Dozens safe after days stuck in Man. muck

Manitoba Search and Rescue officials say all 81 people who were bogged down in muck on impassable winter roads have been rescued and are on their way to where they wanted to be when they set out.
An aerial view shows trucks trapped in thick mud on winter roads that thawed early. ((George Leonard/Manitoba Search and Rescue))
Manitoba Search and Rescue officials say all 81 people who were bogged down in muck on impassable winter roads have been rescued and are on their way to where they wanted to be when they set out.

Most were truckers who had set out to deliver goods to remote communities a week ago when roads were firm.

However, early in the week a fast thaw transformed the return route into an impassable road of ruin.

George Leonard, the provincial commander for Manitoba Search and Rescue, co-ordinated rescue efforts with RCMP and trucking firms on Friday and Saturday.

Chains on tires weren't helping this transport rig get through the muck. ((George Leonard/Manitoba Search and Rescue))
He said people were able to get out in various ways. Some were airlifted by helicopters and others were picked up by people who made their way to the route.

Earth moving equipment was also used to improve the vehicles' path and many truckers were finally able to drive out on their own.

Leonard told CBC News on Saturday afternoon that everyone is off the winter road. He said most of the people who were stuck were headed to Riverton or Gimli.

He added that about 34 transport trucks were left behind, stuck in the muck.

Leonard said people stayed calm and worked well together.

"Just imagine you being in your vehicle for five days," he said. "That's really going to get to you after a while."

He said the work of drivers likely ensured everyone got through the ordeal safe and sound.

'Everybody was waving like they were on a desert island and you found them.'—George Leonard, Manitoba search and rescue

On Friday concerns were raised about a group of 12 who were stranded near the community of Wrong Lake. It was believed they had made their way to Thunderbird Lodge, a fishing resort near the lake, about 350 kilometres north of Winnipeg. But when that was checked out, no one was there.

However, the group had joined up with a larger convoy of transport trucks that had been trying to make their way from the Island Lake area to the Bloodvein First Nation.

"I found one huge mess up on the winter road," Leonard said, describing the condition of the road. On Friday he surveyed the situation and delivered some relief supplies, including food and water.

"I saw a bunch of very tired, very happy — and some very desperate — people on the winter road that have been basically surviving on their own for the last four and five days."

A convoy of vehicles has been bogged down for several days. A rescue effort was mounted Saturday. ((George Leonard/Manitoba Search and Rescue))
Leonard said they couldn't pick anyone up Friday because they didn't have room, although he said he was prepared to stay behind to make room if someone needed to be transported out for urgent medical treatment.

Leonard said when people spotted his helicopter, it was clear the stranded motorists and truckers were happy to see him.

"Everybody was waving like they were on a desert island and you found them," he said. "I left some food for them and water and everybody's happy."

Leonard said work began in earnest Saturday on getting people out. The rescue operation was complete by about mid-afternoon.

Truck drivers have had to hunker down, stuck on winter roads, and wait for help to arrive. ((George Leonard/Manitoba Search and Rescue))
Mark Kohaykewych told CBC News that he was able to drive a pickup truck to the area on Friday.

He went across frozen portions of Lake Winnipeg and then met a part of the convoy between Bloodvein and Saint Theresa Point.

"It was white-knuckle [driving]," he said. In some spots, he said water and muskeg was reaching the doors of the truck.

Kohaykewych said he was able to deliver some sandwiches to people and saw, first-hand, the damage done to some trucks.

"The twisted mangled metal. I mean, trucks completely destroyed," he said. "There are trucks that are going to be left behind, that muskeg was so deep."

 "Some are completely written off, beyond repair," he added. A few rigs were trapped with mud reaching the axles. In some cases equipment was encased in a half-metre-thick coating of mud and ice.

Emergencies declared

Sixteen First Nations across northern Manitoba have declared states of emergency because they're low on food, fuel, and other supplies.

Their predicament was triggered by the early thaw of winter roads, leaving supply trucks stuck in thick mud.

During a stop in Brandon, Man., on Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised federal support to get supplies to the affected communities.

But Ron Evans, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, says the dire situation clearly shows that permanent all-weather roads are needed.

Some of the truckers had started their runs to the north eight days ago when winter roads were still firm and open for use.

By Monday, however, conditions were changing rapidly as mild weather thawed the muskeg.

"They've never seen it like this," Kohaykewych said. "Everybody I talked to said they didn't expect [road conditions] to turn so quickly."

With files from The Canadian Press