Stranded Overnight at Nova Scotia’s Cobequid Pass

I moved to Moncton, New Brunswick from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia on November 20, 2008 to start my new teaching position at Riverview High School. With only what I could fit in the car, I began my journey alone. It was early in the winter season and I didn’t worry about the weather or the road conditions, but that was a mistake that I will not make so easily again.

I reached the 10-kilometre section of the Trans-Canada Highway, known as the Cobequid Pass, at the height of the first intense snowstorm of the season. Visibility was reduced to zero and I was not equipped with snow tires on the car. I had less than half a tank of gas and I was not dressed for winter weather. I had every intention of stopping at the next gas station to wait out the storm when the road became impassable. A couple of trucks jack-knifed, blocking the road. Several cars tried to bypass them and got stuck, which quickly built a line-up of vehicles and left me stranded in the middle of it all.

A chain reaction started around 4:00pm when a tractor trailer started sliding off the road and another vehicle collided with it. When I arrived at 4:23pm, both lanes of the highway were blocked and several cars were stuck in the ditch. I waited patiently in my car for two hours before worry started to sink in and my stress levels began to build. My grandmother and grandfather had already lost their son in a car accident and they would most certainly be worrying about me. I should have been arriving at my brother’s house any moment and I was still two hours away.
Impatient motorists complicated matters by trying to get around stalled or slow-moving vehicles, further jamming up lanes. I watched two trucks attempt to cross the median with little to no success. The highway became a parking lot. People were beginning to panic and when panic sinks in, things become unpredictable.

I had no food, no water, no cell phone, and no sign of help. I was beginning to run out of gas so I was forced to shut off the car. With the -5oC temperature sinking into my bones, I felt a lump building in my throat.

What am I going to do? We must be going to move soon. What is the friggin’ radio station for this area? I’m freezing. Come on…. Get moving.

I fidgeted with the radio searching for some answers.

Why can’t I find a station that tells me what the hell is going on? Where are the snowploughs?   

As if things were not stressful enough, I had to pee with the intensity of a race horse. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and tried to think about something else, which was rather complicated considering I was sitting in the car alone on the side of the highway with nothing to look at except for other foggy, stranded cars. I finally couldn’t stand the need to pee so I needed to come up with a game plan.

My shoes were wet and cold and I was starting to shiver, but I had to bare the outside temperatures if I was going to relieve myself. A van was parked in the outside lane behind me and its lights shone directly on my car. I had no cover from the elements or the possible glaring eyes from the surrounding cars. It was either pee outside of the car or pee in my pants so I opened the car door.

I walked up to the van and knocked on the window. “Excuse me, sir. I really need to pee and I have nowhere else to go. Could you please turn off your headlights so I could pee peacefully in front of my car?”

The man looked at me like I just asked him for a million dollars. “Are you serious?” he replied.

“Very,” I said as I stood at his window in the blistering snow. “I don’t see any other option.”

He responded by pushing the button to close the window and shutting off the lights. I was less concerned by his attitude and more concerned about making it back to my car and relieving myself.

I searched outside of my car for the appropriate place, but etiquette seemed to be blown away with the howling winds.  I opened the back and front passenger doors to the car and squatted in between the two doors. I had one napkin on hand, but it was better than nothing. When the cold air hit my bare bottom, I forgot about the other vehicles and concentrated on getting the job done, and not peeing on myself of course.

I sat back in the car, wet and cold. I knew I was going to be in for a long night.

By 9:00pm, I was sick to my stomach worrying about my family; the lack of food probably played a small role in my turning stomach as well. I scanned the other cars for prospective cell phone users. My first option was a tractor trailer parked directly behind me; it certainly wasn’t my first choice. My second option was a minivan parked in the passing lane. It seemed like a good choice. Minivans are synonymous with family people. Maybe they would understand my predicament. I tried looking in the windows to see if I could make out shapes or people, but it was to no avail. I was going to have to get out of the car again.

I tried to prepare myself for the short journey to the minivan. Only ten minutes before, my shoes were cold and damp from walking in the snow, but now they were frozen and hard from the ice. My feet tingled as I tried to push them into the shoes. If I was not so worried about my family, I wouldn’t have thought about getting out of the car.

I knocked on the driver’s side window and waited impatiently. A young woman with a panicked look on her face cracked the window slightly. Her eyes gazed through the slit in the window and she said, “Yes.”

I tried to remain calm as I spoke. “Hello. Do you have a cell phone that I could use? My family is probably worried sick about me. I should have been home three hours ago.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t have a phone,” she replied. She was only wearing a T-shirt and shaking uncontrollably. Her eyes were red and glossy and she tried to avoid eye contact.

