Woman rescued from Cape Breton snowshoe trail calling for better signage

Heather Smith and Karen Soria sit between two of their rescuers. (Submitted by Heather Smith - image credit)
Heather Smith and Karen Soria sit between two of their rescuers. (Submitted by Heather Smith - image credit)

One of the two women saved from a snowshoe trail in northern Cape Breton over the weekend is applauding her rescuers, but raising concerns about the lack of signage in the area.

Heather Smith, her wife Karen Soria, her son and his partner were visiting Cape Breton from the Annapolis Valley to enjoy some winter activities during the Heritage Day long weekend.

While Smith's son went snowboarding, she and Soria decided to go snowshoeing at Ski Cape Smokey, a ski resort in Ingonish, N.S.

The women, who are both former Canadian Armed Forces members, said they were prepared for the weather. They wore layers and clothing rated for freezing temperatures. They also checked to make sure they'd have cell service on the trail.

Submitted by Heather Smith
Submitted by Heather Smith

Although Smith said staff encouraged the couple to go off the designated snowshoe trail to visit a look-off, they wanted to play if safe, sticking to the marked 1.6-kilometre trail.

Despite their precautions, Smith said the lack of signs at Ski Cape Smokey caused them to get mixed up and delayed their eventual rescue.

In need of rescue

Smith said the ordeal started when she felt pain in her back.

"I have chronic pain from an injury in the military when I was deployed. The difference with this is it was a different pain and I knew that," Smith told CBC Radio's Information Morning Cape Breton.

Once they reached Skier Lodge Lake, the couple took what they thought was a marked and maintained snowmobile trail down the mountain, assuming it was a faster route back. According to Ski Cape Smokey, however, they ended up on a trail on Crown land.

As they continued down the trail, Smith found it harder to walk so they stopped. Soria tried to call Ski Cape Smokey, but there was no answer. She called 911 around 3:40 p.m. and RCMP were sent to the area.

Smith said they were initially told it would only take a few minutes to get to them but the RCMP snowmobile got too bogged down in the fresh snow.

Matty Lisowski, a mountain rescuer with Ski Cape Smokey, happened to be out on the trails when he heard the couple were stranded, so he and two friends went out to find them — locating them three kilometres from the snowshoe trail's entrance.

"I would credit them for saving our lives," said Smith.

The three friends lit a fire and gave them an emergency blanket, as well as hand and feet warmers, but Smith said the most important thing they provided was a calming presence.

"[Lisowski] was phenomenal at that."

Submitted by Heather Smith
Submitted by Heather Smith

Eventually, a local snowmobiler who had knowledge of the trails and a machine that could get through the fresh powder, made his way to the scene and was able to take the pair out. It took more than two hours after their initial 911 call to get them out.

Smith was treated for mild frostbite from sitting in the snow and was referred to a pain clinic for her back.

She said everyone who helped her was "phenomenal" but she would like to see Ski Cape Smokey improve its signage and trail markings.

"Had there been adequate signage on that trail, we would have walked out and nobody would have been listening to me right now on CBC," she said.

Submitted by Heather Smith
Submitted by Heather Smith

A spokesperson for Ski Cape Smokey said they are looking at making improvements so this situation can be avoided in the future.

The experience has not dissuaded Smith and Soria from returning to Cape Breton.

The couple has already booked a trip to Ingonish in the fall and will be making a trip to Ski Cape Smokey while they're there.

"We're very thankful to all of the rescuers, to the [registered nurses] that told us about the beautiful trail in the autumn … to Matthew, everybody. It really was a display of the beauty of humanity."