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WINTER STORY

 

It was a stone cold day in January of 2001. Maybe not from an Arctic perspective, but

-18°C at the Toronto lakefront with the humid damp air is a bone chilling experience. I was working for EMS at the time, not ‘Emergency Medical Services’ but the more prosaic ‘Energy Management Systems’. Almost a year had passed since the company started a huge project to supply fiber optic substations with high-tech security systems. Substations are located every hundred kilometers along the Trans Canada railroad tracks from coast to coast and I had already been in almost every one of them hardwiring and downloading our systems - sometimes with Valery, our company’s programmer, sometimes single-handed. Armed with an SUV, rifle, chainsaw, computers, wires, tools and laptop, I was driving through all kind of terrain, having the time of my life.

 

That January day, I was in the Mississauga office preparing for my next trip, collecting parts and tools. It was nice and cozy and nothing indicated what kind of day it would really be.

 

The call came around 3 o’clock that afternoon: a substation in northern Ontario had a problem. One of the doors wouldn’t opened and the client (I think it was NTNT) threatened to walk away from the project if it wasn’t fixed soon. It took me half an hour to collect my tools and spare parts, jump into the Ford Explorer SUV rental that was just outside the door, and drive away on a journey I would never forget.

 

With all my outdoor experience, I don’t know what I was thinking when I drove away to a place that I have never been before (somebody else installed our system in few substations in Northern Ontario). All I had with me was a set of GPS coordinates and from that I knew the substation was some 800 km “as the crow flies”. At the beginning of the journey, the route wasn’t so bad despite some icy patches and snow falling down at French River. As usual, I had my coffee at the Tim Horton’s in Perry Sound’s, filled up the SUV’s tank using the company credit card and hunkered down for the crazy 600 km ahead of me. A trip like this wasn’t out of the ordinary for me, though, so why it was so crazy? Because this time, despite the weather, I didn’t have the blanket, candle, matches, warm clothing, extra gas canister or even the small survival pack that for years I have always carried with me on all my long journeys and hunting trips. Yes… what I was thinking? More likely, I didn’t think at all…

 

The regular, normal route would take me through Sault Ste Marie, and after a night at the hotel there or in Wawa, the next day I’d be at the work site. But of course, that day I wasn’t thinking properly – I realized I knew a shortcut. From my hunting trips I remembered that there was a private gravel road for about a hundred kilometers stretch which would save me at least 150 clicks. Both ways would save 300 clicks and on a long, lonely drive, this was definitely something to take into real consideration. I was passing Sudbury around 8:45 pm. The gas station I was aiming for was located on H-wy 144, about 135 km ahead. After that there wasn’t any open gas station for another 300 km. It sounds strange for the city slickers, but that’s the reality in northern Ontario, especially at night. The gas station was open till 10:00 pm and after a crazy drive on icy route 144, I just barely made it, rolling into the station with five minutes to spare. Full of relief, I faced one more unwelcome surprise - they didn’t take credit cards, only cash. Luckily, I had twenty-some dollars on me and thankfully, that year it was enough to fill up the tank. Well, almost. The tank wasn’t empty; it wasn’t that good a price.

 

By the time I pulled out of the gas station, the temperature had dropped significantly. It was -25° C, with a high wind. I didn’t think about it much, and focused more on having over 150 km ahead of me. That short cut, as I said, was a private road used for logging. I didn’t think that at that hour there would be any traffic and there wasn’t, but the road itself was a big challenge. Just slightly plowed, with no salt or sand, it was covered by solid ice throughout, almost a hundred kilometers. Up and down, sharp turns left and right… it took all my skills learned years ago on European rallies to drive close to 100 km/h. My SUV was going more sideways than straight, but it was sort of fun, especially with the snow banks to hold me inside. I didn’t think of what would happen if the SUV went out of control and crashed in that kind of weather; there was not a soul that would know where I was, or where to look for me.

 

I knew that route from my previous trips, and I remembered one especially nasty turn. It was just after a hill on the top of which was a sharp turn right, and then a steep descent. Now, every time the route went up I was kind of expecting that sharp right turn. And finally it happened. Of course with that speed the car just flew sideways. Right, left, right - the trick is to turn the steering wheel before the car straightened itself and believe me, you have to move that wheel real fast. And of course you never, ever touch the brake. Though it felt much longer, I was going straight again in no more than ten seconds. I reset the speedometer to zero so I could mark the distance to that nasty turn on my way back. I breathed a sigh of relief and finally enjoyed the beautiful scenery flooded in my high beam headlights, spruce under heavy canopies of snow, all black and white and big snow flakes that just started to fall down. Nobody and nothing around but nature.

 

Finally I came to an asphalt route, close to a town called Sultan and after few kilometers I turned left toward Wawa. Back in those days, GPS wasn’t anything like it is today. It was accurate, but it just had an arrow pointing in the direction of the landmark “as crow flies” and the distance to the destination. It was up to my judgment which route I chose to turn right. The only problem was that there wasn’t any route right, or left for that matter. After a few more kilometers, the GPS arrow started to point backwards, indicating that I must have overlooked the turn. I went back and this time I was real careful. Soon enough, a small clearing between the trees and a very narrow route, like a snowmobile trial, showed up in the headlights. In fact it was a snowmobile trial. Oh well, the arrow on the GPS pointed straight ahead, and it was all that mattered. And it wasn’t far, just about 15 km. With a shrug, I pointed the SUV off the main route. Now I was going on the snowmobile trial in Ford Explorer in the middle of the night. In retrospect, it was probably a good thing it was the middle of the night as there was less of a chance of meeting a snowmobile going high speed at me from the opposite direction; those babies can go over a hundred kilometers an hour. Of course, no one would expect to encounter an SUV on a snowmobile trail and that would end in disaster.

