Manitoba towing staff risked lives rescuing stranded fishermen

A Manitoba towing company spent Sunday working more like a search and rescue team to help fishers on Lake Winnipeg who were stranded in blizzard-like conditions.

We were probably as happy to see them as they were to see us, says rescuer

Robert Stutsky unloading the track truck at Lake Winnipeg. (St. Andrews Towing)

A Manitoba towing company spent Sunday working more like a search and rescue team to help fishers on Lake Winnipeg who were stranded in blizzard-like conditions.

St. Andrews Towing got a call about a group of four stranded on the east side of the lake near Beaconia, which is about 26 kilometres south of Lester Beach, Man. 

The company doesn't get a lot of calls like this, said Wade Barkley, an employee with the towing company and one of the rescuers. 

Robert Stutsky, the owner of the towing company, has a big diesel truck with mattracks — tank-like treads in place of regular wheels. The track truck can plough through snow drifts that regular trucks can't get through, making it ideal for snow rescues like the ones they did on Sunday and Monday.

"By the time we got out there, it was nighttime and we couldn't see 10 feet in front of the truck on the lake," said Barkley. "It was miserable conditions. You wouldn't want to be out there at all."

Earlier that day the stranded group's family members tried finding them with no luck. Another rescuer with a track truck had searched all day and never came across them. 

Manitoba ice fishermen spend 26 hours stranded on Lake Winnipeg 0:10
"That's a big lake," he said. "If your GPS is off half a kilometre, you may drive right past these people and not even see them."

Luckily, Barkley and the rest of the towing crew found the group. 

On their way back they got a call about another group of fishermen stuck on the opposite side of the lake near Chalet Beach, south of Matlock, Man.

Barkley said they called the stranded group and decided together they had enough gas in their truck to stay warm through the night and be rescued in the daylight. 

On Monday morning Barkley and St. Andrews Towing owner Robert Stutsky set out to save the two stranded fishermen with their GPS co-ordinates in hand. 

Even though it was daytime, Barkley said they were risking their lives because of the blowing snow, pressure ridges, drifts, ice ridges and jagged ice. 

"Even at one point I had to get out and I had to walk across a pressure ridge to make sure it was safe for the truck to cross," said Barkley.

"This truck probably weighs somewhere around 9,000 pounds so if we hit a soft spot, we're the ones going swimming. You just don't know, it's a gamble."

That's why Barkley and Stutsky brought clothes, a portable heater and extra food. They also told other employees, the RCMP, and fire crew where they were going in case anything happened.

St. Andrews Towing flattens trail from Lake Winnipeg after rescuing two fishermen. 0:13
"You don't go into those situations without letting somebody know where you are," Barkley said. 

They did find the two fishermen in their truck and towed them through the snow drifts and through the trail to the lake. 

"My little voice was telling me, 'Thank God we found them,' because they were probably thinking the same thing when they saw our headlights," he said. 

Barkley was sympathetic towards the stranded fishermen because when he was 15 years old, his and his friend's Ski-Doos fell through the ice. 

"We walked for about five miles frozen on the lake until we got to shore, so I completely understand exactly how these guys feel being stranded out on the lake," he said. "We're probably just as happy to see them as they [were] to see us."


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