Provincial police rescue 4 Americans stranded in Quebec's Monts Chic-Chocs

Though they had a great time on Friday cruising around the mountains on their snow bikes — a cross between a motorcycle and a snowmobile — things took a harrowing turn on Saturday when members of their group got stuck high up in the hills.

After building a fire to keep warm, the small group hardly slept a wink as they tried to plan a way out

The snow bogged down the group's machines to the point that, after a day of travel, they didn't even cover a full kilometre in distance. (Submitted by Leon Dugan)

Four Americans are breathing a sigh of relief after spending the weekend stranded in Quebec's Chic-Chocs mountain range.

Though they had a great time on Friday cruising around the mountains on their snow bikes — a cross between a motorcycle and a snowmobile — things took a harrowing turn on Saturday when some of their vehicles got stuck high up in the hills.

"The snow was so deep and so fluffy, our bikes just kept sinking down and down and down," said Leon Dugan, describing the area as a "big bowl — kind of like 180 degrees of mountain."

The 36-year-old resident of Grafton, N.H., said he's often travelled to the Gaspé Peninsula's mountainous central region to explore its tall peaks and deep snow.

This time, he was part of a group of nine snow bikers who were staying with friends in the area and exploring the mountains when some riders got stuck.

Four of them, including Dugan, were forced to head down, away from their destination on the other side of the mountain. The rest of the group was able to make it back to their trucks.

The Chic-Chocs are about 40 kilometres from the St. Lawrence River. The range is about 95 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide. (Jean-François Deschênes/Radio-Canada)

As for Dugan and his group, they realized they needed to find a new way out, so they followed their GPS units to what they thought was a trail through a ravine.

"When we got down there, there was no trail," Dugan said. 

"I don't know if it was maybe a small hiking trail in the summer or a discontinued trail that's overgrown. On the GPS, it clearly showed that we were on it, but we were going through really thick, thick woods in really deep snow."

'We had no traction'

They thought they could follow the GPS to a road, but the snow just kept getting deeper.

"We had no traction. It started getting dark out, so we rode into the night with lights," he said, noting their day started about 12 hours earlier, at 8 a.m.

"We decided we had to start a fire to dry out some because we were starting to get wet and cold."

Realizing they were out of options, they prepared to spend the night. They had enough food to last at least a day and a saw to cut wood for the fire.

Snow bikes are mini-snowmobiles built on a dirt bike frame, replacing the rear drive wheel with a track and the front wheel with a single ski. (Submitted by Leon Dugan)

They made radio contact with a local guiding service. They shared their GPS coordinates and the guide alerted police.

Other than nodding off a bit, most didn't sleep a wink. Instead, they spent the night feeding the fire and talking about how they were going to escape the snowed-in ravine.

In the morning, one of the bikes refused to start no matter how hard they tried. Dugan and a friend went off on their own to find the road, but it was slow going. 

By 2 p.m., they had barely gone three quarters of a kilometre and still had 1.6 to go.

"We were wet and tired from being two days straight, and a night, in the woods and we had been exerting a lot of energy," Dugan said. 

"We would get stuck and then help each other get unstuck, go a couple hundred feet and get stuck again."

They turned their radio back on and made contact with campers who were able to relay messages to police. The two men were told to hunker down, build a fire and wait.

SQ struggle to gain access to men

Emergency services were alerted around 9 p.m. Saturday evening to the missing group but were unable to reach them in the difficult conditions. 

Recounting Sunday's rescue attempt, provincial police spokesperson Sgt. Claude Doiron said the first group of police on snowmobiles had to turn back, but later returned.

"At that time, we were able to send the police on snowshoes. They walked 2.5 kilometres to find the snowmobilers," he said.

The group of nine Americans had no trouble on Friday when they went out in to Quebec's Chic-Chocs Mountains. But things took a harrowing turn on Saturday. (Submitted by Leon Dugan)

The rescuers brought in warm blankets, food and hot water to drink, said Dugan. One even gave him a dry coat off his back and mittens to wear until a helicopter came.

"The helicopter came in and literally blew all the snow away with its rotors, it was just like being in a tornado," he said.

"Some men dropped down out on these cables, they hooked onto us and zipped us up into the helicopter, one at a time. We definitely felt very happy at that point."

The four men, aged 21 to 44, were taken to the Sainte-Anne-des-Monts airport by helicopter Sunday evening where paramedics were waiting for them. The Sûreté du Québec said they are in good health.

with files from Victoria Emanuelle Forest Briand and Radio-Canada


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