DRAMA: BURIED BY A BL­IZ­ZARD

The day had dawned crisp and clear, but early spring can be an un­pre­dictable time on the roads of north­ern Man­i­toba. Ernest Cas­tel and his pas­sen­gers would soon be stranded, buried un­der snow.

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Front Page - BY MELISSA MARTIN IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY MIN GYO CHUNG

EX­HAUS­TION WASHED OVER ERNEST CAS­TEL. Out­side, the storm was still swirling, cov­er­ing his Nis­san SUV with snow. For the past three nights, the 46-year-old ad­dic­tion coun­sel­lor and his five com­pan­ions had hud­dled in the ve­hi­cle, their sole sanc­tu­ary from the -40 C weather. It wouldn’t be a warm refuge for much longer— their gas had fi­nally run out.

Now, just 50 kilo­me­tres from the town of Leaf Rapids but stranded on a snow­bound north­ern Man­i­toba road, Cas­tel’s strength was eb­bing. That morn­ing, he and his brother, John Lin­klater, had left the safety of the SUV and set out on a gru­elling trek for help. With no cell ser­vice avail­able on the iso­lated road, they had to find an­other way to con­tact the out­side world.

They’d trudged through waist-deep snow for hours, search­ing for a com­mu­ni­ca­tion tower they were sure was a few kilo­me­tres up from their ve­hi­cle on the buried Pro­vin­cial Road 391. They’d even­tu­ally found the tower, which had a phone, al­low­ing them to reach the RCMP. But by the time they’d re­turned to the SUV to wait for res­cue, night was fall­ing. The broth­ers crawled back inside, aching and soaked with sweat. For over an hour, Cas­tel had sat bun­dled in his parka but still shiv­er­ing.

He wasn’t shiv­er­ing any­more—and that wor­ried him. When the body’s core tem­per­a­ture drops, it shakes ur­gently as it fights to re­gain heat. If the shiv­er­ing stops, that can mean the hy­pother­mia is mov­ing into a much more dan­ger­ous phase. Cas­tel looked over at Lin­klater, hunched in the pas­sen­ger seat be­side him. His brother wasn’t shiv­er­ing ei­ther.

In the back of the SUV, the four other pas­sen­gers qui­etly lis­tened to mu­sic on an iPad. There was Marie Colomb, Cas­tel’s mother, who had stuffed plas­tic bags be­tween her feet and her boots in a desperate ef­fort to ward off the cold. And there was the trio they’d come across in an­other stranded ve­hi­cle: Cas­tel’s nephew, Gor­don Colomb; Gor­don’s girl­friend, Ni­cole Dawn Halkett; and their friend Corey Hart.

Out­side the SUV’s win­dows, dark­ness loomed. It all seemed so peace­ful, Cas­tel thought, and he was so sleepy. He fought to stay awake, know­ing that sleep­ing while hy­pother­mic can be deadly, but his eye­lids were so heavy.

As sleep took hold, Cas­tel turned to Lin­klater. “Well, brother,” Cas­tel said. “It’s been good.” Be­side him, Lin­klater stirred. “Yes, brother,” he replied. “It’s been good.” Then they closed their eyes, not know­ing if they would open them again.

THE TRIP HAD STARTED gen­tly enough. That Mon­day—March 6, 2017—had dawned crisp and clear in Win­nipeg, the snow on the ground al­ready melt­ing. Cas­tel, who lives in the town of Lynn Lake, more than 1,000 kilo­me­tres north­west of Win­nipeg, had been vis­it­ing the city with his part­ner, Alma Hart, and their four-year-old son, Wa­paskoki­maw.

Now they were pre­par­ing for the trip home, with a stop to drop off Lin­klater and Colomb at their place on Mar­cel Colomb First Na­tion, near Lynn Lake.