“Well, thanks anyway,” I said. I was about the walk away when I caught a glimpse of two children in the van. They were huddled together with their mom’s jacket draped over their bodies. The mother sealed the window shut, but I could hear her cries even over the howling wind. I turned back toward the van and knocked on the window once again. The mother was hesitant to let any more heat escape from the vehicle this time. She looked up from her seat but she didn’t crack the window.

I yelled through the glass, “I have some towels in my car. Do you want them to put over your children?”

The mother couldn’t hide her emotions as she spoke, “Yes, please. I don’t know what to do? My kids are going to freeze to death and I’m almost out of gas.” She replied through chattering teeth.

“Okay. Just one second. I’ll be right back.” I ran for my car and grabbed all of the towels that I was using for heat. I had one bottle of water in the car, which I placed inside the towels. I passed them through the window and the mother finally looked me in the eyes. “Thank you. I really don’t know what to say. Someone must be coming to help us get out of here. What will you do now?”

“I’ll be okay. Good luck.”

I ran back to my car and started the engine for some warmth. I was shaking now and I could barely feel my fingers and toes.

The night seemed to last forever, especially after I gave away my only means of warmth. The gas light came on so I had to wait out the night in a sweater, wet shoes, and no heat. There were times that I thought about sleeping but I worried that I would not wake up. Freezing to death seemed like a possibility, and after sitting alone in a car for ten hours, some weird thoughts ran through my mind.

Can I freeze to death in this weather? Is my family freaking out? Do they know where I am? Have they heard more than me on the radio? I need more clothes. I can’t take the cold. I am going to die here! Where the hell are the police? I have to call my family. I will knock on every window if I have to. They need to know that I’m okay.

When I opened the car door, my fingers hurt from the wind. They were already so cold that I thought I would have frost bite and with the added chill from the wind I felt like my skin was going to burst. I knocked on the window of a Honda Civic and a man flicked his lights as a sign for me to open the door. He was curled under a blanket, talking on the phone.

“Get in,” he said as he motioned his hand for me to sit in the car.

I realized immediately that I was getting into a strange man’s vehicle in the cold, dark night but I didn’t worry. After all, he couldn’t hide from the other cars anymore than I could while peeing.

“Could I use your cell phone? I’m sure my family is worried sick.” I felt an overwhelming desire to cry and I found it difficult to get the words out of my mouth.

“Sure, no problem,” he replied.

“Oh, thank you. It is a long distance call but I have $10. Will that be okay?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Use the phone. I will not take your money.”

I called my sister first. She was relieved to hear my voice. My whole family thought that I was stuck in the ditch somewhere or even worse. They were sitting by the phone waiting for me to call. My mother was so upset that she was going to get in her car and go looking for me. She had called the police and they said that there were numerous accidents. They could not confirm my location or if I was involved in an accident because there were many that they couldn’t get to.

I told her to call everyone in my family and explain the situation. My voice cracked as I spoke on the phone. I was not hurt physically, other than being cold, but I was emotional. I remember saying, “I think I will be stuck here all night,” and “I’m not too cold,” but that was all I could choke out.

It was about 4:20am when traffic started to move on the opposite side of the highway. I instantly became excited and started the car. With the little gas that I had left, I thought it was important to defrost the foggy windows and warm my freezing body. My fingers were too cold to close around the steering wheel and my face was cold enough to make my whole head hurt. The throbbing pain extended from my head to my toes and made everything in between ache. A snowplough, followed by two police cars and an ambulance, drove up the highway on the wrong side of the road. The opposing traffic could not pass the toll booth, which made a clear path for the oncoming emergency vehicles.  Within about 25 minutes, traffic started to move in the other direction. I knew that our turn would soon follow. I was silently screaming with excitement. I waited and watched hundreds of cars pass by. My emotions finally got the best of me; I cried and cried and cried some more. The cold tears froze to my face, but I was too weak and tired to wipe them away. I stopped hoping and speculating when I was going to get out of there and I turned off the car once again.

At 7:22am, I noticed break lights shining through the patches of window that were untouched by the frost. We were leaving! I was so overwhelmed that I started to cry again. There was no need for embarrassment or shame. I was alone. I had been alone for 16 hours. I thought that I could freeze to death, but I was okay, although I was most certainly going to miss my first day at my new school since I should have been arriving right about then and I was still two hours away.

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88 thoughts on “Stranded Overnight at Nova Scotia’s Cobequid Pass

    • Thanks Nicky!

      I’ve lived in colder, more severe temperatures but this was a first for being trapped on the highway without any sign of leaving. I was terrified and concerned for my family because of the worry they must have felt.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment; it’s appreciated.

