Manitoba

Buggy, boggy and brutal: Area of northern Manitoba search is unforgiving, experts say

The harsh northern Manitoba terrain where police are looking for two fugitives wanted in connection with the deaths of three people in British Columbia will spit out anybody who is unprepared, people with knowledge of the area say.

Fugitive murder suspects would likely encounter thick bush, annoying insects and swampy land

Police officers inspect the back of a truck at a checkpoint near Gillam, Man. A full-scale manhunt is underway after a burnt-out vehicle was found in the area. Police say it was the same car used by two suspects wanted in connection with three deaths in British Columbia. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

The harsh northern Manitoba terrain where police are looking for two fugitives wanted in connection with the deaths of three people in British Columbia will spit out anybody who is unprepared, people with knowledge of the area say.

The bush is thick, and the land is swampy and teeming with insects, they say of the wooded area around Gillam, Man.  

"If you don't have the means to be in there, you're not going to make it," said William Hunter, who once battled forest fires in the unforgiving landscape.

An expansive police presence is scouring the land around Gillam and Fox Lake Cree Nation for Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18.

Pair may be in hiding

The men, both from Port Alberni, B.C., are suspects in the shooting deaths of a tourist couple in Northern B.C. last week and have been charged with second-degree murder of a man whose body was found days later near Dease Lake, B.C.

RCMP confirmed on Wednesday that a vehicle driven by McLeod and Schmegelsky, a grey Toyota RAV4, was found on fire Monday night near Fox Lake Cree Nation, north of the town of Gillam.

Gillam, which had a population of just over 1,000 in the 2016 census, is a railway town and home to Manitoba Hydro employees who work at generating stations in the area. The nearby Fox Lake community has about 200 residents, the Keewatin Tribal Council website says.

RCMP released these images of Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky as they looked when spotted in northern Saskatchewan. (RCMP)

In addition to the railway, there's one road in and out of Gillam, which is about 740 kilometres north of Winnipeg, and it has a small airport with 13 scheduled flights a week to Winnipeg and Thompson.

The men who abandoned their ride on the dead-end road, about 760 kilometres north of Winnipeg, would have been faced with limited ways to flee the isolated area, which means they may be hiding in an inhospitable, sometimes impenetrable, environment.

This map shows the search area around Gillam, Man. (CBC)

Brian Kotak was previously an environmental adviser to Fox Lake on proposed hydroelectricity projects. He is now the managing director of the Manitoba Wildlife Federation. 

"They could easily turn themselves around and just start walking around in circles as they try and find a drier route to get around," Kotak said of the suspects, described by police as armed and dangerous.

"My guess is that they're going to hole up somewhere and just try and stay quiet."

But that's easier said than done, Kotak said. He questions if they have the right clothing, enough bug spray for the  biting insects, and the food and water to survive. They could eat berries, or trap and hunt animals, but wild mushrooms are toxic, he said.

Some people even haul around a stick to pull themselves up if they break through the peat moss and sink, Kotak said.

He maintained the terrain is "astoundingly beautiful" for the way creeks and tributaries converge along the Nelson River Valley.

"It's a spectacular area, but it's also a very intimidating area. If you don't know that area and you get lost in it, your chances of survival, I think, are pretty slim."

Police have not said if they believe the suspects remain in Manitoba.

If they are in the area, Hunter, a retired forest firefighter, doesn't think they could last in hiding.

"I don't think they could live in the bush — it's mean — but when you're desperate, who knows?"

He said jumping onto a train or hitchhiking may be improbable due to the vast territory, and fleeing on foot simply isn't reasonable.

A drone in a wooded area outside Gillam on Wednesday as the hunt for the two teens continued. (Gilbert Rowan/CBC)

"It's too tough. It's all bush," he said. "It's high muskeg. There's water holes all over. There's no path."

Hunter said a lot of the terrain is soft, water-logged ground that's tough to navigate.

"You're going to just give up — hunger, fatigue."

Gillam Mayor Dwayne Forman described the region as "all swamp, heavy trees" and sometimes visited by polar bears which, until now, have been the only strangers that have posed any danger.

'They know how to hide'

It is one of the northernmost towns in Manitoba accessible year round by road.

When Schmegelsky was still considered missing, his father, Alan, told CHEK News the men considered themselves survivalists.

"If there's any hope that Bryer and Kam are alive, it's because they … would have gone into the woods and they know how to hide, because they've been doing this for the last 2½ years," he said on Monday.

RCMP have sent police dogs to the area around Gillam and established a checkstop at the intersection of Provincial Roads 280 and 290, leading into the community.

WATCH: Mayor of Gillam describes the harsh terrain in northern Manitoba

The harsh northern Manitoba terrain where police are looking for two fugitives wanted in connection with the deaths of three people in British Columbia will spit out anybody who is unprepared, people with knowledge of the area say. 0:43

WATCH: An local guide's honest take about traveling in the bush unprepared

The suspects who abandoned their ride on the dead-end road, about 760 kilometres north of Winnipeg, would have been faced with limited ways to flee the isolated area, which means they may be hiding in an inhospitable, sometimes impenetrable, environment. 0:41

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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