Murray Hawse is used to getting lots of snow at home in northern B.C., but nothing prepared him for the whiteout conditions that forced him and other drivers into ditches and onto highway shoulders on Tuesday.
“Northern B.C., we get heavy snow, but we don’t get the wind and drifting [snow] like that,” Hawse said Wednesday morning.
“That whiteout, it was just horrendous. It was an eerie feeling trying to drive.”
Hawse spent 13 hours waiting out whiteout conditions on Tuesday during a blizzard that forced many southern Manitoba highways to close.
Despite poor visibility in the morning, it wasn’t clear to Hawse when he emerged from his hotel in Headingley, just west of Winnipeg, that the conditions were undriveable.
At first glance from his room, Hawse thought he could make it through in his all-wheel drive vehicle with studded winter tires.
On his walk to the vehicle, bitter winds blew his hat off his head and 100 metres across the parking lot. By the time he was on the highway, he was having second thoughts.
“I could hardly see anything,” he said. “There were cars already in the ditch.”
Hawse started looking for somewhere to turn around and head back to the hotel, but he could barely see a thing.
Driving about 10 kilometres an hour, Hawse only got a few kilometres down the Trans-Canada Highway before coming across a woman in a vehicle stuck in the ditch. He slowed down, thinking he would help her out.
“The next thing I know, I got sucked into the ditch too,” he said.
Sections of the Trans-Canada Highway closed bit by bit until more than 400 kilometres had shut down, from Highway 11 east of Winnipeg all the way to the Saskatchewan border.
Hawse called BCAA to report he was stuck. An operator informed him it might be a while before he got help, because CAA Manitoba was getting numerous reports of the same nature.
They checked in 90 minutes later as conditions worsened.
He could barely see past the front end of his vehicle, but at the time Hawse wasn’t that concerned. He had lots of fuel, two jackets, winter boots, warm socks, food and water — everything he needed for a while.
A driver stopped to check in with him around 10:30 a.m. Hawse told him to carry on, assuming support would be on the way soon.
As hours passed, he felt less and less sure.
Hawse eventually realized the occupants of the nine other vehicles stranded on the highway around him had all been picked up and left their vehicles.
He was the only one left.
“I went through the emotions of ‘Oh man, that was a stupid mistake’ — which it was, I shouldn’t have stayed put — to ‘Now I need to get out of this and hopefully this is going to ease up.'”
In the evening, when it started to get dark, Hawse flipped his headlights on. That caught the attention of a truck driver heading east on Highway 1.
“Ironically it was the same gentleman … [from] the morning, and he said, ‘You’re still here?'”
The man gave him a ride back to the Headingley hotel, 13 hours after Hawse got stuck. On the way, Hawse estimates he saw hundreds of stranded vehicles on the Trans-Canada.
More than 400 stuck in snow: CAA
A spokesperson for the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Automobile Association said Hawse’s case was “a really difficult situation” that was helped by the fact that he was prepared with emergency supplies when he hit the road.
“We were dealing with a number of people in that situation. So the first thing we do is ensure that our member is warm, has food and water, that they’re safe,” Heather Mack said.
The roadside assistance program got around 780 calls for help from drivers across the province Tuesday, over 400 of which were people stuck in the snow, she said.
While that’s “not a terribly outrageous number” for CAA to handle during blizzard conditions, Mack said other factors slowed down response times.
Many people needing towing and winching, which takes longer than things like battery-related calls, and highway closures preventing CAA from getting to people, Mack said.
“At that point, we have to work with local police to arrange … when it’s appropriate for us to go and get vehicles.”
The average wait time Tuesday for vehicles stuck on the Perimeter or Trans-Canada highways was about six hours, she said.
People who needed a tow within Winnipeg saw waits of just over an hour and a half. The wait was about 45 minutes for those calling with battery issues.
While the calls tapered off overnight, about 40 cases couldn’t be dealt with until Wednesday morning, a “significant number” of which were likely people stuck on Winnipeg’s Perimeter Highway, Mack said.
RCMP said there were over 100 vehicles stranded just on that Winnipeg bypass road.
Hawse was among those unable to get his vehicle Tuesday night, but he got it back Wednesday morning. It was a little frozen, but he was back on the road heading home before noon.
He said he was glad to be safe, and that he’ll think twice before taking on a blizzard again.
“People should know that when you have conditions like that, they say if you don’t need to drive, don’t. You should listen,” he said.
“Luckily I am fine, and mistakes are mistakes, but I won’t do that again.”