Be­fore head­ing out, Cas­tel con­sulted the Weather Chan­nel: a storm was blow­ing across Saskatchewan to­ward Man­i­toba. Cas­tel frowned. The jour­ney would be long. To get back to Lynn Lake, the family was look­ing at a 13-hour drive, some of it over roads pit­ted with mas­sive pot­holes. “If we’re go­ing to leave, we’ve got to go now,” he said.

So just past noon, the group piled into the SUV and struck out from Win­nipeg. For hours they pressed north, watch­ing as the skies grew grey and wet snow began to bil­low across the road. “We bet­ter start pray­ing the weather stays in Saskatchewan,” Cas­tel told his com­pan­ions.

But the bl­iz­zard kept rolling in. By the time the group reached the city of Thomp­son, roughly 760 kilo­me­tres north of Win­nipeg, the snow was com­ing down in thick white sheets, buf­fet­ing the few ve­hi­cles crawl­ing along. Cas­tel, wor­ried they wouldn’t beat the storm, urged his part­ner to stay with their son in Thomp­son, where it would be safer. Then he, Lin­klater and Colomb bought cof­fee and plod­ded on.

THE NORTH­ERN REACHES of Man­i­toba are wild and beau­ti­ful, stud­ded by splayed lakes and vast, scrag­gly forests. But Cas­tel could see lit­tle of what lay be­yond his ve­hi­cle; the bl­iz­zard was blot­ting out the scenery. As they drove away from Thomp­son, knee-high snow­drifts reached half­way over the road, and snow burst up from the SUV’s tires.

The three of them de­bated whether they should turn back. At first, Cas­tel was tempted, but a voice in his head chimed. “Kee­gach,” it said in Cree. “Keep go­ing.”

Over the years, Cas­tel had come to trust that voice as a guardian an­gel. On they went.

Soon the road vanished un­der snow, leav­ing just a wagon trail of tire

AS ERNEST CAS­TEL MADE HIS WAY AROUND A COR­NER, BEAMS CUT THROUGH THE DARKEN­ING SKY: TAIL LIGHTS.

tracks ahead. As Cas­tel made his way around a cor­ner, beams cut through the sky: tail lights. Draw­ing closer, he spot­ted a truck—a two-wheel drive— stuck in a mas­sive snow­drift. Be­side the ve­hi­cle, a young man was try­ing to tun­nel free, but ev­ery time he lifted his shovel the snow filled right back in.

Cas­tel rec­og­nized the shov­eller as Corey Hart, a fel­low res­i­dent of Lynn Lake. Inside Hart’s truck were Gor­don and Halkett. They had been pick­ing up gro­ceries in Thomp­son and were dressed lightly, ill pre­pared for the storm.

There was no ques­tion Cas­tel would stop to help. That’s not just a courtesy in the North, it’s a mat­ter of sur­vival. Cas­tel guided his SUV in front of the wedged truck and tried to cre­ate a trail Hart could fol­low. For an hour, they dug and pushed at the truck, at­tempt­ing to work it free. At last they suc­ceeded and began inch­ing up the road.

It was pitch black by now, nearly mid­night. The ve­hi­cles moved slowly through the drifts, Cas­tel’s four-wheel drive cut­ting a path and Hart’s truck fol­low­ing in its wake. Ev­ery few kilo­me­tres the truck would hit a dip and sink into the snow, and Cas­tel and Lin­klater would jump out to help shovel them free. Then they would press ahead just a lit­tle more.

Fi­nally they could go no fur­ther— snow­drifts over a me­tre high rose across the road. Cas­tel took stock of the sit­u­a­tion: they were near the Suwan­nee River, he sus­pected, and he knew there was a com­mu­ni­ca­tion tower there that might have a land line. Nearby, a sign pro­claimed just 50 kilo­me­tres to Leaf Rapids, where there would be road crews, an RCMP de­tach­ment and help.

“All right,” Cas­tel said. “I guess this is where home’s go­ing to be.”