      Lesley

      Like

  1. Lesley, Thanks for liking my Breakfast on the Run post! Your story reminds me of my years growing up in the Maritimes. I remember brazenly hitch-hiking with a friend, in a blizzard. Haven’t been in a snow blizzard since I left Canada in 2002. Sometimes I miss it! But then, there’s all that shoveling! 🙂 I’ll be back to read more of your blog. Alison

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  2. It is incredible the details we remember in these terrifying situations. I had a similar experience during the “Blizzard of ’77” (I know you are way to young to know about it) travelling from my college in Oakville, ON to my home town of Niagara Falls, ON. Although I was only trapped for 12 hours it was something I will never forget and remember every detail vividly.
    I’m sure we all appreciate you surviving for us because you have certainly provided us with some wonderful reading through your posts. 😉

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    • Michelle,

      The whole situation was terrifying. I never felt more alone in my life. I don’t wish that on anyone. I truly feared that I could freeze to death; that is a memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

      I’m sorry to hear that you could relate to this post, but glad you’re ok.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment; it’s appreciated.

      Lesley

      Like

    • I have some work that is written for a book, but I’ve lacked the time and ambition to find a publisher. In a world filled with great authors and struggling writers, it can be a long process.

      Thank you for the words of encouragement though. 🙂

      Like

      • You can self-publish your book through Iuniverse they have a great marketing program too which is in-expensive compared to the payback you receive from the sales. It really is a fabulous service you can have all the perks and benefits of being with a publishing house AND you get to keep more of the profit! 🙂

        By the way Lesley this was a great yet terrifying story, I am glad you made it out of there un-scathed emotionally, mentally or physically. Thank you for sharing next time I’m in a panicked type situation I will ask myself “what would Lesley do!” ahaha. I always keep a sleeping bag in the back of my car for similar reasons, people always tease me about it but they may one day regret not following suit. =P

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    • The family, mother and children, broke my heart and made me realize that other people were in a worse situation. I knew I had no other option. I’ll never forget that experience, yet I was an adult dealing with it. I can’t imagine how those poor children and their desperate mother must have felt.

      Sometimes we take life for granted but I never want to say, “I wish I had of…”.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment; it’s appreciated.

      Lesley

      Like

  3. Very detailed story. I enjoyed it a lot. People always report terrifying stories from rock climbing, stranded boats, etc. (which they should), but people forget that small things like accidents can make a lot of people confront their lives and wonder if death is coming soon. It is people like you who share these stories 🙂 and remind us of how easy it is to lose everything.

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  4. How terrifying! I’m so glad you were able to live through that and share your experience with us! Sadly it is the dangerous scary moments in our life that keep us most prepared! Thank you for sharing!

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    • That’s certainly the truth! Regardless of the time of year, I never drove in my car again without an emergency pack in the truck.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment; it’s appreciated.

      Lesley

      Like

  5. Well written and this story makes my stomach tighten just thinking about it. We’re in that season now and I don’t like it. My husband had a three-hour drive today and packed the car with a sleeping bag and shovel, just in case. I make him send me text messages along the way 😉 Glad you survived to tell your story.

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  6. Hi,
    What a terrifying experience, why didn’t authorities see if anyone needed any help, especially in those conditions, I assume there would of been a lot of people that wasn’t prepared for such an event.
    I’m glad everything worked out in the end, it would be interesting to know how the Mum and the kids went, it was very nice of you to give them what you could.

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    • I felt ashamed that I didn’t do more to help others in the same situation.

      The Cobequid Pass is the only toll section in Nova Scotia. I think, sadly enough, that there was confusion over who was responsible for helping the stuck travelers and many sections of the road became completely impassable, even by emergency vehicles. Regardless, snowmobiles or helicopters could have been deployed to help us. I’m still not sure why we were put in such a drastic situation and the government never answered for the mess.

      I’m just happy it’s a thing of the past and everything turned out okay in the end. I heard on the radio that no one died, although a man did have a heart attack and a lady went into labor.

      Lesley

      Like

  7. Great story. I once got stuck in massive drifts in Vermont. Not near as bad (less wind, not quite as cold), but the road was remote and I was sure I wouldn’t be found til spring thaw.
    At least you had other (helpful) people around.

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  8. ““Don’t be ridiculous. Use the phone. I will not take your money.””

    That’s a Maritimer for you! When I was living in Toronto, there was only ONE person with whom I struck up a conversation and had a nice chat without any snobbery or pretenses. He was from Cape Breton, too (as is my husband. He would probably jokingly tell me to rewrite that sentence, “He was from Cape Breton, b’y!”)

