BY JENNIFER THURBIDE
Two southern Ontario wilderness enthusiasts were on their way home safely last week, after their eight day canoe trip in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park ended abruptly in a rescue scenario straight out of a Hollywood movie.
Canoeists Hans-Peter Kohnke and wife Mook Sutdhibhasilp arrived in the Red Lake District on May 19th and headed directly to Leona Lake where they camped overnight. Travelling into the park the next day, the pair says minor damage sustained to their canoe early in their trip kept them at Jake Lake.
“We were supposed to go to Mexican Hat and perhaps further on our eight day trip but we damaged the canoe a little bit in shallow water. We decided to stay very close [to the park entrance] and did not want to ruin our trip,” said Kohnke while describing their first few days.
On May 22, while exploring the lake systems between Jake and Mexican Hat Kohnke says the pair noticed smoke in the air and decided to return to their base camp to assess the situation.
“As we got closer to the campsite we could see the smoke trail but we still weren’t sure [where it was coming from] and we weren’t really concerned. The reason was because it was a long trail of smoke high in the air. We didn’t see any ashes or any ground smoke,” described Kohnke. “My wife was a little anxious and we decided to rest some and check the progress regularly. Not long after I looked out of the tent window and could see flames. I told her to put her boots on and that we needed to get out of there.”
Kohnke and Sutdhibhasilp gathered their lifejackets, turned on their emergency beacon, and left the campsite to get to safer ground facing high winds and rough water as they tried to leave. With only two ways off the lake, the pair decided to travel toward familiar ground at Mexican Hat.
Sutdhibhasilp says her instinct told her something wasn’t right and at the time her focus was on moving forward.
Reaching the shores of Mexcian Hat before dark the duo found what they felt was the safest vantage point to wait for help not knowing how long it would be for their distress call to be heard. Kohnke says a CC-130 Hercules arrived around 11:00 pm, dropped supplies and provided a birds-eye view of the fire’s progress for three hours before it needed to refuel. It wasn’t until 4:00 a.m. when a Bell 412 helicopter arrived to get the pair off the ground and to safety that they felt relief.
The duo returned to Red Lake as the sun was coming up on May 23rd and were met by Red Lake OPP who assisted in getting them settled into a hotel and in contact with their families who had been notified when the beacon was activated the day before.
Earlier this month the Ministry of Natural Resources issued a caution to those travelling in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park to avoid the southwest area. Maps printed prior to May 19th show both Mexican Hat Lake and Jake Lake outside of the buffer zone established by Ontario Parks.
Kohnk says prior to heading out on their trip, he and his wife visited the Parks office to get an update on the areas to avoid. He says one thing that surprised him about the situation was how rapidly the fire caught up to their location.
“We understood the potential but didn’t understand how fast it would go. It was fast. When I saw the first flame come over the hill and we had grabbed a few things, it was already halfway towards us and by the time we had crossed the channel on the other side and rounded the corner, I had looked behind me and it had already crossed. My wife kept saying ‘don’t look back.’”
On May 25 the duo, who had been waiting for replacement keys to arrive before leaving town, received surprising news. The MNR has been able to access their campsite and to the surprise of everyone involved, their equipment was intact.
“The fire came inches from our tent but everything was recovered. Our clothes, our car keys, even our camera,” said Sutdhibhasilp.
When asked if his experience with wilderness survival prepared him for this situation, Kohnke asked “how can you ever be prepared for that?”
“I think on a certain level you really can’t [be prepared]. You only have certain exits. You don’t have any eyes in the sky. The signs that I thought [would be there weren’t there] – if I had known the signs of whether it was far off or in imminent danger – we just didn’t know how to assess the danger. But once it was there we intuitively knew what to do,” he added.