Hart, Gor­don and Halkett clam­bered into the SUV. Cas­tel kept the engine run­ning for heat and dug out the bag of ex­tra cloth­ing—socks, sweaters, jack­ets—he kept in the ve­hi­cle for emer­gen­cies. Be­yond the road, slen­der as­pens, bent by the shriek­ing wind, blended into the shad­ows.

This isn’t so bad, Cas­tel thought. They had a lit­tle food: a few bags of candy and some fried chicken Hart had bought in Thomp­son. For Cas­tel and Lin­klater, who are di­a­betic, it would be enough to sus­tain them if they were care­ful. As for gas, there was an ex­tra jerry can in the back.

FEAR MAKES YOU DO STUPID THINGS. ONCE YOU PANIC, YOU’LL PROB­A­BLY DO SOME­THING FOOL­ISH AND MAYBE YOU’LL DIE.

He could see there was dry wood in the bush nearby in case they needed to start a fire. The group sipped on soda and luke­warm cof­fee, then hun­kered down for the night and fell asleep to the purr of the SUV’s engine.

WHEN CAS­TEL AWOKE on Tues­day morn­ing, the wind was still fu­ri­ously whip­ping the snow. He heard the three younger peo­ple talk­ing, pre­dict­ing that road crews would ar­rive to clear the snow soon. “Not to­day,” Cas­tel said; he knew help wouldn’t come while the bl­iz­zard was still rag­ing. He wasn’t par­tic­u­larly wor­ried, but it was never too early to start think­ing about a Plan B.

Cas­tel and Lin­klater bun­dled up to ex­plore be­yond the con­fines of the truck. As soon as they stepped off the road, they sunk up to their waists. For a minute, Cas­tel thought it might be a good spot to build a quinzhee—a dugout in the snow—to serve as an emer­gency refuge when the SUV ran out of gas. But he wor­ried that Colomb, in her 60s and suf­fer­ing from stiff joints, wouldn’t be able to crawl in and out. In­stead, the broth­ers set about con­struct­ing a lean-to shel­ter on a flat area.

Mostly, Cas­tel be­lieved it was im­por­tant for their com­pan­ions to see them work­ing; it would al­le­vi­ate feel­ings of help­less­ness while they waited for the road crews. Us­ing a hand­saw, the broth­ers felled some pine boughs and Cas­tel’s thoughts drifted home, where he had five pairs of snow­shoes. Those sure would be use­ful now, Lin­klater joked.

By the time the broth­ers fin­ished the shel­ter and started a fire, dark­ness had re­turned. The wind was still howl­ing, but Cas­tel wasn’t afraid. Fear makes you do stupid things; that’s what his fa­ther had taught him when he was a child. Once you panic, you’ll prob­a­bly do some­thing fool­ish, and maybe you’ll die.

So the broth­ers calmly clam­bered back into the SUV, now run­ning on a quar­ter tank of gas. The sec­ond night in the bl­iz­zard ticked by.

ON WED­NES­DAY MORN­ING, Cas­tel knew they were in trou­ble. The road was still piled with snow. Back in Thomp­son, Alma Hart was fran­tic, mes­sag­ing ev­ery­one she knew to find help. But Cas­tel wasn’t aware of that; with­out cell ser­vice, there was no way to con­tact any­body.

The com­mu­ni­ca­tion tower wasn’t far from where they were stranded, so Cas­tel and Lin­klater set out, break­ing a trail around the drifts. It was slow go­ing. The snow was up to their knees, some­times higher.

At last, af­ter four hours of trudg­ing, the broth­ers fi­nally reached their des­ti­na­tion. They cheered, then used crow­bars they’d brought from the SUV to pry the tower’s doors open. Inside they found pre­cious sup­plies—bot­tles of wa­ter and in­stant noo­dles—and two phones. They used one to dial out, then the other, but the calls kept drop­ping.

Fi­nally, as Cas­tel was pok­ing around the tower’s bath­room, he heard Lin­klater talk­ing. His brother had man­aged to con­nect a call to 611, a hot­line for cell­phone re­pair ser­vices. Cas­tel jumped in. “We’re stuck on the high­way, 50 kilo­me­tres south of Leaf Rapids,” Cas­tel told the man at the end of the line.

