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‘Line between life and death’: Cousins used trapping skills, body spray to survive

Prayed for wood, prayed to see the morning sun

Thomas Barnett looked to the dark sky and prayed. He prayed for wood and to stay awake despite signs of hypothermia creeping through his body. 

He prayed to see the morning sun and feel its heat. He prayed for a snowmobile or helicopter to rescue him and his two cousins stranded on a northern Saskatchewan lake.

“I prayed more that night than I probably did since I was 10 years old,” Barnett told The Canadian Press.

About two days earlier, Barnett, a 33-year-old lawyer based in Prince Rupert, B.C., had flown to Saskatchewan to visit his family’s traditional trapline with his cousins. He is from the Lac La Ronge Indian Band.

Ron Hyggen, 43, lives in Saskatoon but grew up learning to live on the land at a cabin on the northern end of Triveet Lake, north of La Ronge. Julian Herman, 33, who lives in Prince Albert, Sask., completed the trio.

The three cousins had the right gear to stay warm and fed for the long weekend in February. They had a satellite communication device to call for help in case of danger. 

They left another cousin’s Henry Ratt’s cabin early on the Friday. The lake ice was thick as Hyggen led the way on one snowmobile and Barnett and Herman followed on another.

Hyggen noticed the change in the snow first. It was turning into deep slush. He sped up and barely made it through.

His cousins weren’t so lucky. Hyggen turned around to help them, but his snowmobile got stuck, too. 

The men tried for more than an hour to pack down snow to give the sleds traction. No success.

But they weren’t too worried. Hyggen activated his emergency device around 10:30 a.m. and the cousins walked to shore to make camp. 

They were wet but got a fire going. They used a chainsaw to make benches and settled in to dry off. About 4:30 p.m., cosy near the heat, they started to watch a movie on an iPad.

Soon after, four Canadian Rangers used by the Armed Forces to search and rescue in remote areas, arrived on their snowmobiles. Almost immediately, they got stuck in the slush. 

The cousins and the Rangers tried for hours to get all the machines moving. Hyggen’s sled was freed about 10 p.m.

That, he said, is when there was a lapse in judgment. 

He said the Rangers decided Hyggen should leave his emergency gear behind and go alone to the cabin to warm it.

With only some light gloves, he hopped on his sled, but only made it six kilometres before his sled was stuck again. 

Back with the Rangers, Barnett and Herman’s snowmobile had been freed. They were directed to leave their emergency gear behind and head north — where they got stuck right near Hyggen. 

The fun of adventure was gone and fear set in. 

“The line between life and death was infinitesimally small,” Barnett said. 

Meanwhile, one of the Ranger snowmobiles was extracted from the slush. He sledded to where the cousins were and told them the other sleds were still stuck. The cousins said the Ranger told them they could try to walk back to where the others were with the survival gear, or they could go to shore.

Then, they said, the ranger left.

The cousins tried to walk back but the slush was too deep. Hyggen hadn’t felt his feet in hours. The temperature had dropped to -35 C with the wind chill.

They decided to go to shore to try to make a fire.

A forest fire a few years earlier had destroyed a lot of the trees that would have provided wood. Then, in what seemed like a miracle, Barnett saw a birch tree.

“If that tree wasn’t there, we’d be dead,” he said.

They did inventory: one can of Coke, a package of noodles, a chocolate bar, lighters and matches. Herman had a can of Old Spice body spray with him.

They used the spray and a lighter as a blowtorch to start a fire that would keep them alive. 

As the hours passed, the cousins collected wood, split the Coke, then used the can to heat and melt water. They shared stories to pass the time. A ranger appeared and checked on them briefly before leaving again.

When his willpower was wavering, Barnett took out his phone and made videos for each member of his family. In the one to his wife he promised to come home.

When he thought he couldn’t get back up, he would think about that promise and find the energy to move, he said.

As morning light dawned, the cousins knew they wouldn’t be able to make it through another night. They decided to use all the wood they had left and build a huge blaze before they tried to walk back.

Elsewhere on the lake, Ratt was leading more Rangers on a rescue mission. The giant flames signalled where the lost snowmobilers were.

The cousins get emotional about the moment they saw Ratt.

“It meant we were going home,” Barnett said, a tear rolling down his cheek.

Herman doesn’t plan to head back onto the ice any time soon. Barnett said the experience inspired him to connect with his local rescue operations. 

He says ninanaskomon, meaning “he’s very thankful” in Cree, to the Rangers who risked their lives trying to save them. 

The cousins say tough choices were made and they hope the Rangers get proper training and equipment to avoid potential errors in future rescues. 

The Rangers said they’ve responded to five ground search and rescues in northern Saskatchewan so far this year. There is a review following every operation. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 6, 2022.

feature image: Thomas Barnett via The Canadian Press