The successful discovery of a young girl who became lost Monday while blueberry picking near Lavigne, Ont. came after members of this small, northern Ontario community banded together to help search and rescue crews.
The rescue led to a collective sigh of relief from residents and officials in the town when Alexie Levac, 10, was safety reunited with her family on Tuesday morning.
Alexie had been staying with family friends at the Joli Voyageur Campsite on Caron Road, west of Sudbury. She and a friend went blueberry picking Monday afternoon and, after only one child returned to camp, officials from the West Nipissing Police, Sudbury Police, OPP and CFB Trenton were called to help locate her.
The hours of Monday night were filled with anxiety and emotion for residents of Lavigne.
"We didn’t sleep at all. … We did ground searches until 2 a.m.," said Carole Wolfe, who owns the Joli Voyageur grounds with her husband, Rodney. "The mood stayed hopeful the whole time."
Alexie was eventually found at around 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning by the helicopter crew from CFB Trenton. Police say she was 5-6 km away from the campsite, and had managed to find a blanket and water in a cabin, where she stayed overnight.
According to the helicopter crew, Alexie was a little tired, but still managed to wave her arms for help.
"The first thing she did was jump right on me and gave me a great big hug," said Master Corporal Jonathan Pothier. "The whole crew was very emotionally attached to the mission. By the time we talked to the parents and everything — we all have kids — it was definitely the way we wanted to end the morning."
The helicopter landed on a grassy flat near the Chez St-Pierre general store. That’s when Alexie was reunited with her parents.
"The rescuers took her out and she just ran to her mother," said Sue St-Pierre, the owner of the general store. "It was the greatest joy I’ve ever had in my life. I just cried like a baby."
Businesses stay open through night
The entire community of Lavigne mobilized to help find Alexie, said St-Pierre.
She kept her general store open all night, providing water and an air conditioned building for any rescue officials or volunteers who needed a break.
Around the corner at the Lavigne Tavern, owner Guy Fortier was also having a sleepless night, thanks in part to both concern for Alexie, and the constant buzz of helicopter blades.
He decided to reopen his tavern and served coffee to volunteers who came down from the campsite. When Alexie was found in the morning, some officials went to the tavern to decompress from the night’s events.
"[The atmosphere] was not so much one of celebration, but just a huge sigh of relief," Fortier said. "I heard that, when they found the little girl, she was hungry and thirsty ... The search and rescue helicopter had bottles of water on board and cookies, so I guess that made her day."
In addition to the extended business hours, many residents offered their time to help search the bushes with flash lights and four-wheelers.
"Everyone’s got a family and when you think of other people who are in distress, you feel like it’s your own family," said Jean-Pierre Pilon, a Lavigne resident who volunteered his time Monday night.
"I do have some grandchildren who are seven-years-old. You kind of think of your own and go out there and do what you can."
After Alexie was found, her family took her to the West Nipissing General Hospital in Sturgeon Falls to deal with what police said were a couple of scratches and lots of bug bites.
If lost picking, call police
Following the incident in Lavigne, Sudbury Police are asking people to be mindful when venturing into the bush to berry pick.
Getting lost is common enough, police said, and the force rescued several wayward blueberry pickers last summer season.
There are always ways pickers can take precautions and be prepared, said Sudbury Police Constable Meghan O’Malley.
"It would be a good idea firstly to not be alone. So to go in pairs or a group and make sure you stay together," she said. "Obviously it’s important if you do get lost to stay hydrated … and you should bring food with you in case you do become disoriented."
Marking the route and looking for landmarks are other steps pickers should take, O’Malley added.
In the case of children, police recommend they carry some kind of noisemaker, and encourage families to create an emergency plan should kids wander off.
She said any pickers who do find themselves lost in the bush should stay where they are and contact the police.