The 611 agent patched in 911, and Cas­tel ex­plained the sit­u­a­tion again. The 911 op­er­a­tor promised to send an emer­gency crew to res­cue them, then con­nected them with the RCMP de­tach­ment in Leaf Rapids. “Send some­body with gas, on a snow ma­chine if you can,” Cas­tel said, think­ing they could at least re­fill the SUV’s tank.

With their mis­sion ac­com­plished, Lin­klater and Cas­tel pre­pared to head back to their group. The com­mu­ni­ca­tion tower was warm, but they didn’t want the oth­ers to worry. On a piece of pa­per, Cas­tel scrib­bled a note to Man­i­toba Tele­com Ser­vices. “Thank you for your help,” it read. “Sorry for break­ing your doors.”

By then it was late af­ter­noon. The wind had started to die down, but al­ready the trail they had made was filled in. The broth­ers trudged back the way they came, an­other four hours through the snow. “Come on, brother,” Cas­tel said. “Kee­gach, keep go­ing.”

AT AROUND 7 A.M. CAS­TEL HEARD A LOW RUM­BLING THAT SOUNDED LIKE DIS­TANT EN­GINES AND THE SUV BEGAN TO SHAKE.

A SHOCK SWEPT THROUGH Cas­tel’s body at 3 a.m. on Thurs­day, March 9, jolt­ing him. It was as if his body was fight­ing to wake him, a last-ditch at­tempt to keep him alive. Cas­tel began to move around, feel­ing blood rush through his veins.

Cas­tel nudged Lin­klater. “Start tens­ing your mus­cles, brother,” he told him. They sat there, flex­ing, un­til sud­denly they began shiv­er­ing again. Cas­tel flushed cold, then hot, but felt bet­ter than he had the night be­fore. He nudged his brother. “Close one, eh?” The men looked at each other and laughed.

Dawn was break­ing over north­ern Man­i­toba. Cas­tel lay half-awake, will­ing the res­cue crews to come. At around 7 a.m. he heard a low rum­bling that sounded like dis­tant en­gines; as it grew closer, the SUV began to shake. It was, Cas­tel thought, the most beau­ti­ful noise he’d ever heard. Then he saw the head­lights: one pair, then two, then more.

A front-end loader cut through the snow­drifts, with a series of ve­hi­cles lum­ber­ing be­hind. Cas­tel jumped out of the SUV and helped his mother and the three younger pas­sen­gers into an RCMP ve­hi­cle. He and his brother then hopped in one of the road crew’s trucks.

It turns out they hadn’t been stranded alone. Just a few kilo­me­tres up the road, an­other truck had also been trapped: three sled-dog mush­ers with a team of 28 dogs. The an­i­mals, adapted to ex­treme north­ern weather, had spent the night snugly in their ken­nels. The own­ers had brought four mem­bers of the team into their ve­hi­cle’s cab for warmth.

Nine peo­ple had been stranded for 60 hours on Pro­vin­cial Road 391. All of them sur­vived.

CAS­TEL’S LIFE HAS SINCE re­turned to nor­mal, but the bl­iz­zard has not been for­got­ten. Ev­ery­where he goes, peo­ple ask him to tell the story.

There are lessons here, too. On one hand, Cas­tel knows, none of this would have hap­pened if he hadn’t tried to beat the storm. On the other, if he hadn’t driven past Thomp­son, they wouldn’t have been able to help Hart, Gor­don and Halkett. “I’ve thought about that quite a bit,” says Cas­tel. “That’s prob­a­bly why that lit­tle voice told me to keep go­ing.”

Ernest Cas­tel doc­u­mented his time in the bl­iz­zard us­ing his smart­phone. In this photo, John Lin­klater breaks a trail on Pro­vin­cial Road 391.

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