Snowmobiling couple’s dunking in North Channel waters leads to shelter, help and hospitality

HAPPY ENDING––Dave and Pam Gartner of Brechin pose with their snowmobile, safely on its trailer, outside of their lodgings at the Killarney Bay Inn.

Southern Ontario pair found support ‘unbelievable’

NORTH CHANNEL—A snowmobiling trip to Manitoulin for one Brechin, Ontario couple—their first visit to the world’ largest freshwater island—didn’t go according to plan when they plunged through the ice after almost reaching their destination of Little Current on Friday, but they learned firsthand the caring and hospitable nature of Haweaters in the process, vowing to return…under different circumstances.

On Friday, Northeast Town Fire Chief Darren Bailey received a call for emergency dispatch, alerting him to a 9-1-1 call from two snowmobilers who had plunged into the icy waters of the North Channel and needed assistance. He explained that when the fire crew arrived, they saw a large pressure crack that could be observed from the shore, and a mostly submerged snowmobile in the open water in front of the crack.

The couple, Dave and Pam Gartner of Brechin, a rural community near Orillia, had spent the week snowmobiling in the Muskokas but warmer weather there made them decide to head for more northerly climes and so the pair trailered their snowmachine to Killarney where they got a room at the Killarney Bay Inn. The Gartners took the ice trail to Espanola, stopping to eat before they began their return trip to Killarney, using a different route that had been recommended to them down to the North Channel, which brought them to Little Current. They were reassured by many people, as well as by a groomer operator they met along the way that the ice was in good condition but to be wary of pressure cracks, Mr. Gartner told The Expositor in a Monday morning interview.

They said that following the ice trail to Little Current they encountered one pressure crack where a groomer had obviously been by but, nearing their final destination, not far from shore, another pressure crack appeared, this time with a sign urging drivers to go slow.

“We went slow and that was it—it was all open water on the other side,” he said of their dunking experience.

The Gartners managed to get out of the frigid waters, thanks to a second shelf of ice that acted as a step, but not without a struggle. During the ordeal, Ms. Gartner said her husband told her he didn’t think he was going to make it, feeling the current beginning to pull him down. But the couple persisted, and made it onto safe ice where they walked along the pressure crack until they found an area that looked to be safe for crossing.

The submerged snowmobile in the North Channel, just before it is pulled to shore. Note the pressure crack and the sign, urging snowmobilers to go slow over the pressure crack, which warm temperatures had caused to open up. photos by Todd Corbiere
The submerged snowmobile in the North Channel, just before it is pulled to shore. Note the pressure crack and the sign, urging snowmobilers to go slow over the pressure crack, which warm temperatures had caused to open up.
photos by Todd Corbiere

They noticed a cottage on a hill, located along North Channel Drive (west of the town of Little Current), and made that their destination. Trying all the doors, the couple found one unlocked and made their way inside, taking off their wet snowmobile suits and putting on dry, warm clothes they found inside. After repeated attempts at contacting emergency services with cell phones that were cold and wet, the Gartners found a phone that came complete with a note from the cottage’s owner for just such an occasion, listing the 9-1-1 address and the home number. The note indicated that anyone in distress was welcome to use the facility.

“If the cottage had been any farther, that would have been it,” Mr. Gartner said.

Soon the Northeast Town Fire Department could be seen walking the shore, searching for the couple. The Gartners called out to them, alerting them to their presence.

Mr. Gartner was effusive in his praise for the fire department, noting how they took the couple to the fire hall, giving them coffee and warming them up, even taking their clothes to their various homes to work on getting them dry. Before the crew left North Channel Drive, however, another snowmobile came along the trail with a young child on the back. The firefighters quickly began to yell out, warning of what lay head. The snowmobilers took a path back to land via Narrow Island.

After learning of the pressure crack, the Manitoulin Snowdusters promptly closed the ice trail that leads to Whitefish Falls.

“Constable Dave Millette too was outstanding,” Mr. Gartner said. “He organized the VCARS (Victims Crisis Assistance and Referral Service) for us, who took us back to the Killarney Bay Inn.”

The Killarney Bay Inn kept in constant contact with the couple too, even offering to send someone to Little Current to bring them back to their room. When the Gartners arrived back at the Killarney Bay Inn, their room was stocked with food, goodies and drink.

Todd Corbiere, who is well-known on Manitoulin for his rescue of several sunken sleds, also enters this story after he was contacted to pull the snowmobile from the channel. After towing it out of the water, Mr. Corbiere worked on the sled at his garage, TC Auto and Marine, until 11 pm that night, keeping in contact with the Gartners too via text message. The next morning, Saturday, he offered to drive it directly to the Killarney Bay Inn with a posse including Rob Little, Larry Disley and Frank Zelinsky.

“If you look at it from a tourist point of view, we made a lot of mistakes,” Ms. Gartner told The Expositor, “but nobody threw it in our face. Our mistake was not stopping, observing and making a choice (when they encountered the second pressure crack).”

“We didn’t make a plan or tell anyone our route,” she added. “We would go back sledding again, and we would do it differently. Locals know where they’re going, but tourists need to know where they’re going, plan it out, especially on the big water.”

She noted that she normally carries ice picks around her neck, but had lost them on their last trip and didn’t replace them—something she won’t go without again. “And I would never wear mitts again,” Ms. Gartner added, noting that she found gripping the ice to pull herself up difficult wearing mittens instead of gloves.

The Gartners were overwhelmed by the caring nature of the local people they met, all within less than 24 hours.

“The community was definitely amazing,” Ms. Gartner said.

“You guys are awesome, just unbelievable,” Mr. Gartner said. “From Pam and I both, it’s just overwhelming how awesome everyone is.”

The couple plans to return, paying a special visit to everyone who helped them to safety last Friday afternoon, and may be exploring Manitoulin via rubber tire as the Gartners are also avid Harley Davidson enthusiasts.