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Overflow claims two lives

Chris Hunsley
Northern News Services

Fort McPherson (Mar 28/05) - A second snowmobiler in the NWT has died in as many weeks after becoming bogged down in overflow.

Delbert Francis of Fort McPherson was found frozen to death Monday night near the Husky Channel, 22 kilometres from the community.

According to police, the 39-year-old and a friend started out for a nearby camp around 1 p.m. when the single machine they were riding became stuck.

Both men became wet and cold in their unsuccessful attempts to free the snowmobile.

After building a fire, Francis' travel partner went to find help while he stayed put, said Billy Wilson, a resident who was dispatched around 10:30 p.m. to search for the men when they didn't respond to calls on the bush radio.

Wilson encountered the second man and returned him to safety before going back for Francis.

"He was already dead when I got there," Wilson said, noting Francis was just wearing coveralls at the time.

It is believed Francis became confused and disoriented in his hypothermic state and began to undress.

In an advanced state of hypothermia, a person can start to feel the opposite of what they really are, said Chief Coroner Percy Kinney.

"They take their clothes off because they think they're too hot."

Although a few airplane bottles of vodka were found on both men, alcohol is not considered a factor, Sgt. Cliff McKay of the Fort McPherson RCMP said.

"The factor is they got stuck. Flooding and the overflow is to blame."

Similar circumstances are thought to have led to Jerry Julian Betsedea's death. The 36-year-old's body was found March 17, about 75 kilometres from Wrigley.

Betsedea was riding his snowmobile along the frozen Mackenzie River when the machine became stuck in a section of overflow sometime between the afternoon of March 16 and the following evening, Fort Simpson RCMP Const. Bruce Rice said.

Betsedea was hunting about 11 km from the Willow River settlement.

Heavy snowfall

Overflow conditions occur when the weight of extra snow puts pressure on the ice, resulting in water being pushed up between cracks and holes leaving a layer of water, often concealed and insulated between the snow and ice, according to Jesse Jasper, head of science programs for the Meteorologic Services of Canada in Yellowknife.

"With thick snow, the cold doesn't get through so the water doesn't freeze."

Melt off from warmer weather can create a similar effect, also trapping water underneath a layer of snow. The risk then is not from breaking through the snow, but from a snowmachine becoming bogged down in the water.

Around Fort Simpson and northern Alberta, which averages 40-50 centimetres of snow on the ground at this time of year, measurements currently show 72 cm.

According to Chief Coroner Percy Kinney, riders sometimes die when exposed to the elements after their snowmobiles have broken down or become stuck, but he doesn't remember a year when two deaths were attributed to overflow.

"It seems to be a bigger deal this year than in years past."

"We know when it snows lots or there's a big north wind then there will be overflow," said Mary Teya, an elder from Fort McPherson and deacon at the Anglican church, who can't remember an accumulation like this before.

"So if you know there's a lot of snow, keep to the shore. And if there's no trail, don't go into deep snow."

Snowshoes are probably the most important piece of equipment riders should carry with them at this time of year, Teya explained.

Then if they get stuck, they can at least walk back to a trail and the community, she added.

Wrigley elder Archie Horesay said riders should take caution to avoid travelling at night.

"If there's open water or overflow you won't see it," he said. "People must be careful. This year it's pretty bad."