Pilot, 72, saved from frozen Manitoba lake 52 hours after making pit stop to pee

A bathroom break turned into a missing person report for a 72-year-old pilot, who became stranded on a remote, frozen northern Manitoba lake.

Happy Bednarek encountered mechanical issues when he tried to take off again

Pilot Happy Bednarek is treated for dehydration in a tent set up by SAR techs. (Courtesy Happy Bednarek)

A bathroom break turned into a missing person report for a 72-year-old pilot, who became stranded on a remote, frozen northern Manitoba lake.

It was 52 hours before Happy Bednarek was found, hungry and dehydrated, by search-and-rescue crews who parachuted in from a Hercules aircraft.

"I felt pretty good, really good," Bednarek said about seeing them come in. "Those guys are the ultimate people that you could ever want to see."

Bednarek, who lives in Steep Rock, Man., took off in his two-seater prop plane from an airstrip in Steep Rock, Man., 210 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, on the morning of Jan. 12, destined to meet up with others at a camp about 170 kilometres north on Sisib Lake.

RCMP were notified around 6:45 p.m. on Jan. 13 that he never made it.

Happy Bednarek's plane can be seen from the Hercules aircraft, sitting on Pickerel Lake. (RCMP)

Bednarek wanted to land at Sisib Lake but couldn't see the area well enough due to clouds.

"So I looked over to the west four miles and Pickerel Lake was there and the sun was shining there, so I thought, I'll just go over there. I had to go to the bathroom," he said.

He landed, shut off the small craft's engine and did his business. But after adding some fuel and attempting to start the plane again by spinning the propeller, the engine halted.

"It fired once and that was it. I couldn't get 'er going," Bednarek said.

He tried for another 1½ hours to no avail.

I had to concentrate pretty good on staying calm- Happy Bednarek

The plane was about a kilometre from shore and the sun was starting to go down in the late afternoon, so he decided to get to land and get warm.

"I dragged my stuff over to the shore and started building a fire. I was there for 52 hours," Bednarek said, adding he kept pulling deadfall out of the bush to feed the flames.

"Every 20 minutes to half an hour, I'd have to go back into the bush to get what I could."

Since he hadn't planned on his extended stay, Bednarek didn't pack a whole lot. All he had for food was a cup of trail mix. Oh, and a pack-and-a-half of cigarettes.

"I had to concentrate pretty good on staying calm," he said.

"Did you ever see that movie Castaway? For some reason that went through my mind."

Search plane sent out

In the meantime, RCMP had contacted the Canadian Forces' Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Trenton, Ont., which deployed a Hercules search plane to the area.

In the early morning hours on Monday, searchers spotted Bednarek's fire. Or rather, his blaze.

"Fortunately, Happy had poured a bunch of gasoline on the fire just as we flew over top of him. Through our night vision goggles, it was bright as day," said Master Cpl. Chris Griffiths, one of the search and rescue technicians with the Canadian Armed Forces.

"At that point we knew right away that there was a survivor down there and we needed to get down there."

The SAR Techs were initially unable to parachute to the site due to poor weather conditions, so the RCMP sent out a ground crew on snowmobile instead.

RCMP, Canadian Rangers and Manitoba Conservation officers arrived at the site on snowmobile, where SAR techs had set up a tent to provide medical treatment to the dehydrated pilot. (RCMP)

As they undertook the 45-kilometre snowmobile ride, the weather cleared and two SAR techs dropped to the site just after 6:30 a.m.

Bednarek was in good spirits, although he was thirsty and hungry. The SAR techs set up a tent and provided medical treatment.

"When the boys jumped in there, I only had a half a pack [of cigarettes] left," Bednarek said.

"I said, 'Is that what got you through the two days?'" said Griffiths, who spoke to CBC News while Bednarek was linked in through another phone line.

"Yeah, and wouldn't you know it — Mr. Chris Griffiths bummed a cigarette off me and I thought it should have been the other way around," Bednarek joked, then revised his response. "I would have given him 150 cartons of cigarettes right at that time if I'd've had them.

"That's how much I appreciated those guys being there."

Picked up by helicopter

RCMP, along with members of the Canadian Rangers and Manitoba Conservation, arrived by snowmobile around 2:30 p.m. to help.

"My hat goes off to all them folks, too, because it took 'em pretty near the whole day to get in there," said Bednarek. "It's a hard place to find. There's not very good trails. It's fantastic, the job that everybody did."

A couple of hours later, Bednarek and the SAR techs were picked up by a helicopter.

Happy Bednarek's plane sits on Pickerel Lake, where he landed but was unable to take off again. (Courtesy Happy Bednarek)

Once Bednarek was back in southern Manitoba and at his son's home, it was obvious he wasn't the only one who likened his experience to Castaway.

His family handed him a ball with "Wilson" written on it, a nod to the only companion actor Tom Hanks had in the 2000 movie.

"It's a good story and nice to put out a story with a happy ending," said RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Julie Courchaine, who stressed the importance of the partnerships the RCMP have with other rescue agencies.

"That's a huge area with lots of lakes, lots of isolated areas, so it really requires us working together like that. It's neat to see how well it worked."

With files from Marjorie Dowhos and Colton Hutchinson

A bathroom break turned into a missing person report for a 72-year-old pilot, who became stranded on a remote, frozen northern Manitoba lake. 3:37

About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

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