FORT KENT, Maine — Paul Lessard does not consider himself a religious man, but said he did plenty of praying in the 20 hours he spent trapped under a snowmobile in the northern Maine woods earlier this week.
“I said a lot of prayers and I have always believed in God,” Lessard, 64, said Thursday night from his hotel room in Bangor where he is recovering from his ordeal. “God has shown himself to me many, many, many times and gotten me out of all kinds of scrapes.”
To say that the Milford, Mass., snowmobiler found himself in a “scrape” this week is a bit of an understatement.
Lessard, who goes by the nickname “Moses,” spends his winters in Fort Kent exploring the northern Maine wilderness by snowmobile, often for hours at a time and on his own.
“Since I’ve been coming up here since 1996, I bet I’ve traveled 50,000-miles [around Maine] by snowmobile,” he said. “I just like to be out in the woods in nature.”
That was his exact plan on Tuesday, Lessard said, when he decided to head west of Fort Kent to spend the day riding to the Deboullie Mountain area before meeting a friend for supper that night.
“It’s just a nice, serene place to be,” Lessard said. “I was going to put my feet up on the sled’s handlebars, sit back and just relax.”
Before heading out of town, Lessard said he stopped in briefly to chat with the owners of Corriveau’s Arctic Cat Plus, telling them what his plans for the day were, a move which later proved to be most fortunate.
“On my way up to Deboullie, I saw this trail I had never taken and, with the conditions being that the snow is so crusty, I was not worried about getting stuck,” he said. “So I turned off on it.”
That trail ultimately lead Lessard to a small cabin near Black Lake in St. John Plantation that is used as a checkpoint during the annual Can Am Crown sled dog races.
“I was really interested in finding that,” Lessard, who volunteers during the race, said. “I went exploring a bit further because I had it in my mind this might have been the old ‘Lincoln Trail’ I had heard about and I had never traversed it.”
Riding at what he termed “a pretty moderate pace” in and out of small gullies created by a recent thaw, the ground suddenly opened up beneath the sled and Lessard knew he was in trouble.
“The next thing I know, I am rolling over and the next minute [the sled] is on top of me, just like that,” he said.
Trapped with his left arm pinned under the sled, his foot stuck in the machine’s stirrup and his head wedged under the rear storage rack, Lessard still found reason to be optimistic.
“In a way, a lot of things were good,” he said. “Between that hole I was in and having the snowmobile on top of me, even though I could not move much I was protected from the elements.”
And those elements were growing worse by the minute.
Lessard figures his accident happened around noon on Tuesday when temperatures were well below freezing. But that night, with the wind chill, they would drop to near zero, freezing Lessard to the water in the bottom of that ditch.
Despite his limited mobility, Lessard said he was able to get to the horse blanket and sheepskin he uses as a seat cushion on the sled and to another blanket to cover himself and use as a pillow.
He was able to use his right hand to dig out a bit of snow and to wriggle his head out of the helmet, he said.
At that point, all that was left to do was wait and hope for the best.
“One thing I experienced in my years in the army was ‘hurry up and wait,’” he said. “So I am good at waiting.”
That wait lasted about 20 hours.
Meanwhile, his friend and occasional snowmobiling partner Nelson Gagnon of Wallagrass had invited Lessard to stay with him for a few days, and was expecting him for supper that night.
“Moses knows I eat around 5 p.m.,” Gagnon said Friday. “I made supper, ate and waited and waited for him.”
By 8 p.m. Tuesday, Gagnon, who had tried to reach his friend by cellular phone multiple times that evening, knew something was wrong.
“I called the wardens and told them Moses had been out riding and not shown up at my house,” Gagnon said. “I told them I really thought something had happened to him and that he rides alone and wanders off the trails.”
Gagnon was able to tell the wardens he was pretty sure Lessard was heading toward the Deboullie area because earlier that day Gagnon had stopped in at the Arctic Cat dealer and the owner told him of Lessard’s plans.
Warden Gary Sibley and Warden Sgt. Jeff Spencer began a ground search by snowmobile that night, covering close to 110 miles in and around the Deboullie area in near-zero temperatures and snow squalls that hampered tracking efforts.
By 2:30 a.m., the search was called off with plans to resume later that morning with additional wardens, volunteers and air support.
Among those volunteers were Phil Corriveau, owner of the Arctic Cat dealership, and his son Tyler Corriveau.
“We were going toward Carter Brook and we saw a track that went in [toward Black Lake in St. John Plantation] but that did not come back out,” Phil Corriveau said Wednesday afternoon. “I was pretty sure it was an Arctic Cat track, so I told my son, ‘Let’s go see.’”
The two men got to the Black Lake clubhouse without seeing any further sign of Lessard, but 200 feet later, they spotted his sled overturned in a ditch.
“I heard a snowmobile and then I heard Phil talking to Tyler,” Lessard said Thursday. “I said, ‘Hey Phil, here I am, I’m alright,’ and I heard Phil say, ‘Holy Christ, Moses, what did you do now?’”
Lessard was transported by ambulance to Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent and later that day transferred to EMMC to be treated for frostbite to his left arm.
While Warden Sgt. Spencer said he had little doubt Lessard would have been located later that morning by the organized search party, the fact that the Corriveaus discovered the hyperthermic snowmobiler assured the happy ending.
“You really can’t describe how lucky he was,” Spencer said. “Phil and Tyler were a very crucial part in that.”
Lessard’s experience should serve as a strong warning to other outdoor enthusiasts, the warden said.
“People need to let someone know where they are going, what route they are taking and when and where they play to return,” Spencer said. “It is never a very good idea to go out alone.”
For those venturing out alone, Spencer recommends always being prepared with the proper clothing and safety gear, including a way to signal for help.
“Cell phones are great for calling for help if you have service, but you can’t always rely on technology,” he said. “Having a mirror or a flare gun or even a flashlight is a good idea since we search at night and can see the light.”
Making a fire not only can keep a person warm, but provides signal smoke during the day and a glow of light at night, Spencer added.
In cases like Lessard’s, when a person is immobilized, GPS devices which transmit coordinates and can send out signals for help, are a good option, Spencer said.
Lessard is well aware of how lucky he was, coming out of the ordeal with no more than some bumps, bruises and a case of frostbite on his left arm.
And he’s learned some valuable lessons.
“Just don’t go where you are not supposed to go,” he said. “And go with a friend.”
He also has high praise for the friends and strangers who came looking for him.
“If it weren’t for Phil and Tyler, I’d have been out there longer,” Lessard said. “What would I not want to say to all those people? There ain’t words enough to say about those people who came out looking for me and for the gratitude I have for them.”
For now, Lessard is in the Bangor area until Saturday, when Gagnon is going to drive him back to Massachusetts.
“But I will be back,” Lessard vowed. “There is no doubt about that.”