Dan O’Hara and his family have found 7,335 geocaches over the years.
But the hunt for No. 7,336 is one the 47-year-old Port Colborne man will never forget.
He ended up getting trapped in a hole about 10 metres deep and had to be rescued by firefighters and paramedics Sunday afternoon.
“I didn’t know how deep the hole was … all I remember was hitting the bottom,” O’Hara said.
Geocaching involves hiking and using GPS coordinates to find hidden boxes.
O’Hara, his wife and their son were on the hunt Sunday for a geocache in Thorold described as being only accessible “during the winter months when the fourth Welland Canal has been drained for its yearly maintenance.”
As it turns out, the geocache is illegal to access year-round.
Trying to find it cost O’Hara a trespassing charge — and nearly his life, too.
While walking atop the wall of an old lock from the third Welland Canal — an area normally under water when the canal is flooded — O’Hara fell into a drainage access hole and dropped about 10 metres to the ice below.
It took a 31/2-hour joint rescue operation involving more than a dozen firefighters from Thorold and St. Catharines and Niagara paramedics to get him out of the hole.
Remarkably, he was uninjured in the fall and was able to make the kilometre-long trek back to the road on his own once he was rescued. O’Hara was looked over at the scene by paramedics, then released.
He said when he first fell in the hole, he was wedged near the top but his legs slipped as he tried to get out.
He held onto a small shovel the family was carrying as long as he could, but eventually had to let go.
“I stood back up, gave myself a quick check to make sure everything was still intact and nothing was too bad so I knew I was going to be OK. It was just a matter of getting out of that hole,” he said.
Making the rescue difficult was the amount of snow on the ground. Firefighters and paramedics had to carry large equipment to the scene from their trucks at the end of Seaway Haulage Rd.
They had to walk along a snow-covered access road, through a section of trees, down an embankment, across a narrow section of frozen canal, back up the other side and then through thick brush to get to the hole O’Hara was wedged inside.
There were concerns that more holes could be hidden by snow, so the rescuers carefully followed the tracks made by the first person on scene, Niagara Regional Police Const. Patrick Boal, and O’Hara’s son, who led Boal back to the hole from the road.
“We weren’t really sure what we were getting into … it’s the old canal area and we have lots of holes,” said Thorold fire department captain David Thomson at the scene.
To pull the man out, the St. Catharines Fire Department’s high-angle rescue team set up a pulley tripod over the hole, which Boal described as being about the size of a sewer grate.
“(O’Hara) was fine and talking. He was just covered by snow,” Boal said.
“We were talking to him and we threw him a blanket to keep warm.”
O’Hara said he was feeling alright while he waited in the hole to be rescued.
“I was a little concerned with the amount of people they were sending to get me out,” he said.
“All they really needed to do was send a rope down and a harness and they could have gotten me out pretty quick, but I guess they didn’t know the situation and they had to plan for the worst.”
An Ornge air ambulance was initially called in and circled the area looking for a landing site, but was sent back after paramedics confirmed O’Hara’s injuries didn’t appear serious.
A Thorold firefighter was taken to hospital with a knee injury, but it also wasn’t serious, Thomson said.
Once the ordeal was over, Boal said O’Hara would face trespassing charges at the request of St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., which owns the land where the incident occurred.
Alvina Ghirardi, the Seaway’s manager of maintenance planning and logistics, issued a statement Sunday afternoon saying “this is a very remote location on Seaway property, which is a No Trespassing area.
“As a reminder, the public should not trespass onto Seaway lands. Areas such as the old canal and weirs and watercourses can pose hazardous conditions, especially in winter when they are snow-covered and slippery … It’s not a place you want to be walking or playing around and again, access is strictly forbidden.”
O’Hara said he accepted the trespassing charge, but said he didn’t see any warning signs to keep out.
“Geocaches are supposed to be on public property, or if they’re on private property you’re supposed to have permission to place them there,” he said.
“We didn’t see any No Trespassing signs along the way and no fences we climbed over or through.”