76: Ice Angel

76: Ice Angel

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

Ice Angel

He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.

~Psalm 91:11

With Christmas just a few days away, we were in the middle of a vast wilderness in northern British Columbia in a helicopter, and trying to reach three people on the radio. The call was part of our safety routine. We didn’t expect to get an answer because the trio was scheduled to have been picked up earlier by another helicopter. Suddenly we received an unexpected response on our radio, “This is Rob. We are all done and waiting to be picked up.”

Hearing this I drew a quick startled breath. I knew the exhausted people below us somewhere were now stranded, and in serious trouble.

My husband was an archaeologist, and he and I had a consulting firm. We were under contract to a major oil and gas company to ensure government regulations were met whenever a new well or support facility was built. This required us to physically inspect the location of the proposed site to ensure the new well would not disturb any archaeological or historical sites. We usually did this by helicopter because there are very few roads, and much of the terrain is impassable thick bush. This was to be our last trip before stopping for Christmas.

I was along to assist my husband with the preliminary assessments, as well as take notes and photographs. Earlier that day, a ground crew had been dropped off by a second Bell helicopter to physically inspect and test a site for archaeological impact, tough work when the snow was up to their knees. They would be picked up later in the afternoon by a second helicopter.

It was already winter in northern Canada. The temperature was dropping quickly and we knew that in addition to the group below us being nearly exhausted, they were not equipped for overnight. For some unknown reason, that second helicopter had not arrived to pick them up. (We later learned a storm had blocked its departure from Calgary.) It was -20 degrees C and getting colder.

The problem was, with only two empty seats, we could not fit three more people safely into our helicopter. On this late December afternoon we had enough daylight hours to get ourselves back to base, but not enough for the pilot to fly out again to pick up the stranded group. We had to do something. But what?

“Okay, we have a slight problem here and we’ll get right back to you,” responded our pilot, Dawn. There was no sense in letting them know the situation was considerably worse than a “slight problem.” Finding help in the short time we had would take nothing less than a miracle. In this part of northeast British Columbia the beaver, caribou, moose, wolves, bears and other animals far outnumbered the human inhabitants. I’d been on over fifty flights, crisscrossing this isolated, desolate area, and I knew from experience that spotting other people just didn’t happen. We could fly for hours and not see another human being so the chances of getting help from anyone on the frozen land below were less than slim. In fact, we had been in the air all day and not spotted another vehicle. The team on the ground was more than a hundred kilometres from the nearest post of any kind. I knew they were in big trouble.

Our pilot must have felt the weight of the world on her shoulders as she realized that without the second helicopter we were now in a possibly tragic situation. We were running out of time. Our helicopter would soon have to pull out and head for base in order to beat the rapidly approaching darkness, yet below us, about three miles away, were three young people who would not survive the night in the bush. It seemed we truly needed some heavenly intervention.

Suddenly and unbelievably, out of nowhere a tanker truck appeared below us. What? Where did he come from? We were all stunned! If our pilot could get his attention, he could be the answer to our prayers and our dilemma!

Dawn flashed her lights a few times, and the truck stopped. I let out my breath in relief, but the feeling was short lived, as the driver began pulling away again. This time Dawn pulled up the helicopter and came around the front of the truck, fully intending to come down directly in his path so he’d have to stop. He stopped. Only instead of acknowledging our presence, the trucker began backing up. It turned out he was actually preparing to position his truck to take on some water, as he was out working on an ice road.

Once we were landed, my husband, as the archaeologist in charge, hopped out and, ducking under the still rotating blades, ran over to the trucker to give him a quick rundown of the situation. Next he ran back to our copter and instructed our pilot to go for the stranded crew while he remained with the trucker. Dawn took us back into the air, and once we located the stranded crew we picked them up and headed back to rendezvous at the tanker truck. It was such a relief to have everyone safe, and all in one place. One of the rescued crew then climbed out to travel back to base with the trucker, and my husband climbed back aboard our copter.

With everyone now safe and accounted for, our helicopter safely flew us to home base. When we finally landed back at the airfield we had just fifteen minutes of daylight left. The crewmember who was travelling back on board the tanker truck arrived three hours later. It was such a relief knowing that everyone would now be home safe and sound in time for Christmas.

Some may consider it a coincidence for that truck to have suddenly appeared at that exact moment on a closed road in the middle of a frozen swamp, when time was of such critical essence. And many also noticed how coincidental it was that the trucker, who had been out working on the ice road for three weeks, had only that very day decided to travel into town. But I don’t accept it as “just a lucky coincidence.” We rarely saw traffic of any kind out in the bush, so the appearance of that truck was considerably more than a little unusual. Personally I thanked God, because on that day, His Christmas angels were clearly working overtime in the cold northern regions!

~Ellie Braun-Haley

Calgary, Alberta

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