French tourist came to Yukon for a 'real Canadian winter,' and fell through the ice

Raphaële Meignen from Montpellier, France, at Atlin Lake, B.C. Last week, Meignen went for a walk on Yukon's Marsh Lake and ended up in the water.  (Submitted by Raphaële Meignen - image credit)
Raphaële Meignen from Montpellier, France, at Atlin Lake, B.C. Last week, Meignen went for a walk on Yukon's Marsh Lake and ended up in the water. (Submitted by Raphaële Meignen - image credit)

A French tourist in Whitehorse defied the odds last week when she fell through thin ice into a lake, several times, and still managed to pull herself out of the water to safety, unharmed.

"I was super lucky. I know that if you don't drown, you get hypothermia and that's the other danger," said Raphaële Meignen.

Meignen's misadventure began when she rented a car in Whitehorse to go do some solo exploring during a month-long stay with a friend. Visiting Yukon offered a chance to see a "real Canadian winter."

"I was super excited because I wanted to go around, see and, you know, just discover a bit more," she said.

Raphaële Meignen
Raphaële Meignen

She headed south from Whitehorse and stopped at a recreational area on Marsh Lake. It was a relatively mild mid-winter day, with the temperature just below zero.

"It was snowing, so I didn't feel like going into the mountains. I just thought, 'OK, I'm gonna have a nice walk on the lake, it's safer' — haha," she recalled.

Meignen put on her snowshoes and started following a trail onto the lake. She decided to head for a nearby island before circling back.

"It's a nice walk. I was taking pictures and everything," she said.

Strange noises, then shock

Walking alongside the island, she suddenly heard some strange noises, like "crashing ice."

"I didn't know if it was the wind, if it was the snow, or whatever. So I just continued. And at some point, I just fall in the water."

It was an immediate shock. The water below was deep but somehow she managed to keep from going right under and was able to pull herself — snowshoes, backpack and all — back up onto ice.

Raphaële Meignen
Raphaële Meignen

She said she was able to take a few steps before the ice again broke under her. She again pulled herself up.

"Then I thought, OK, I'm in the wrong place apparently. I looked around and I could see that the the ice was not that thick, that solid .... yeah, I was kind of panicked at this time."

She could see houses along the distant shore.

"I screamed. I asked for help, but nobody could really hear me, and I was just alone in the middle of this lake," she said.

Meignen says she broke through a couple of more times, each time able to keep her upper body out of the water. Eventually, she pulled herself out.

She decided to get back to her car as fast as she could, where she had dry clothes and could use the heater to warm up.

"I was praying and walking very fast," she recalled. It took her about 20 minutes.

When she got there, she was shaking more from fright than cold, she figures.

She's grateful for the relatively mild weather that day. If it had been colder, and windier, she might not have been so lucky.

It took her a few days to mentally recover from the ordeal. Physically, she's fine, she says.

Milder winter means different ice conditions 

A week later now, she's a bit embarrassed by what she describes as a "stupid story" that can be blamed on her own careless excitement. She didn't realize that the tranquil lake she was walking on was part of the Yukon River system, where moving water can make for dodgy ice in some areas. 

"It was so beautiful. I just wanted to go out," she said.

"I lived in Canada for a year, so I know you have to take care of the ice condition, weather condition, not to step on the ice [at the] inlet or outlet of the lake. I knew all this but, I don't know, I was just so amazed by the place and the atmosphere."

Paul Tukker/CBC
Paul Tukker/CBC

Barry Blisner of the Whitehorse Fire Department says it's easy to misjudge ice conditions, especially where there's moving water. He also reminds people that it's been a relatively mild winter this year.

"We're not going to have the same ice conditions March 1st that we did last year, March 1rst," Blisner said.

"Generally [Marsh Lake] will freeze, but the fact that she fell in in the middle of February tells us that, you know, it's thawing even quicker than normal or it didn't freeze like it normally would."

Blisner advises people to be prepared when venturing out onto the ice: wear a PFD, have supplies to start a fire and get warm quick if you find yourself soaking wet and far from help.

Meignen has her own advice.

"I would say to get information from people who know about the place, who know about ice, the weather," she said.

"And don't go alone like me."