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  9. WOW! I read this out loud to my husband…scary, scary, SCARY stuff. We try to keep some supplies in our car. One thing I always try to have are candles and a tin (old coffee tin) container–i once read that lighting a candle in a tin like that will provide warmth when stranded. Time to get our kit together for this year.

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  10. What a story! I have gotten stuck on the side of the highway before also, and it was quite scary indeed! I’m glad that after getting towed out of a snowbank on Mount Thom, that I stopped for the night in Truro … shudder to think what would have happened on the Cobequid!

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  11. Mount Thom is always a nightmare! You think there is something they could do about that!

    Between there and Cobequid, I hated driving to see my family in Cape Breton.

    Are you from eastern or western Canada?

    Lesley

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  12. I have travelled from one end of Canada’s prairie provinces to the other in all kinds of weather, blizzards, freezing rain, minus 40, and monster thunderstorms, but have never had any experiences anything close to that, and hope i never do. Quite the story.

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  13. Leslie, I enjoy your writing so much! What a scary, miserable time. I found myself wondering what I would do, and would have probably done the same thing to go pee, and felt some of the emotion that woman might have felt after you helped her and her children. I always have a few blankets and a shovel in my car in the winter now, but I probably should all year round with the way weather patterns are so skewed. Take care, Jerri

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  14. A harrowing experience to say the least. Coming from the Prairies (western Manitoba to be exact) we grew up with the ‘winter gear’ behind the seat of the truck year round. I was fortunate enough never to be caught in a storm, but I had friends that were, and their emergency gear is what saved their bacon. So glad you made it out almost unscathed; this was a well-written story about your ordeal. Thanks for sharing it with us!!

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  15. That must be unforgetable thing happened to you, I cant imagin myself in that situtation, i would have died already.

    thanks for sharing your amazing story to us

    best Regards

    ALi

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  16. That really is an incredible story and I´m so glad you made it through to be able to write about it all this time later. I expect that the woman with the children will never forget you after what you did for them. Amazing.

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  17. …and here I was complaining about the heat!!! Oh my, what an experience! You have a great soul, Lesley, giving that towel to the family. It’s good to know that there are still some of you out there when we need them! Thanks to the guy who turned off the lights, too (although I would just have done it!)

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  18. Thank you for “liking” my Paleo Pumpkin Pie recipe! I just started my blog, so it’s nice to see new readers. =) Looks like you live an adventurous life–gonna go peruse your posts!
    Shanti

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  19. Winters can be so rough! I always complain about the Midwest’s four seasons (well, I usually only complain about one season, the cold one haha), but I suppose there is some good and beauty in it too. Glad to hear that you are okay, and that you were able to even help out others in a time of need. I love your writing style! You keep blogging, we’ll all keep reading. 🙂

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    • Surprisingly enough, I actually miss the snow a little bit; not the cold to the bone chill, shoveling, or icy roads that go with it, but the initial snow fall is truly beautiful.

      Thanks for the kind words and for taking the time to comment; it’s appreciated.

      Lesley

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      • I loved this post. When we are in a situation like this, out of our comfort zone, with a group of strangers, how do we react? A lot of times you can catch beautiful acts of kindness and humanity.

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  20. Wow, it looks like it is as cold or even colder there then in Minnesota in the heart of winter! Last winter we received 82 inches of snow and we live in the city. You can imagine how hard it was to see over the enormous mounds of snow! You could never live here without 4WD. We always pack a blanket and emergency supplies in our trunk. Yet thankfully we never drive anywhere too remote. Sounds like an awful experience!

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  21. Wow! Now that’s an adventure. Glad it wasn’t a tragedy. Hope you don’t have anymore of those kind. Thanks for liking my posts. 🙂 I’ve got to go put my Popcorned Chili recipe on their now. It’s a fun, nice winter treat, that’s easily adjustable to the individual tastes.

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  22. What a harrowing experience….thank you for sharing and glad to know it ended well. In sunny Singapore from where I am, the most extreme conditions are really confined to knee high floods (and that is very rare) or extreme humidly stick!y weather

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  23. Scary story. You were lucky! Canadians spend so much time going from heated house to heated garage to heated work place that we often forget how brutal winter can be here, even early in the season. I had to get off the highway once in a raging blizzard and temps in the -30C range. Spent the night in my car. Because I do a lot of winter camping, I had an arctic class sleeping bag with me, plus a stove for making hot drinks. One can never be too prepared.

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  24. Wow.. that was a terrifying story — I’m so sorry you had to go through that!!! It made me a tad sick to think that I travel unprepared constantly. I’ll be learning from your example and putting some essentials in my trunk. Thanks for sharing!!
    ~A

    Like

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