Cpl. Stacy Morton and Cst. Jeff Prevett were wrapping up a long day patrolling the Canada-United States border when they spotted something unusual.
"We were cruising along when I saw a speck out of the corner of my eye," says Prevett, an officer at the Thunder Bay RCMP detachment. "We slowed down, got out the binoculars and still couldn't figure out what it was. So we decided to go into shore to check it out."
The pair had spent the week enforcing customs, immigration and boat safety regulations with the U.S. Coast Guard on lakes that straddle the border between Ontario and Minnesota. Their last day — a sunny August afternoon last summer — had them winding through the remote island-speckled waters of Lake of the Woods, near Kenora, Ont., northwest of Thunder Bay.
There are no cottages and very few boats in this area, so seeing something that wasn't a tree or rock surprised the RCMP officers. As they approached the island, they realized the speck was an overturned boat washed up on a sandy beach. As they got closer, they saw two men frantically waving.
"The first thing I said was, 'are you guys OK?' " says Morton, who's also an officer at the Thunder Bay RCMP detachment. "They said yes, and told us they'd been stranded for three days. They said 40 boats had gone by and we were the first ones to stop."
Three days prior, Bob Brott and his cousin Gary Soucie were out on a walleye fishing trip on Lake of the Woods. They were making their way back to Long Point, Minn., when disaster struck.
As they steered their 17-foot fishing boat through choppy waters with waves three to four feet high, Soucie noticed the vessel was taking on water. He checked the bilge pump, which removes water from the bottom of the boat, and noticed it was plugged. The boat was filling up fast.
"I grabbed bucket and started bailing, but I couldn't keep up," says Brott. "The waves were crashing over the sides of the boat."
Soucie tried calling 911, but couldn't get his cellphone to work. They both managed to put lifejackets on before the boat capsized.
The two men clung to the side of the overturned boat as it drifted towards the Ontario border. Six hours later, long after the sun had set, they washed up on the sandy shore of an island.
The next day, they scrounged for food and found an old pop can to boil water in. Brott had a lighter in his pocket, which they used to start a fire to keep warm and signal a rescue. They also built a "help" sign out of branches on the beach, hoping one of the passing boats would see it.
After spending a second night on the island, Brott and Soucie were getting desperate. Many boats had passed on the U.S. side of the border, but they were all too far to flag down. They decided to build a makeshift raft to get closer to the shipping lanes.
Before Brott and Soucie had a chance to put their raft to the test, the RCMP officers made the rescue.
"I've never been so happy to see another human being," says Brott.
Morton and Prevett say the overturned boat was the only thing that saved the stranded men.
"When people are on shore, they have an expectation that they're visible," says Prevett. "But we couldn't see people, the help sign or the fire. What we did see was the sun reflecting off the bottom of the boat that was painted bright green."
Even though the men had been gone more than three days, there were no missing persons reports filed. That's why Morton always reminds boaters of one thing: let someone know where you're going and when you'll be home.
"If it had been another day, it could've turned from a rescue into a recovery mission," says Morton. "The stars really aligned for them."
As for other officers, Morton and Prevett encourage police to stay vigilant when patrolling.
"Look for things that are out of the norm," says Morton. "Pay attention to everything, and take the time to follow-up because you never know what you're going to come across."