I was coming closer to my destination, just a few more clicks. The trail widened somehow into a sharp right turn and as I was coming out of turn, this time going slow, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a dark grey shadow moving across my path, maybe 15 yards ahead of me. Well, there is a God and he loves me. He must. That shadow was a freight train. If I was going any faster, and I have no idea why I slowed down so much, I would have hit that train and that would have been the end of that trip and all other trips as well because I’d simply be dead. It took about five minutes for the train to clear the path. After that, it was easy to find the substation along the tracks.

 

It was cold. The thermometer outside the substation pointed to -25° C. A howling wind didn’t help either. But inside the substation was nice and warm. All systems were working, except one door and it didn’t take me long to discover that the problem was in a proxy mounted outside the door. Whoever installed it hadn’t stripped the wires, opting instead to connect them isolation, which didn’t work so well. In normal circumstances, it would take five minutes to fix that and another ten to check the systems, but in that cold it took me over an hour because every few minutes I had to warm up my fingers inside. They simply didn’t function for any longer than that; they were frozen to the bone.

 

Finally it was over, system checked and working, and I was heading back home. When I came to Sultan – Wawa route, I had a blink of common sense come to my brain to go to Wawa, just about 150 clicks west. But no, why should I listen to common sense? In keeping with my crazy thinking of the day, instead I turned east to go the same route I came. It was 1:40am, I had 260 km to go to the nearest open gas station, and I was in the middle of nowhere with no way of knowing if I had enough gas to make it. That gas station at H-wy 144 opened at 6:00 am. At about 2:30 am I figured I had another 130 or so km to go - I’d be there way too early to count on it. But I kept going anyway. The town of Sultan showed on the left again, and I took the right turn with no sign where it was headed but I was already confident which way to go. I zeroed the speedometer for that nasty turn I was anticipating and after the railroad crossing, the rollercoaster on that icy private route began again. I wasn’t going as fast as before to save gas, maybe 80 to 90 km/h. The turn was coming. Just another 3 km, and then…

 

Everything happened so fast that I had to recoil after everything was over. The nasty turn showed up sooner than expected, and when I came to the top this time with the left sharp turn I saw a huge Christmas tree going right at me with all its lights blazing. It was so close that I saw the terrified face of the truck driver right in front of me… My reaction was instantaneous. There weren’t many options - actually, there was only one: go straight through the snow bank. And that what I did. I don’t even remember how it happened, it happened so fast. All of a sudden the truck was gone and I was off the road, but alive and in one piece. The truck didn’t stop. Maybe the driver thought it was just a bad dream. Definitely he didn’t expect any traffic on that private log route at that ungodly hour. It took me several minutes to get out of shock, then I started to get out of the snow and back on the route. Amazingly it didn’t take long, and I didn’t have to leave the warm interior of the SUV.

 

Oh, well, that wouldn’t be the last time. The near death experience happened to me often enough that I started to get used to it. Shortly afterwards, I was on the route again, still driving under 90 km/h to save the gas and then something happened again! I had seen a shadow moving fast on the right, then heard and felt a bump in the back. Not much, but enough to hit the brakes. Of course I didn’t have a flashlight either, so I turned around fast, using the handbrake. In a moment my headlights shone in the opposite direction and spread on the route, quiet and already lifeless, lay the body of one of the most beautiful animals, the lynx. It had hit the side of the car and was run over by a rear tire. I felt real sorry, but I knew I could not do anything to avoid it. It was just pure bad luck. It would be a shame to leave it to rot, so I took the lifeless body and dropped it in the back of the car.

 

Finally, I came to the cross-section with H-wy 144 and turned right toward Sudbury. It was still before 4:00 am, so the gas station was closed. The gas reserve light on the dashboard blinked and then glowed steadily. There was no other choice but to keep going. So I went. It was the longest 100 km that I ever remembered. I was going 80 km/h and it took me over an hour before I saw the lights of town close to Sudbury where I knew there was a 24 hour gas station. I had that gas station in sight when the engine kicked couple times and stopped. I changed the gear to neutral position and the SUV just rolled quietly through the snowy landscape, finally coming to a rest right at the pump. I know it is hard to believe but that exactly what happened.

 

The rest is history. Happy go lucky, I didn’t stop at the hotel in Sudbury but drove straight to Mississauga. You wouldn’t normally say that 400 km of snowy route was ordinary, but that’s what it felt like, after what I had been through. Around 10:00 am I parked on my driveway in Mississauga, went inside, drop my clothes on the floor and hit the bed. After few hours of sleep I drove to Guelph to report a lynx killed in a route accident. It is an endangered species, so you have to actually show the killed animal to the conservation officer to prove it was in fact an accident. After that I could keep the lynx legally. The story ends here. I guess I stretched my luck a bit this time, but again I was alive and kicking, and that’s all that matters.

 

Marek Mañkowski

 

 

Marek Mañkowski

 Gazety: Goniec , Nowy dziennik (Nowy York)
©Marek Mañkowski