A group of French tourists are missing after their snowmobiles plunged through the ice of Lac Saint-Jean, Quebec. The eight tourists were being guided by 42-year-old Benoit L’Esperance from Montreal, and were travelling off-trail between St-Henri-de-Taillon and Alma, approximately 200 kilometres north of Quebec City, when the ice collapsed beneath them.
Two of the tourists managed to stop their snowmobile in time and were able to pull a third member of the group from the water. The three of them then called authorities from a nearby convenience store in St-Henri-de-Taillon around 7:30 p.m.
Provincial police, local firefighters, and Canadian Armed Forces personnel converged on the scene, searching the water. L’Esperance was eventually found and transported to hospital. He died late Tuesday night.
Five tourists, however, are still missing. In an effort to find them, provincial police have brought in boats, helicopters, and divers, searching both the water and shoreline in case the tourists managed to get to safety.
According to the Canadian Red Cross there have been 398 water-related snowmobile deaths in Canada over the last 20 years.
What authorities can’t figure out is why L’Esperance lead the snowmobilers off the marked trail. “If you stick to the State trail, you’re safe,” says Michel Garneau, a spokesperson for La Federation Des Clubs De Motoneigistes Du Quebec, the province’s official snowmobiling federation. “As soon as you venture off the trail, you’re basically rolling the dice.”
FCMQ club volunteers check the trails daily to assure their safety. This includes testing ice thickness on lakes. For a snowmobile, the ice should be at least 13 to 18 centimetres thick. This information is then updated on FCMQ’s website where an interactive trail map shows whether the trail is open, its current condition, and the last time it was groomed.
But the minute someone leaves the trail, Garneau says, they have no way of knowing whether it’s safe or not. “With the weather as well as with currents and stuff like that, you have no idea what’s going on under the surface of the snow. You could have an airhole. You could have a whole wealth of situations, and you can’t identify them.”
To stay safe while snowmobiling, Garneau says it’s best to prepare for the worst. “If you’re going to an area, for example, where you know there’s not going to be cell reception, well then it’s a good idea to bring a satellite phone. You should always bring a basic safety kit with you at all times. You should never ride alone. You should always inform people where you’re going and what time you expect to be back. They’re all basically common sense.”
If you do go through the ice while snowmobiling, Garneau says you need to stay calm. “The error most people make is that they panic. You can actually survive for a significant period of time in cold water but when it happens, most people panic and then they tire themselves out and end up drowning.”