Parks Canada staff come to rescue of 2 Cape Breton women during snow squalls

·3 min read
The emergency shelter on North Mountain as seen in December 2020. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC - image credit)
The emergency shelter on North Mountain as seen in December 2020. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC - image credit)

A Nova Scotia woman is praising Parks Canada for coming to the aid in northern Cape Breton after a drive along the Cabot Trail took a dangerous turn in stormy weather.

Christina Joe was attending a fundraiser last Monday at Ski Cape Smokey when she and a friend decided to drive along the Cabot Trail to Chéticamp.

Joe, a video blogger from Membertou, spends a lot of time on the Cabot Trail exploring and making videos. Being familiar with how bad the weather can get in spots like North Mountain, she called 511 to make sure the highway was open.

But when Joe and her friend started to make their way up the mountain, they found the weather had taken a turn for the worse.

Car started to slide

"We ended up sliding down backwards, sideways down the mountain," said Joe. "And once we got out of that, we then went to the emergency hut, because there's nothing else you can do besides get shelter."

There are no landlines between Big Intervale and Pleasant Bay, and there is little to no cell service on the mountain.

The shelter where the women decided to hole up is one of five in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, but up until a few months ago, it was the only one without an emergency phone.

The fire Joe and her friend made in the shelter.
The fire Joe and her friend made in the shelter.(Submitted by Christina Joe)

Thankfully for Joe and her friend, a specialized satellite phone was installed in late 2020. After calling a Parks Canada dispatcher for help, the women made a fire in the shelter's wood stove and hunkered down, expecting they'd be stranded for hours.

But within an hour and a half, a pair of park employees knocked on the shelter door. Not expecting help to arrive so soon, Joe and her friend initially thought the two men were also stranded drivers.

The view from Joe's car as Parks Canada staff drove it back down North Mountain.
The view from Joe's car as Parks Canada staff drove it back down North Mountain.(Submitted by Christina Joe)

"They said, 'We're here to rescue you guys,'" said Joe.

"We told them that we were too frazzled from our experience of sliding down the mountain to drive down, so one of them actually got in my car and drove while the other did a lead van ... and we followed them down the mountain."

Joe didn't get the name of the two employees, but said she'd like the chance to thank them for their help.

Unpredictable weather

"It was pretty amazing that they did what they did, and I don't know what I could have done without them," she said.

Joe believes the experience is a good lesson on just how quickly the weather can change in the Highlands.

"I go up probably 30 times a year at least and probably 10 times in the winter for the last 40 years, and I've never encountered anything even close to this," she said.

"You don't realize how quick it can happen until you're in that situation. I thought I was prepared but if the shelter didn't exist and if the park employees didn't do what they did, I don't know what the outcome of that story would have been."

Relieved by rescue

In an email, Parks Canada said it was pleased the women were able to take refuge in the shelter and use the new satellite phone to call for help.

"Parks Canada is relieved nobody was harmed in this incident and that our team was able to provide assistance and bring everyone to safety," it said.

Parks Canada is in charge of closing the section of highway that runs through the national park during inclement weather. That decision is based on the forecast, satellite imagery, and observations from crews on the ground.

At the time of Joe's emergency, the area was open and three lanes of highway were cleared but snow squalls were happening in the area.