Men escape injury when groomer sinks

Alicia Elson
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PB 200 groomer, owned and operated by the Grand River Snowmobile Club, sank in the Terrington Basin on Jan. 28. Residents have been advised to stay away from that area.

Two Happy Valley-Goose Bay residents narrowly escaped serious injury when the snowmobile trail groomer they were operating sank through the slush and ice on Jan. 28 in the Terrington Basin.

Early that day Greg Wheeler, president of the Grand River Snowmobile Club, accompanied the two groomer operators - Hector Lethbridge and Mark Pelley - to mark the trail and assist with placing signs around the area.

The trio began working early that Saturday morning to start a trail from the dock to an area known as Upper Portage, a common trail used by residents to access the Wilburn Bay area.

Wheeler then left the two men to return to the valley.

Lethbridge and Pelley continued their work to cover the area known as the Goose River Trail, northeast of the Terrington Basin.

Lethbridge has been a volunteer operator with grooming services through the Grand River Snowmobile Club for 12 years. He said the plan for that particular day was to make improvements and upgrades to the route.

"Due to the large amount of snow and slush that has been accumulated, the idea was to travel over it, bring the water to the surface, stir up the slush and basically attempt to get it to freeze down through so that we would have a base to establish a trail on," he explained.

The two men travelled to an area known as Grove's Point access road and turned around to go to the lower end of Terrington Basin where they entered the trail - a few hundred yards across the ice and back.

As they were backtracking the route, Lethbridge said, the vehicle got stuck in slush and began to sink.

"The point when the water reached the windshield, I decided it was time to get out."

He managed to escape through a side window and Pelley escaped through the sunroof. Lethbridge said he was grateful that Pelley had the good judgment to throw out their warm clothing before exiting the Groomer as Lethbridge wasn't wearing a coat, a hat or mitts at the time.

Moments after the escape, Lethbridge said a resident from the Otter Creek area saw the two men out on the ice and attempted to cross the area on a snowmobile to retrieve them. The resident also ended up getting stuck in the slush before reaching them.

Pelley, who happened to have a cell phone with him, made contact with a number of people before finally contacting a crew from Universal Helicopters. They were able to reach the men safely and successfully rescue them from the area of open water.

"A few minutes later we were back on dry ground, warm and dry," said Lethbridge. Lethbridge says it was a blessing that the weather conditions that day were favourable, with no wind.

"It was daylight in the middle of the afternoon, we had cell phone contact with enough people who were aware of our predicament so we knew we weren't going to be very long and there was going to be help along the way. We were close to town and (although) we were wet from the waist down there was no immediate danger of frost bite or anything like that."

In the 12 years Lethbridge has been volunteering with the club and working on the groomer he said he has been stuck in slush before. When he encountered the slush last week, he wasn't concerned at first.

"This is the first time I've actually seen a machine go down in the water and I have done a fair amount of ice crossing and so has Mark."

When asked what may have been different in this case, Lethbridge said he doesn't have a definite answers but a couple of possibilities may have came into play.

"There may have been an underwater spring that created a warm spot or just the amount of snow and the amount of water that is actually on top of the ice. We really don't know." Lethbridge says the area is a common trail that has been groomed numerous times by the GRSC for many years.

"I guess it was our lucky day, or our unlucky day, depending on how you look at it. We groom at night. Sometimes we groom in pretty foul weather. (This time) it was a weekend and there were lots of people (around), (and we were) easy to get to. It was a clear, dry, sunny day and lots of visibility. I guess if there was any such time as a good time to have a bad situation, that was definitely it."

"The groomer we can get replaced but it's hard to replace good guys like that," said Wheeler in a separate interview a few days following the incident.

Wheeler said after the successful rescue of Lethbridge and Pelley, he and his colleague, Rob Pilgrim (also of the Grand River Snowmobile Club), drove back to the site. For public safety, they marked the area around where the groomer sank. While there, Wheeler and Pilgrim ended up getting stuck themselves in the slushy ice for two hours.

"We ended up having to call one of our buddies (Dwayne Humphries) to come down with 300 feet of rope. He drove by and threw the rope off; we tied off and he yanked us out.

"There was a lot of slush around that area because of the hole - water was coming up through and flooding underneath. Once we got about a couple hundred feet away from it, we were fine."

Wheeler said this year has been the worst one the Club has seen with regards to ice conditions in the area.

"There's ice underneath but there's a lot of slush and slob everywhere, more than usual," he said.

"There have been a lot of people getting stuck in odd places where there shouldn't be any slob. Normally, where the Groomer went through, the ice there is frozen to the bottom.

It's one of those odd years."

Wheeler says while the club is now without a groomer, they are just happy that the men made it out of the situation and are still here today.

"It's unfortunate to lose a machine like that but the good thing is the boys made it out okay and they are safe."

The groomer model that's now resting underwater is known as a Piston Bully, or PB 200. It's one of three machines hat are used to groom the snowmobile trails in the area.

Wheeler says it will be Spring before efforts are made to recover t he groomer.

"There's a company in town that has the inflatable air bags that we can use to float it off the bottom, hook it to a boat and drag it across to the dock."

Meanwhile, the Grand River Snowmobile Club has contacted with the Department of Environment to recover two fuel cans that were located on the back of the machine.

When asked whether the two existing groomers will be used to operate on the ice, Wheeler said, "Probably not for a little while. Not ‘til we get down and do some more measurements and make sure everything is frozen the way we want."

In the meantime, he said, the operators will still be going into the trails to do the grooming.

"We are still going to be operating. There are a lot of people thinking we are done but we're not. Now we have two (groomers), they are a little bit older and smaller but we can still do the job around town and the outlined trails."

When asked about safety concerns in regards to groomers travelling across the ice, Wheeler said it's a big risk people take.

"Even though we measure the ice and do whatever we can to be safe, you still can't trust the ice that much. There's still going to be bad spots and stuff like that."

Wheeler said the club will examine safety before taking the groomers out on the ice.

"The biggest thing we worry about with those groomers is the ice thickness.

"We've been down on two previous occasions with the ice augers and measured the ice. The first time it was late December or early January. From the dock over to Groves Point we measured about 18 inches of ice and then about a week and a half ago another individual was down and measured the ice from the Portage across to Wilburn Bay and he measured anywhere from 20 to 22 inches of ice, which is more than enough we need for the groomer."

Wheeler says the minimum requirement of ice thickness for the PB 200 Groomer to operate on is 20 inches.

"I think we just hit a bad spot in the ice. I mean, even if we went and drilled holes all along the trail, we still could have missed it. It's just one of those years when the ice seems to be fairly good everywhere but it's not."

Wheeler said the Grand River Snowmobile Club is hoping that people will stay up to date on the ice conditions before heading out for a ride.  

"We are asking people right now to stay away from the bottom area of the Terrington Basin because there is a lot of slush there and the hole."

The area around the ice hole has been marked with cautionary tape.

Wheeler also encourages the public to check the Grand River Snowmobile Club Facebook page for updates regarding the areas the groomer is covering, ice thickness and other safety precautions as it relates to snowmobiles and trail conditions.

Wheeler said the replacement of the groomer vehicle is now under review with the insurance company.

Organizations: Grand River Snowmobile Club Facebook, Department of Environment

Geographic location: Wilburn Bay, Happy Valley, Goose Bay Terrington Basin Otter Creek Groves Point

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