The Canadian Coast Guard spends a lot of time on the Great Lakes in the winter, breaking up ice so cargo ships can get through.
But on Wednesday morning, as strong winds whipped heavy snow along the shore of Lake Erie, Commanding Officer John Cork and his crew aboard the Canadian Coast Guard ship Samuel Risley found themselves tasked with a different mission: rescuing a snowmobiler who had spent nine hours adrift on an ice pan.
Officials say 45-year-old Jim Turton of Colchester, Ontario was one of four snowmobilers who fell through the ice 1.5 kilometres offshore around 11:25 p.m. on Tuesday. Turton's companions were able to clamber onto ice still connected to the shore, but Turton wound up on a floating pan of ice the size of a football field that was quickly pushed out into the lake by the intensifying winds.
Cork said the Samuel Risley was in Sarnia when he got the call for help around midnight.
Battling gale-force winds, the ship made its way down the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers into Lake Erie.
A U.S. Coast Guard ship, the Morro Bay, spotted Turton walking on the ice around 8 a.m. and brought him aboard just as the Samuel Risley arrived on scene.
The Samuel Risley has facilities to care for people suffering from hypothermia, so Turton was transferred to Cork's boat.
Cork said Turton was in “surprisingly good condition” given the weather on the lake early Wednesday morning.
“He was dressed in a snowmobile suit ... and he had warm boots on. His core temperature was a little bit low but not dangerously low, so we warmed him up and dried his clothes out and transferred him to a waiting ambulance,” Cork said in a phone interview Wednesday.
“He was really lucky.”
It's not uncommon for the Coast Guard to be called to rescue snowmobilers who have fallen through ice, Cork said, adding Turton's harrowing night on the ice is a good example of why snowmobiling on big lakes is a bad idea, no matter how thick the ice seems to be.
“Ice on lakes is never safe; ice on the Great Lakes even more so, because it moves around so much,” he said.
“It will break up and an offshore wind ... will give you no notice. It'll just blow you offshore.”
With files from the Canadian Press and the Windsor Star.