By Susan Lowndes
On Saturday, Jan. 11, Dennis Malischewski left his home in Kelvington on his snowmobile and never returned. Searchers found him next to his machine four days later, not far from town.
While Malischewski was known to sometimes stay out overnight on a sledding excursion, family and friends became concerned when he did not return by supper on Saturday and a storm was brewing. They contacted the police and began a small search themselves. They continued searching Sunday, with friends joining them, and by Sunday evening the RCMP had contacted the Kelvington Trailblazers snowmobile club to assist in an expanded search.
“The information we were provided was that Dennis had left Saturday morning to head out to Kim Bisschop’s to pick something up, never made it to his destination, and never made it home,” stated Bart Hartl, the Trailblazers’ president. There was information about where he was possibly headed but not on the route he took; Malischewski could have headed out on three different trails or not on any trail at all. When Hartl was contacted by the RCMP Sunday evening, they were asking for help to expand their search because they had received reports that Malischewski had been spotted outside of the local search area.
“They were wondering if there was any place specifically that they should be looking and they asked us to help get the word out. I put a notification on Facebook and a call out to our club members and community volunteers to meet Monday morning so that we could help coordinate a larger search. Sunday night I left the conversation with the RCMP that we would follow up with them about new leads the next morning.” It was too risky to start a search at night and put searchers in danger, Hartl said, particularly when the dedicated route was not known; it is difficult to begin a broad search in the dark. People had already spent almost a day searching between town and Malischewski’s possible destination.
Monday morning, some 26 volunteers arrived at the Trailblazers headquarters, were briefed by police and then, coordinated by Dennis Szafron and Leanne Bisschop, a map was laid out and search areas were drawn, covering as much of the map as possible. Sledders were assessed for their skill levels and knowledge of particular areas so that the right people were searching the right area. The RCMP were also out on sleds and a search plane was called in to help with the expanded coverage.
“Unfortunately, not everyone who volunteers to search on a snowmobile should,” Hartl explained. “Because we were asking searchers to go off trail, which is not an easy task, we needed experienced sledders. When volunteers were asked to help in other ways, they didn’t hesitate, and I want to acknowledge the overwhelming support we received from this community and beyond.”
While they were asked to assist in a larger search, they also continued to search the area where it was suggested Malischewski may have travelled. Clubs in neighbouring communities were asked to go out on their trails to check them and their warmup shelters.
“Part of the problem when you go out on a snowmobile to travel anywhere is that you can take so many different routes. You are a needle in a haystack if you are off trail,” Hartl maintained. “Travel in groups and if you have to travel alone, make sure someone is aware of your travel plans and the dedicated route that you are travelling.
“It is important to check in whenever possible and to carry a simple safety measure such as a cellphone, even on short local trips.”
A snowmobiler with a full tank of gas, and carrying a spare tank, can travel more than 200 miles in a short time, to anywhere.
“If you get into trouble and you are alone and nobody knows your travel route, you are at the mercy of the elements.”
Searchers made regular contact with Leanne Bisschop and, when outside of cell coverage, reported in as soon as they were back inside it. Hartl also described how difficult it is to search tracks, even single ones, that go off by themselves. “You don’t know whose they are, how fresh they are, and in 15 minutes the wind can completely obliterate your tracks.” Hartl was with a group of searchers on Monday when a storm blew up and they made the choice to head back in for safety reasons. “There were times when searching on Monday that we couldn’t see more than 100 feet because a storm blew in. Snow came straight down and covered our tracks. When we got out of the bush, any track we had made going in was gone.”
He does not feel they could have changed the outcome by employing different techniques, but emphasized that more safety measures should be taken.
“We are a snowmobile club; none of us is trained in search and rescue. We were asked to get out on our sleds and look everywhere and we did. If we are asked out again, I don’t think too much would change.” But, Hartl stresses, as sledders we can do things we are not doing now.
“We are all guilty of heading out on a short or long trip not fully prepared for difficult circumstances. I am guilty of it.”
An important survival strategy, Hartl pointed out, is to turn on “location services” on your phone when you head out. This feature uses GPS and does not need cell coverage to work. While Hartl mentioned a number of reasons people do not leave this feature on all the time on their phone, you should turn it on when you head out and then turn it off when you get back.
“People think that when they are out of cell coverage, their phones are useless. But the GPS on your phone works on a different system and so if you are out of cell range, location services will work. If you have an accident, you may be unconcious but your GPS isn’t.”
Carry a lighter, spare fuel and a folding shovel with a saw. Stay on designated trails, travel with at least one other sledder, inform someone of your dedicated route and stick to it. When you are snowmobiling, the population density is almost zero, Hartl asserted. You are at the mercy of the elements. You have to make the heat yourself. You have to have basic survival knowledge or be with someone who does.
“As a club we want sledders using the trails to be prepared. We want them dressed properly, riding machines that are reliable and travelling within their skill level.” Malischewski, Hartl acknowledged, was an avid sledder and typically would have taken all of these measures. But he was making a short trip out of town and then back, something we all have done, and done off trail, exactly as Dennis did. “As snowmobilers, you are always looking for new areas to play in the snow and that is typically off trail. Any one of us has left home not fully prepared.”
Searchers found Dennis Malischewski at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 14, not far from Kelvington and not far from a road, but he was more than a mile from a designated trail and he was in a hollow.
“The people who rode that area are going to have doubts in their minds, wondering if they did a good search. It is important to stress the fact that he was not easily visible. They could not have done anything different.”
Over the course of three days, Hartl said, more than 50 snowmobilers took part in the search.
Saturday, 10 a.m. – Malischewski leaves, reportedly for Kim Bisschop’s, four miles northeast of Kelvington.
Late Saturday – While Malischewski has been known to stay out on the trail overnight, family members become concerned when a storm blows in around suppertime and he hasn’t returned. The RCMP are contacted. Family members begin a phone search.
Sunday – Family and friends begin searching on sleds and the RCMP contact snowmobile clubs, asking members, trail groomers and the public to be on the lookout for Malischewski. Notifications are put up on Facebook. Kelvington Trailblazers are asked to meet Monday morning with the RCMP to expand the search area.
Monday, 9 a.m. – Kelvington Trailblazers organize a search based on information from the RCMP. More than 26 members of the club and public head out on and off trail. Reports are received that Malischewski may have been spotted south of Kelvington. The search area is expanded.
Monday, 6 p.m. – Searchers return to headquarters for a debriefing.
Tuesday, 9 a.m. – The search continues, with searchers briefed by the RCMP before they head out.
Tuesday, 4:30 p.m. – Malischewski is found next to his sled, near Cody Pearson’s farm northeast of Kelvington, about a mile off trail. RCMP issue final news release after debriefing volunteers and notifying the family.