LYNN LAKE, Man. —Ernest Castel had a dilemma: venture out into waist-high snowdrifts to seek help or stay hunkered down in his SUV?
The northern Manitoba man and five others had just spent two nights northwest of Thompson, Man., stuck on a road made impassable by a heavy winter storm.
They were out of gas and had only candy and pop to sustain them.
Castel started out from Winnipeg on Monday and dropped his wife off in Thompson later that night. He, his mother and brother continued towards the Marcel Colomb First Nation, more than 300 kilometres northwest, where Castel was to pick up his wife’s uncle and shuttle him back for a funeral the next day.
A blizzard hit and Castel wondered whether he should turn back, but decided to keep driving.
It was a good thing, he said, because he came across a truck stuck in the snow. It was carrying three friends heading to the same destination.
He helped dig them out, but it wasn’t long before both vehicles were encased in snow again. Castel has photos showing drifts up to the headlights.
As the temperature dropped to below -20 C, all six huddled together in his car which still had gas at that point. There was no cellphone service.
“All that night we were shovelling, getting stuck, shovelling, getting stuck, shovelling. Three, four feet of snow,” Castel said Friday.
By Wednesday morning, the wind had stopped blowing long enough for the group to spot a telephone tower in the distance.
“It took me two hours of debating in my head whether we would be able to make it there or not,” said Castel, an addictions counsellor.
He and his brother, John Linklater, set out around 10 a.m. At times, the snowdrifts reached their waists.
“You put your weight on the snow and then you fall through,” he said. “It was a very, very hard walk.”
About three or four hours later, they reached the tower and broke into a building to use the phone.
“By that time, we were dehydrated and tired and our minds weren’t really working right.”
They couldn’t get through to anyone by dialling 911, but someone did answer when they called 611 — a number used to request a repair from Manitoba Telecom Services. The person on the other end was dumbfounded.
“We managed to convince him we need help. It’s life or death out here,” said Castel. “We have no gas. We have no food. We have no water.”
The pair left a note at the tower to MTS: “Thank you and sorry we broke in. Your phone saved six lives,” it said. It listed everyone’s names and said they’d taken 10 bottles of water, two soups and five candles.
“We have been stuck on the highway for three days and two nights March 6 – March 8, 2017. Blizzard Conditions. We managed to dial 611 and thank you to that person.”
Castel and Linklater are diabetic and were feeling weak.
“I was keeping my sugar up there with mostly M&Ms,” said Castel.
“I didn’t really want to drink too much cold pop because it would sap out whatever body heat I had.”
The brothers headed back to the car. By then, the vehicle was out of gas and everyone was huddling for warmth.
Their breath had left a thick layer of frost on the windows, so Castel didn’t see help coming the next morning.
But he heard it.
“We heard the rumbling of the front-end loader,” he said. “It was such a wonderful sound to hear.”
A grader and two RCMP vehicles also showed up.
The Mounties took the six to a health centre, where all were eventually given clean bills of health. Castel and Linklater’s mother had a swollen foot from the cold, but she’s doing fine, he said.
“I’m still very tired but I’m warm,” Castel said.