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"SIS" 2008 Obituary


SISI o@ca.on.york_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2008-01-03 published
Search for snowmobilers ends in tragedy
Bodies discovered under the ice as Lake Simcoe thaws with mild weather and freezes again in cold snap
By Anthony REINHART, Page A8
Virginia, Ontario -- At a time of year when it's too early to trust the ice, Darlene CAMERON took comfort when her husband, Willie, pledged to stay off Lake Simcoe on New Year's Day.
He'd just taken delivery of a 2008 Ski-Doo on December 21, and the 40-year-old father of two said he wasn't about to risk losing it, or harming himself, for the sake of catching a few thrills with his snowmobiling buddy, Steve DOCHERTY, 43.
When neither man returned home Tuesday night, any such comfort turned to fear. When their bodies were found under the lake ice off Georgina Island late yesterday, the fear turned to grief.
The discovery of the bodies sent a chill through an already frigid day of searching by York Region and Georgina Island police, firefighters, the victims' families, Friends and area residents, fuelled by the faint hope that somehow, some way, they would turn up alive and unhurt.
"They're responsible sledders, they're not idiots," Ms. CAMERON told Friends inside the Virginia Beach Marina and Restaurant, the unofficial community hub in the tiny settlement of Virginia, a few hours before the bodies were found. "I just can't figure out how two of them can disappear. Two of them."
But, when volunteer searchers on their own risky snowmobile foray found a helmet atop the ice off the island's northeast shore at 4: 45 p.m., police had their first firm clue that the men had indeed ventured far out onto the lake, despite uncertain ice conditions and whiteouts on Tuesday afternoon.
Police searchers descended from a helicopter shortly afterward and found the first body, using poles, in three to four metres of water. The second body was found at about 9 p.m.
It is believed the men fell into a patch of open water, and that the water then froze over as the temperature plunged overnight.
The changeability of conditions in what is still early winter only underscores the danger the men and their searchers faced throughout the ordeal, despite their extensive snowmobiling experience and familiarity with the area, said Sergeant John LOUGHRY, who conducted the search for York Regional Police.
"The ice is treacherous enough that at any given time somebody could be going through," Sgt. LOUGHRY said. "The lake is dangerous, and it's going to stay dangerous."
Ms. CAMERON had not expected her husband to encounter danger when he set off to meet Mr. DOCHERTY on Tuesday at about 12: 30 p.m. A few hours before the first body was found yesterday, she stood shivering by the lakeshore and recounted his last words to her.
"Do you mind me going out for a boot with Steve?" Mr. CAMERON asked his wife. "We're not going on the lake; it's not safe and you can't see a foot in front of you."
With that, the two men headed off, and were last seen travelling north along Sunkist Road - toward the lake.
The search effort included two search-and-rescue helicopters, one belonging to police and the other from Canadian Forces Base Trenton; several propeller-powered air boats, some equipped with heat-sensing infrared equipment; and a pair of police snowmobiles.
Dozens of area residents joined in on snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles to comb trails around the small settlement of Virginia, where both men lived, and nearby Georgina Island, home to the Chippewa First Nation, which sits in plain view about one kilometre offshore.
There was precious little to see on New Year's Day when the men headed off in whiteout conditions.
"It was horrible," said Felicia SISI, a server at the Virginia Beach Marina and Restaurant, on the waterfront where police placed their command post.
"You couldn't even see the island."
Like many here, Ms. SISI knew both men.
"They're my neighbours," she said. "One lives in front of me and the other one lives behind me."
Mr. DOCHERTY's rock band performed regularly at community events, and the CAMERONs came into the restaurant for breakfast most Sundays.
People here are well accustomed to severe winters, and to keeping close tabs on ice conditions, not only for recreational reasons but for practical ones - an ice road is the only link between Georgina Island and the mainland for much of the winter.
That road, however, follows a specific band of shallow water that freezes earlier than deeper waters nearby, as evidenced by the slushy ferry channel just west of it that remained in use yesterday.
"This lake is ever-changing," Sgt. LOUGHRY said.
When police put an airboat onto the ice just after midnight yesterday morning, the infrared sensor quickly began to measure wild variations in its thickness, "from open water to a foot thick," he said.
"Five miles straight out from here, you are on open water - or you were this morning," the officer said, noting yesterday's severe drop in temperature.
While Mr. CAMERON and Mr. DOCHERTY were universally described as responsible and experienced snowmobilers, police nonetheless had to include the lake in their search, based on the men's departure route from home.
"If you're last seen northbound on Sunkist Road, where do you snowmobile from there?" Sgt. LOUGHRY asked, before answering his own question. "At some point, you're going to use the lake."
Police also combed hundreds of kilometres of trails that lead from the nearby Pefferlaw River, a known destination for the two men in the past.
Mr. CAMERON was carrying a cellphone, but hadn't answered any calls since his wife began calling him about four hours after he left home.
With an array of television cameras rolling, her voice broke as she described what her husband and his friend were wearing, in hopes the information might yield clues to their disappearance.
"If anybody has seen them, Steve has a Yamaha coat; it's blue and white, it's brand new, he just bought it at the sled show this year," she said.
"Willie has a brand new Ski-Doo coat; it's yellow and black, mainly yellow with all the reflectors. It was brand new. I just bought it for him for his birthday, at the sled show."

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