Birch Island citizen rescues snowmobilers

Gerry McGregor rescued a Sudbury couple from McGregor Bay waters on Saturday.

Lost, nearly hypothermic after sled plunges through ice

MCGREGOR BAY—On Saturday, January 27, Gerry McGregor, chief of the Whitefish River First Nation Fire Department, got the call from 9-1-1 dispatch that a snowmobile had gone through the ice with the two passengers in need of rescue.

Mr. McGregor explained to The Expositor that his department is not equipped to handle ice rescues—they do not have the training required—and so Mr. McGregor had to turn down the call which was then sent on to the Northeast Town Fire Department, which is trained in ice rescue.

As the fire chief is familiar with the area (his family owns J&G Marina in Birch Island), and with an idea of where the snowmobilers might be (the call from 9-1-1 explained their position as “near the cement plant”), Mr. McGregor, who was visiting his father Jim at the time, decided to head out by snowmobile acting as a concerned citizen. He had found the tracks and where the snowmobile has gone through, but not the people.

“They got themselves out,” Mr. McGregor said. But they certainly needed Mr. McGregor’s help.

A report from the Manitoulin detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police states that the couple swam to shore then pulled themselves out. Their story is, however, a little more complex than that.

Mr. McGregor found the man and woman, Shayne and his girlfriend Jenny, on shore near the Lafarge cement plant, the couple was in the water for approximately 10 minutes. They were soaking wet and wearing only their shirts. In Shayne’s case, he was in only his socks, presumably having lost his boots from the weight of the water.

“They were soaking wet, obviously frozen, standing beside the cement plant—they had no idea where they were,” Mr. McGregor said.

The couple flagged him down and Mr. McGregor approached them on snowmobile, his wife following behind on her sled.

Mr. McGregor first brought Jenny to the safety and warmth of his brother Harold’s place on Old Village Road, then turned back to get Shayne.

“She (Jenny) had called 9-1-1 and just as she said where they were, the phone died because it was wet,” Mr. McGregor said.

“I didn’t know I’d be the only one there,” the rescuer added.

Shayne later told Mr. McGregor that he often fishes in that area in the summer and thought he would try his luck at the same place in the winter, not knowing that the ice is often precarious in that location.

Once the couple was safely in the home of Harold McGregor the ambulance was called as Shayne was obviously in shock and possibly hypothermic, Mr. McGregor said.

“Luckily, it wasn’t colder out than it was,” he added.

In correspondence with the couple, Jenny told The Expositor, “We drove to the Island Saturday morning for a weekend of ice fishing. We got to a boat launch, put on our snowsuits, got our fishing gear, took the snowmobile off the trailer and took off. Everything was fine until we went into the narrows where suddenly the ice was thin and there was open water.

“The snowmobile immediately began to sink,” Jenny said. “My boyfriend turned and looked at me with such fright in his eyes. I told him that we were okay and just needed to get to shore. We started to swim in the freezing cold water. Our snowsuits were weighing us down. I threw off my helmet then his. We kept swimming for a few minutes, until my boyfriend touched bottom. We got to more ice where we tried to get on, but it kept breaking. After a couple of minutes, we got to a thick patch of ice. My boyfriend had to push me on top and I started to crawl. He pushed himself off bottom and got on the ice and started crawling as well.”

“We got to a small island where I took out my phone, praying it still worked—it did,” Jenny continued. “As I dialed 9-1-1 I could see my screen fill with water. I had told them that we went through the ice and where we were. As the 9-1-1 operator was saying they were sending the fire department, my phone said ‘no signal’ and shut right off. We were so afraid that we weren’t going to make it back home to our three-month-old baby girl.”

“We were so cold, we couldn’t feel a thing,” she continued. “We ran across a patch of thick ice to get to a bigger island with no open water around it. We thought we were going to have to cross over more thin ice, and if we survived that, walk for Lord knows how long to get to a road. We would’ve frozen to death. I remember saying to my boyfriend that we were going to die out there and he just looked at me and said, ‘No. We are not going to die’.”

“A few minutes passed and suddenly a man on a snowmobile came around the corner; Gerry McGregor of the Birch Island Fire Department,” Jenny’s harrowing tale continued. “He had gotten our 9-1-1 call on his radio. My boyfriend and I just hugged each other with such relief. Gerry gave me his jacket and told me to get on his snowmobile and that he’d be right back to get my boyfriend. I got on and we took off. I was just so thankful. We got to his brother Harold’s and his wife Linda’s house where Gerry’s wife, Kathy, brought me in and he went right back out to get my boyfriend. I threw off my heavy soaking wet clothes and she covered me with blankets and put me in front of the wood stove. I watched out the window for them. Once I saw them coming, I was in tears. I was just so happy. My boyfriend came in, stripped out of his soaking wet clothing and Kathy wrapped him in blankets as well. We sat in front of the fire and everything was tingling, we were finally warming up. The paramedics came and took our vitals a few times each. We were okay. We were so happy that Gerry risked his life to rescue us. He saved our lives and because of him we got to come home to our beautiful baby girl. We are incredibly grateful. Thank you, Gerry, Kathy, Harold and Linda for all you did for us. We owe you everything.”

“Manitoulin-Espanola OPP would like to remind the public that ‘no ice is safe ice’,” a press release from the OPP states. “When travelling by snowmobile, please seek local knowledge if you chose to ride on frozen waterways. Areas that may typically be open could appear to be frozen due to a drop in temperature. The frozen area may not be thick enough to support a snowmobile.” 

“Always be prepared and travel with safety equipment in the event of an emergency,” the press release continued. “By wearing floater suits and having ice picks, you increase your safety in the event thin ice gives way. Travelling on unsafe ice, speeding, driving too fast for the conditions and alcohol consumption continue to be leading causes in OPP-investigated snowmobile fatalities.”