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Rescuer dies, another in hospital after mission

WOLLASTON LAKE, Sask. - The brother of a man who died in the frigid wilderness of northern Saskatchewan during a search for a missing man says alcohol was involved.

Benji Denechezhe said he found his brother Alphonse's body, and his barely conscious search companion, Tuesday afternoon — two days after the pair had set out to look for a missing man from Lac Brochet, Man., just across the boundary in Saskatchewan.

Police say the two searchers, part of the Lac Brochet Search and Rescue Rangers group, left on Sunday. The man they were looking for was found safe by searchers from Wollaston Lake, Sask., but the two searchers from Manitoba didn't return.

"They got stuck on the slush and they were also drinking," Denechezhe said in an interview from Lac Brochet. "Somehow my brother fell asleep. When the other guy got up, my brother was already gone.

"It's devastating. When it's cold and you're drinking out in the bush and there is nothing around, there are consequences."

The 40-year-old searcher who survived the frigid temperatures was taken to hospital in critical condition.

The Rangers fall under the umbrella of the Department of National Defence. They provide patrols and run search-and-rescue missions in sparsely populated areas of Western Canada that cannot be conveniently or economically covered by the Canadian Armed Forces.

Capt. Steven Parker, spokesman for the 4th Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, said Wednesday that the searchers were off duty at the time, adding no request was received to do the mission.

"Our deepest condolences go out to the family and friends of Alphonse M. Denechezhe, a Canadian Ranger with the Lac Brochet patrol of the 4th Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, who has recently and tragically died in Northern Manitoba in connection with a local search and rescue mission.

"We also hope for a quick and full recovery for the injured Canadian Ranger currently being treated for injuries."

RCMP Sgt. Craig Cleary said it appears the snowmobile the two men were using might have broken down.

"There was some indication that the snowmobile was experiencing some mechanical issues," Cleary said. "There is no doubt in my mind that the elements ... did definitely factor into how things turned out, unfortunately."

RCMP couldn't comment on whether alcohol was involved, but Cleary did say foul play is not suspected. An autopsy will be performed to determine the exact cause of death.

Benji Denechezhe said his brother was well-known and liked in the community. The 47-year-old father of five had recently toured with musician Neil Young, opening for him along with other Dene drummers as Young held a series of concerts to raise money for an Alberta First Nation.

Alphonse Denechezhe had been a Ranger for 10 years and knew how to survive in the wild, his brother said.

"He was very humorous," Denechezhe said. "He always had a smile and a joke to share with anybody. That's the kind of person he was. That's what I'm going to miss. Our family is very close. It's a great loss to us."

Regardless of training, Cleary said there are risks for anyone involved in a search-and-rescue mission.

"There are always ... those chances that, while you are trying to provide assistance to somebody else, you yourself could unfortunately be facing a similar situation as these two individuals did on their rescue mission."

— By Chinta Puxley in Winnipeg

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