Adventure

A smart, tough survivor comes in from the cold

Peter Carlyle-Gordge July 16 1979
Adventure

A smart, tough survivor comes in from the cold

Peter Carlyle-Gordge July 16 1979

A smart, tough survivor comes in from the cold

Adventure

Peter Carlyle-Gordge

Today, Dr. Reinheid Kaletsch is back in his office at Gruenberger Strasse 64 in Giessen, West Germany, resolutely fulfilling a promise he made to himself while lying semiconscious with a broken back on Southern Indian Lake, 460 miles north of Winnipeg, back in April this year. What began as a month-long adventure tour by truck of the northern Manitoba winter roads became a month-long trial by ordeal when a 15-foot ice mound he had climbed to survey the thawing ice on Southern Indian Lake collapsed. It was in those first few days, during short periods of consciousness, when Kaletsch found his brain was producing a natural pain-killer—at first, only 15 pain-free minutes a day but gradually extending to two hours—that he made a mental note to do research on this endorphin phenomenon when he returned to his medical practice. He never once doubted that he would return.

Rescued from the Valley of the Shadow and lying on the bed of Room 19 at Winnipeg’s Adam’s Motel on June 1, his sun-bronzed neck in a cast, 50-yearold Kaletsch could afford to laugh at the fact he hadn’t prayed once during that long month: “I am a religious man but not in a formal sense. I figure that if you don’t normally pray when things are going well,you won’t fool God by suddenly kneeling when you need him.” Though he claims he was never afraid of dying, Kaletsch admits he was lucky and also well-organized.

A less logical, more excitable man would almost certainly have been dead. Kaletsch didn’t lose his cool once, despite a broken back, fractured skull and twisted ankle. His brush with oblivion began April 24, after he had said goodbye to son Kai, a Grade 10 student at the exclusive St. John’s-Ravenscourt school in Winnipeg where he has come to learn English. Borrowing a half-ton truck and two dogs from friends at Sclater, 220 miles north of Winnipeg, Kaletsch set out to fulfil one of his life’s ambitions: crossing a large frozen lake by truck. His cameras were busy as he sped across Southern Indian Lake, but

then came the loud ominous crack of breaking ice. “An Indian had warned me it was becoming unsafe, so I climbed the mound to find a safe route and take some more pictures.” That was 10 a.m., April 24. His next memory is of two warm, wet tongues licking his face, blood oozing from his nose and ears, and terrible pains in his back, chest and stomach. It was 4 p.m. His icy vantage point had collapsed beneath him and he had lain unconscious for six hours. His ears were frostbitten and his face sunburned. A painful self-examination confirmed two fractured vertebrae: “As a doctor I knew I’d have to lie quite motionless and avoid dislocation,” he recalls. “The greatest danger would be to

panic.” He didn’t. Crawling carefully into the back of the grey truck, he made a nest from five sleeping bags and threw a 100-pound bag of pig livers out so dogs Blondie and Simba wouldn’t starve.

Though well-stocked with food and pain-killers, he avoided the latter: “I knew they would increase the risks by lowering my resistance.” The next three days were spent deliriously, his main concern being to swig water and orange juice to keep his kidneys working. By the time he was found a month later, he had lost 32 pounds.

Survival depended on not a drop of energy being wasted. During his long painful resting periods he plotted his every move in detail.

The first problem was to stay dry: condensation from his breathing and body heat, coupled with -20°C temperatures at night, were turning his nest into an ice palace: “I was anxious to keep my clothes dry and avoid the freezing rains I’d read about.” At the back of his mind lurked another anxious thought: he had promised to phone his son in Winnipeg at noon, May 24, to let

him know all was well. His determination to do so helped keep him going, even when his treasured water tank froze. He solved that one by pulling it into his sleeping bag to thaw it with body heat.

After eight days, satisfied he could risk some movement, he crawled out and set up a tent in a sheltered spot 55 yards inside the bush. Condensation and icy dampness still plagued him, so he began notching small logs in his pain-free periods and spent a week building a narrow log cabin about the size of a single bed. Finding a rusted-out stove in the bush, he improvised a chimney from four empty orange juice cans and set it up in his cabin. After two weeks he was able to work for an hour, rest for IV2 hours, then work some more. He tried to attract passing planes with smoke bombs, but failed.

After three days in his makeshift cabin, the phone call to his son began to prey on his mind. He decided to try to move. His map showed a hydro line about five miles away, which would lead to South Bay and—hopefully—help: “All I could think of was that if I reached the power line I could set fire to it or damage it and attract attention. It was my only hope because it’s a remote area.”

On May 17, five weeks after his painful adventure began, he set out, travelling for short periods early in the morning, resting, then slowly walking farther.

With scarves and laces, he improvised reins for the two dogs, so they could pull the child’s toboggan which bore his essential supplies. Most of these had to be ditched as melting snow made progress harder and slower. Finally even his expensive cameras were abandoned.

When he reached his goal May 24, he found no power lines, merely a cutting for one. It had never been completed: “It was disappointing and I only had crackers left to eat, but I saw an old hydro construction camp in the distance.”

A man-made canal, too wide to cross without a raft, separated him from the camp. But then he remembered sighting some abandoned oil drums on his weary travels. Laced together, they would make a raft. It was while he was going in search of them that the helicopter buzzed overhead. Like the others, it was blind to his smoke bomb and flares, but it landed nearby to let out three hydro surveyors. Kaletsch screamed at them over the wind and over the canal and the stunned trio picked up him and the dogs. He made the call to son Kai at noon from a nearby Indian reservation. He was an hour late: “My watch was still on standard time but Manitoba had switched to summer time.”