MONTREAL — A lack of signage and an ill-fated decision to take an unfamiliar shortcut contributed to the deaths of five French snowmobilers and their guide in Quebec's Lac-St-Jean region in early 2020, a coroner said Friday.
Coroner Jessica Tremblay released her report into the deaths of the six men, who died after several of their snowmobiles plunged into icy waters while riding off-trail.
Tremblay's report said a group of eight tourists and their guide were headed to the town of St-Gédéon, Que., during a paid excursion when they left the marked trail to venture across an area known for thin ice and strong currents.
Five tourists riding single-file behind the guide fell and disappeared into a hole in the ice, while two others fell into a second hole but were rescued by the last snowmobiler and were eventually able to reach safety.
Guide Benoit Lespérance, 42, returned to help the first five snowmobilers but was later found partially submerged in the hole, and he was taken to hospital where he was declared dead.
Lespérance; Julien Benoit, 34; Yan Thierry, 24; Gilles Claude, 58; Jean-René Dumoulin, 24; and Arnaud Antoine, 25, all died during the excursion. The cause of death was presumed to be drowning, with hypothermia as a possible factor.
Tremblay noted that Lespérance was an experienced guide who was generally familiar with the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region.
It appeared, however, he didn’t have a deep knowledge of the specific route he took across the lake, the report said, because surveillance video from a gas station prior to the accident showed him spending several minutes consulting maps of the area on his phone. At that time, he also told a cashier he intended to take the shortened route.
Unfortunately, the route he chose was a dangerous one. While it was impossible to determine the exact conditions at the time of the accident, "it's clear that we find several sections of the river with open water in this sector, even in winter," the report said.
In a news conference in Alma, Que., Tremblay said there were other snowmobile tracks heading out to the lake at the spot where the group left the trail, which might have contributed to a "false sense of security" that the route was safe.
Furthermore, there were no signs warning the snowmobilers against leaving the trail or heading into a risky area, she said.
"A signage forbidding people from leaving the marked trails to take this sector of the Lac-St-Jean which is known to be dangerous could have warned this group of snowmobilers who were heading straight for a mortal trap," she said.
Tremblay ruled the deaths accidental but also issued a number of recommendations to improve snowmobile safety, including better signage and warnings against going off-trail.
She also suggested snowmobilers should be equipped with satellite phones and GPS devices so they can be found more quickly in the event of an accident.
Tremblay noted that the Quebec government has already made positive steps by adopting a bill late last year requiring snowmobile guides and people who rent the machines to receive more training.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 27, 2021.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press