BIG RIVER, Sask. — Through boot-sucking mud, with prowling timber wolves roaming the surrounding woods, Kerri Canepotatoe, walked 60 kilometres to try to get help for fellow travellers stuck on a back road in remote northern Saskatchewan.
She didn’t make it.
Canepotatoe died of exposure, but it was the discovery of her body by the side of a secondary highway that finally spurred the search that found the other woman and two children left shivering for a week in their stranded car.
Canepotatoe’s uncle, Paul Rabbitskin, shudders to think of what his 18-year-old niece had to face as she tried get help.
“Just thinking about it, driving on the road (Saturday) just about made me cry a couple of times. To see the timber wolf tracks on the road and to think of my niece walking on the road in the middle of the night. It was sad what happened,” Rabbitskin said in a phone interview from the Big River First Nation.
“What she did was really brave to try and get help, to walk that distance.”
The foursome had been driving from Prince Albert to Loon Lake, west of Meadow Lake near the Alberta boundary, when they got lost and made a wrong turn. Their car got bogged down in mud and water on a logging road near Big River.
RCMP have said the stranded travellers tried calling 911 three times, but only got through once to a call centre in Prince Albert. The call was rerouted to an RCMP operational communication centre where it was answered by a civilian dispatcher.
RCMP said the caller asked for a tow truck but it’s not clear if one was sent out. A Mountie was never sent.
Each day the travellers waited for help to arrive, their situation grew more desperate. They began to fear for their lives.
One of the children, 10-year-old Caston Rabbitskin, later told CTV News their car offered little shelter from the freezing snow and rain. “It was getting filled up, water was getting inside the car,” he said.
Their families were frantic.
“We started missing them,” said Paul Rabbitskin.
“Everybody started making phone calls. Ministikwan (First Nation), up here, in (Prince Albert) and all over, the phone calls were coming in. ’What’s happening? Where are they, where are they?’ You know, we started panicking. I started driving down these roads looking for them.”
“I was really concerned. It was raining and snowing too and maybe they rolled in a deep ditch. I used a flashlight, searching these deep ditches. I was going crazy.”
Thursday night — a week after the call for help was made — rescuers searching by air spotted the car. It took them another two-and-a-half hours on all-terrain vehicles to reach the car because of the remote, difficult terrain.
The rescuees were taken to hospital in Shellbrook where they were judged in stable condition. They have since been released.
The surviving woman has been identified by family members as Canepotatoe’s cousin, Melissa Rabbitskin.
Paul Rabbitskin said they were more than just cousins. He said they were best friends and lived together, adding that Canepotatoe was “just like a mother” to the two boys. Melissa Rabbitskin is pretty shaken by what happened, he said.
The RCMP are still trying to piece that together.
Judy Orthner, a spokeswoman with the Ministry of Corrections, Public Safety and Policing, explained that a 911 emergency operator usually determines who needs to be involved — police, fire or ambulance — and notifies the appropriate service. That service then decides how it should respond.
RCMP Chief Supt. Randy Beck said the dispatch system works as a rule, but he acknowledged that “in this instance, there appears to be a departure from regular procedures in handling of a call for assistance.”