Snowmobiling is a popular activity on Portage Lake, but there are some parts of the lake with ice that can be unpredictable. Credit: John Clarke Russ / BDN

Early March of 1996 was cold and snowy in western Aroostook County. Snowmobile trails were in great shape, and people from all over New England were enjoying some late-season riding opportunities. I remember having worked on a Friday when it was snowing hard with high winds. I got home and was watching a little Class A high school basketball on TV that evening when the phone rang and it was time to saddle up — a search and rescue for two snowmobilers was brewing. It would prove to be a challenging and taxing weekend.

I was a Maine game warden assigned to the Masardis district and lived in Ashland, in the old Chasse house on the Wrightville Road. I spoke to neighboring game warden Jimmy Dumond of the Portage Lake district on the telephone. He explained that two snowmobilers had left the Overlook Motel in Eagle Lake that morning destined for Baxter State Park via Interconnecting Trail System 85. A member of the party that had remained at the motel reported the men overdue. Jimmy instructed me to go to Oxbow, unload my snowmobile and search to Ashland. He was going to start in Eagle Lake and search south to Portage Lake. He had already spoken to snowmobilers that had travelled between Ashland and Portage that hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary.

Sergeant Brian Gray dropped me off in Oxbow. As I was preparing to leave, I saw the trail groomer approaching. Carl Sherman was the operator. I spoke to him and he said he’d been to Shin Pond and back and hadn’t seen anyone broken down along the trail or fitting the description of the two we were looking for. We knew that other game wardens were searching south of us and relayed this information to them.

I ran my route and Jimmy ran his. He reported seeing fairly fresh snowmobile tracks that left the main Portage Lake trail and headed toward the outlet. He followed them and found where they had turned around across from Mosquito Brook and headed back toward town. The outlet of Portage Lake meanders through an area known as the Floating Islands. It is a treacherous area as the current causes the channel to remain open or barely frozen. There had been various mishaps there over the years.

By midnight, the initial hasty search of ITS 85 between Eagle Lake and Baxter State Park had been conducted with no sign of the lost men. We worked through the night, checking various motor lodges, eating establishments and bars for clues. It was common in those days for snowmobilers to sign in at these locations. It was a crude accounting system but sometimes yielded information as to people’s whereabouts.

The search effort ramped up considerably by Saturday morning. The snow had stopped. Wardens were called in from all over northern, central and Down East Maine. Additionally, multiple snowmobile clubs and volunteers were mobilized and the search area was expanded. The Ashland headquarters of the Maine Warden Service became the command post for the very large search that had developed.

The Warden Service search and rescue overhead team was handling the planning and logistics of the search. I was impressed with some of the details they had researched, such as the size of the gas tanks on the models of snowmobiles the men were on. This potentially factored in on how far the pair could travel.

In the afternoon, Warden Dan Glidden of the Ashland district and I were snowmobiling south of Oxbow, looking for intersections where perhaps the men had made a wrong turn in the storm. We found two sets of tracks that veered off the main trail, headed east and crossed Route 11. We speculated that maybe the men had gone that way, into the St. Croix Lake country and gotten stuck or run out of gas. We radioed pilot Gary Dumond to run the tracks out for us. Gary was a retired warden pilot but still flew for us as an alternate or backup pilot. He was, and still is, a very accomplished aviator. Gary was soon overhead and picked up the tracks. He had hardly gotten out of view when he radioed back to Dan and I.

“It’s not them. You’re looking for two Polaris snowmobiles. One of those tracks was made by a Yamaha.”

We didn’t second guess him. Gary knew snowmobiles and had exceptional eyesight.

By late afternoon, some significant information had developed. A resident of Portage Lake reported that two snowmobilers had come into their yard, knocked on the door and asked directions on how to get back to town. The homeowner provided directions and the men left in the snowstorm. Wardens were sent to the residence to interview the homeowner. There were some snowmobile tracks still visible in a windswept area. They were consistent with a Polaris snowmobile, as were the headlights described by the resident. That property was on the East Cottage Road – not too far from the Floating Islands. The search area was becoming more specific.

Night fell and the searching continued. I was paired up with Warden Scott Osgood, who had been sent up to assist from the Springfield district. It was three or four hours after dark and we were riding along the ITS 85 corridor near Mosquito Brook. I was so tired I was nodding off while driving my snowmobile. I hadn’t slept for almost 40 hours. I stopped my sled and asked Scott to take the lead — perhaps following his tail light would keep me awake.

We met up with Jimmy and local resident Wayne Gagnon. Jimmy wanted to check the Floating Islands again. We searched around the shoreline, being careful of the open water areas. We finally called it off for the night around 11 p.m. I agreed to meet Jimmy first thing the next morning to fly over the area with him and pilot Alan Ryder.

It was cold that night. The temperature was 35 degrees below zero on Sunday morning. We met Ryder and flew over the Floating Islands. It was so cold the open water had skimmed over. We circled the area but did not observe anything of interest. The snow and wind from Friday evening had effectively covered any tracks out in the open. We went to the Ashland HQ and Jimmy made his case to the overhead team that the outlet of Portage Lake, where there had been open water on Friday, needed to be checked by the dive team. Deploying divers without concrete evidence was not in accordance with protocol, particularly on under-ice dives. However, Jimmy was persuasive. As a 23 year veteran of the Warden Service, he also had a lot of credibility. The dive team agreed to put some divers in the water.

Jimmy and I returned to Portage and went into Dean’s Motor Lodge. There were two helicopter pilots from the Army National Guard inside. They were slated to fly later in the morning. Jimmy briefed them and convinced them to start in that treacherous outlet area. They ended up doing just that. As they hovered over the channel, the newly formed skim ice broke up and cleared away.

The pilots could see a snowmobile helmet on the bottom of the lake.

The Warden Service dive team searched the area and later that day recovered the bodies of both men. The next day, retired Warden John Robertson, local guide Nick Curtis, Jimmy and I recovered the snowmobiles. It was a tragic ending to a tremendous search and rescue effort. It is likely the men had perished before they were even reported overdue. Our best theory was based on the track evidence where the two sleds had turned around near the outlet and the account of the homeowner.

We believed that the men headed back toward town after losing the trail on the lake and receiving directions from the Portage resident. We think they tried to go up the lake in the snowstorm again, but got off the trail a second time. This time, however, they ended up entering the thin ice and open water. It had snowed and drifted too much to readily observe any tracks leading directly to the open water, though.

Jimmy retired that fall and I transferred to the Portage Lake district. I bought a house on the East Cottage Road, about a mile from the Floating Islands, the following year. For the 10 winters I worked in the area, we marked both ends of that particular section, well away from the actual hazardous area, with orange plastic snow fence. Local residents and snowmobilers often assisted with this effort. I only know of one snowmobiler that went through the ice there during that time who survived.

It is hard to know how many people avoided danger due to our efforts, but I would like to think we made a difference.

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Jim Fahey, Outdoors contributor

Jim Fahey worked for the Maine Warden Service as a seasonal dispatcher, deputy and full-time game warden from 1990 to 2019. He patrolled districts in Aroostook and Penobscot counties.