Ice rescue on Waterhen Lake

Meadow Lake Fire and Rescue members Jason Schenk (left) and Joe Grela (right) bring Norman Martell to shore during an ice rescue Nov. 16. Martell had been checking his fishing nets when he fell through the ice and was trapped on the frozen lake.

By Mac Christie

The Meadow Lake Fire Department was called to the Waterhen Lake First Nation Nov. 16 due to reports that a man was stuck in a canoe in the middle of a frozen Waterhen Lake.

The Fire and Rescue personnel made several attempts to reach the man, breaking a path in the ice using a boat, but the ice was too thick and progress was slow.

They eventually reached him when deputy fire chief Joe Grela decided to try crawling on top of the ice, rather than break through it.

“Chopping the ice was really strenuous,” Grela said. “I thought I’d try that to get to him quicker, and it actually worked fairly well.”

The firefighters were then able to reach 56-year-old Norman Armand Martell of Waterhen and bring him to shore. He was taken to hospital in Meadow Lake, where he was treated and released later that evening.

Martell had been on the ice checking his commercial fishing net. He walked out onto the ice pushing his canoe, but the added weight of the full fish net caused the the canoe to break the ice.

He said he tried to pull his canoe out of the ice, but fell through up to his waist twice in the attempt.

“Was it ever cold. I’d never had something like that happen before.” Martell said later from his home. “I was just shivering. My pants and jacket were frozen solid.”

Martell said he was out on the ice from about 10 a.m. and the fire department wasn’t able to reach him until just after 2 p.m.

Fire chief Neil Marsh said for the department’s first-ever ice rescue, it went quite well.

“We were successful in the end,” he said. “We got him off the ice alive, which was the objective.”

Still, Marsh said the group did learn a few things from the rescue, adding part of the problem with the conditions was that the ice was thick enough it didn’t break easily, but too thin to crawl on.

“We need some kind of sled,” he noted. “Having a sled that spreads your weight out, we could handle something like those ice conditions a little easier.”

The department had been working on an ice rescue team for four or five years, added firefighter Chris Warren.

He explained the members had trained in-class, and then spent time in a pool, getting used to wearing the rescue suit. They’re designed to keep the wearer vertical – and warm – in the water.

“It was -10 C, the ice was a good three centimetres thick, and you didn’t feel it at all,” said Warren, who was part of the ice rescue. “It was like sitting in your living room.”

The fire department received the call at 11 a.m., and Marsh noted it takes about 45 minutes for the department to respond to Waterhen’s east side.

“It’s a fact of life in the North,” Marsh said of the response time. “Having any kind of response team is expensive and not every community has it.

“If he’d been in the water it might not have gone as well.”

For his part, Martell, who has a slight cold as a result of the incident, hopes his experience will make people think more about ice safety.

“I’m hoping other people will learn from it, and not go out there until it’s thick enough.”

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