “but this area is just overridden with wolves. This could have been extremely bad.”
The area is quite remote, too, so it’s not likely another person would have found them, or that the family would ever have reached a main road to call for help.
“It was another 50 or 60 kilometres out to any road,” Waldner said. “You wouldn’t have been found until spring maybe or something like that.”
CBC News wasn’t able to reach the family, but Waldner said they were grateful to be alive.
“The mother was crying on my shoulders because she was so happy.”