Tyrell Ollie learned a hard lesson last week, after a trip to his remote trapping cabin in Yukon turned into a week-long struggle to survive the bitter cold.
“It taught me not to rush,” said Ollie. “Take your time, and make sure you have everything you need.”
Ollie, it turned out, didn’t have what he needed when he set out from Ross River, Yukon, by snowmobile with his cousin Rebecca Johnny, on Jan. 5. The plan was to check Ollie’s traps and stay at his cabin at Dragon Lake, north of Ross River — but a snowmobile breakdown left them stranded partway there.
“I just didn’t have the right tools. I had my tools, but it wasn’t the right ones to take the [snowmobile’s] chaincase off,” he recalled.
They were about 80 kilometres from Ross River, up the Canol Road, and still about 23 kilometres from Dragon Lake. The temperature, already below –20 C when they set out was soon pushing –45 C.
“It got really cold on us. Three, four hours — just dropped.”
Remarkably, there was a lifeline nearby — another of Ollie’s trapping cabins. It didn’t have the supplies and firewood that the Dragon Lake cabin had, but it was shelter.
“I cut wood and set rabbit snares and I just tried to be in a survival mode I learned from my elders,” Ollie said.
“I tried not to get scared out there, just trying to be strong and take care of my cousin Rebecca, mostly.”
They ended up staying for days, trying to keep warm while figuring out what to do.
At one point, they tried walking back to Ross River. They slogged for a few kilometres before stopping under a tree to make a fire. They stayed two days and reconsidered their plan.
“I looked at the moon, and I seen that moon dog [lunar halo], and I was like, ‘no way we’ll make it, going back,'” Ollie said.
“So we turned around to the cabin and we hunkered down there and we stayed there,” Ollie said.
By the end of the week, people in Ross River were worried. The two cousins were reported overdue to police and other local officials.
“[Ollie] and I always talk trapping and we have a pretty good relationship,” said Tynan Thurmer, the district conservation officer for Ross River.
Machines and equipment weren’t working properly — so we had to turn back.– Tynan Thurmer, district conservation officer
“So you know, as soon as I heard he was overdue, and the area he traps is so remote and harsh, you know, I was pretty gung-ho to get out there and help him.”
Thurmer joined RCMP officers as they set off on snowmobiles on Saturday evening, for Dragon Lake. They made it about a third of the way there, Thurmer said.
“Given the temperatures, it was pushing 50 below zero and machines and equipment weren’t working properly — so we had to turn back.”
The next day, they secured a helicopter out of Whitehorse and flew directly to Dragon Lake. Thurmer’s heart sank when he saw Ollie’s cabin.
“It was quite evident that when we landed, no one had been there in days. You know, there was six inches of fresh snow, the cabin door was completely blown in.
“So then we thought, OK, they never made it.”
‘Every wood we could find’
Down the trail, huddled in the other small cabin, Ollie and Johnny were doing what they could to stay warm and keep their strength up.
They had little dry firewood on hand, and no saw, so they used an axe to cut green trees — and tried not to smoke themselves out. One of the cabin’s wooden beds was hacked up to feed the fire.
“We looked for every wood we could find,” Ollie said.
They ate what little they had — some eggs, potatoes and onions. Ollie shot a grouse and they made broth. They drank NeoCitran to keep warm, he said.
Ollie saw a moose one day, across a beaver pond, but he felt too weak to shoot it and skin it and get it back to the cabin. He also didn’t trust the ice on the beaver pond.
When it was Johnny’s 24th birthday, they spent the day dreaming about food.
“We just sat there and talked about pineapples and oranges and that,” Ollie said.
Searching the area
Leaving Dragon Lake, the rescue team decided to search the whole area from the chopper.
“I was just going off my knowledge of, you know, every cabin that I’ve been to along the road, and every area that Tyrell mentioned to me that he might be trapping out of,” Thurmer said.
Partway back to Ross River, they saw them — two figures standing on the trail below.
“We saw them waving,” Thurmer said. “I was quite relieved.”
Ollie and Johnny were picked up and taken back to Ross River. Ollie said they were checked out for any injuries.
“Everything was OK, it was just my big toe and my fingertips was kind of cold,” he said.
Thurmer is being lauded for his rescue efforts. Yukon’s chief conservation officer Gordon Hitchcock has awarded him a Chief’s Commendation — Award of Merit, for “meritorious service in the face of extreme conditions.”
“[Conservation officer] Thurmer’s actions were directly related to the successful rescue,” Hitchcock said in a statement.
Ollie is grateful for the rescue, and relieved that he and Johnny are home safe. He says he’ll never head out again in such cold weather.
“I’m very happy to see family and friends. I wish this would never happen to any other person, because it’s a pretty rough experience, I tell you that.”