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Unsafe ice conditions lead to three snowmobile deaths on Georgian Bay (4 photos)

Changing ice conditions are common on the bay at this time of year, local resident says

A large section of open water could be seen from the shoreline Monday afternoon, not far from where the bodies of two area residents were found in Sturgeon Bay near Victoria Harbour.

About half a kilometre away on Robins Point Road, a snowmobile trail leading into the bay appeared to be frozen and perhaps, create the illusion that the ice was safe for travel.

“It’s completely open right now and the ice moves down the bay,” said Brian Butineau, who lives on Robins Point Road, and gestured towards the area where many sledders begin their journeys onto the bay that's not far from where divers recovered the two bodies in Georgian Bay’s frigid waters Monday.

"The ice changes a lot right here and isn't safe a lot of the time."

Butineau’s driveway served as the OPP’s temporary headquarters after police received a 911 call that someone was calling for help shortly after 6 p.m. Sunday.

“It was super busy with the helicopter flying overhead and lots of lights to help them with the search,” he said. “I was glad to be able to offer my place for them to work from.”

The recovery of the pair's bodies by the OPP’s search-and-rescue dive team coincided with news that a Midland man had succumbed to injuries sustained after his snow machine went through the ice off Midland Point Sunday afternoon.

Police were called to that location after receiving reports that a lone snowmobiler had just driven into the open water while travelling on the ice and appeared to be struggling to swim to safety.

Southern Georgian Bay OPP officers, Penetanguishene firefighters and County of Simcoe paramedics attended the scene and were able to locate and eventually rescue the snowmobiler, who was able 50 metres from shore in open water filled with ice chunks.

Sadly, despite the efforts of numerous emergency services personnel and treatment staff at Georgian Bay General Hospital, 40-year-old William Fournier died from his injuries suffered during the incident.

The names of the deceased near Victoria Harbour are being withheld pending positive identification and notification of next of kin. The investigation continues into the cause of the mishap.

While the bodies were recovered shortly after 11 a.m. Monday, police had to wait for the coroner to arrive to pronounce death at about 2 p.m. After his arrival, three OPP officers helped move the bodies to a waiting sport-utility vehicle and then cleared the scene.

Butineau said the OPP had numerous personnel on hand to try to rescue the pair, beginning just after supper Sunday and continuing into Monday.

“There were guys wearing wetsuits walking along the shore and the police boat out on the water trying to find them,” he said. “They were really good and they worked their butts off trying to find them.”

In a release, the OPP again reminded people to be careful when they venture outdoors since ice surfaces may be snow covered and appear safe to travel on.

“Unfortunately, locally we have not had the kind of cold weather required for the formation of ice required for winter activities,” the release said, “so if ice travel is necessary please check with local residents and fish hut operators before heading out on any ice surface- Know Before You GO.”

“Always remember that ‘No Ice Is Safe Ice’ and you need to be aware of current, past weather conditions and recent commercial ice breaking activity along with checking with area residents who have "local knowledge of ice conditions.”

With Snowmobile Safety Week now underway, the OPP is reporting that six people have lost their lives in snowmobile incidents so far this season. According to the police, about 40 percent of OPP-investigated fatal snowmobile incidents in the last 10 years have occurred on lakes and rivers.