Audrey Berndt usually accompanies her husband Kevin Wiseman when he grooms the trails for a west Quebec snowmobile club.
She says she doesn't want him to be alone, in case something goes wrong.
Something did go wrong on Wednesday around 6 p.m. and Berndt had a front-row seat — literally. She was in the passenger seat as Wiseman steered the snowcat out of the bush on an unfamiliar route and onto what he thought was a field.
The couple quickly realized they were actually on snow-covered McMullin Lake, near Val-des-Monts, Que.
As Wiseman turned the large, heavy snowcat to get back on land, it plunged through the ice.
In as calm a voice as he could muster, Wiseman told Berndt, "Don't panic, I think we have a few minutes [of air], then we hit bottom."
The couple was trapped under the ice in about four metres of water. Neither the doors nor windows would open. Frigid water started to fill the cab.
'I took two gulps. I said, 'This is how I am going to die.'' - Audrey Berndt
Wiseman first punched with his hands to try to break through the windshield, without success. He then used his head as a battering ram to smash the glass.
He quickly surfaced, only to discover his 40-year-old wife was still trapped below the ice in the cab, which was now full of water.
Berndt says at that moment, "I took two gulps. I said, 'This is how I'm going to die. No more kids, no more husband. They're going to lose us both.'"
Wiseman dove back down but could not find his wife in the snowcat. He dove a second time but didn't have enough air in his lungs and had to resurface. Wiseman, 43, caught his breath and dove down a third time.
"Something in my head said, 'You are going back under. You're staying there, if you don't have your wife,'" he said.
As Wiseman dove down for the last time, Berndt shifted over to his seat in the cab.
"I felt his hand, and he just yanked me right out of there," she said.
Couple struggle to nearby cabin
Wiseman got Berndt to a cabin a few hundred metres away, somewhere between carrying and dragging her to the destination. The woman who answered the door turned out to be a nurse who was able to help the couple, dressing them in warm clothes while they waited for emergency services.
Paramedics determined Berndt was suffering from hypothermia. She was taken by ambulance to hospital where she was monitored for several hours before being released.
As they sat a day after their ordeal, enjoying the warmth of their Buckingham, Que., home, Berndt wept and hugged her husband of 15 years.
"I call him my hero. If not for him, I would not be here," she says.
Mild weather played role
Const. Martin Fournel, a spokesman for MRC des Collines police, say it appears the couple drove over a spot where the ice was thin.
"Ten feet beside [there] it would have been fine, probably," Fournel says.
MRC des Collines had issued a safety advisory earlier in the week, warning people to make sure ice is thick enough to hold the weight of vehicles before driving onto it.
Quebec's occupational health and safety commission is investigating what's being considered a workplace accident.