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If you don’t know the land 'it will eat you up'; Manhunt for accused killers shifts to First Nations community

It’s difficult to rush into York Landing, as police found when the manhunt for two suspected killers shifted to the remote community in northern Manitoba. Thankfully, it is also hard to rush out of it.

After a possible sighting of fugitives Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, suspects in three murders in northern B.C., RCMP officers shifted their focus southwest, Sunday afternoon, from Gillam, Man., where they were last seen, to the York Factory First Nation in York Landing.

Gillam is where the road ends in the region, notably having one road in and one road out; but York Landing, home to about 500 Cree, has an even stronger marker of isolation.

It has zero roads in.

“Our only road comes in the wintertime,” said Judy Sinclair, a resident who lives on York Landing’s shore. “If they don’t make us that road after the ferry stops, we’re stuck here until we can pass over the ice on snowmobiles.

“We’re an isolated community, eh. We only have the air and the ferry.”

That ferry leaves twice a day, most days, for the winding, two-hour journey north to Split Lake, the closest community connected to the highway, Manitoba Provincial Road 280, which is the road McLeod and Schmegelsky drove on to Gillam last week, where their SUV was found burning in a ditch.

It’s only 90 kilometres from Gillam to York Landing, measured along a straight line, but you can’t get there anywhere close to a straight line on the ground.

When word of the possible sighting came Sunday about 4:15 local time — two young men matching the fugitives’ descriptions seen running from the community’s dump by members of the Bear Clan Patrol, an Indigenous community watch group — it took an hour to get the first RCMP assets into town by air.

On Monday, the ferry broke its usual schedule of an 8 a.m. departure, leaving York Landing about 5 a.m., to pick up RCMP officers and vehicles gathered in Split Lake. It eased back into York Landing about 9 a.m., said Sinclair who watched the commotion.

The M.V. Joe Keeper, a 34-metre self-propelled ferry named in honour of a Cree long-distance runner who was a member of the 1912 Canadian Olympic team, can only hold about a dozen vehicles and no more than 40 people.

Along with heavily armed and armoured police officers, there were all-terrain quads, a boat on a trailer, pickup trucks and other equipment.

As Sinclair spoke, a Canadian Air Force CC-130H Hercules thundered overhead, a military deployment to help in the search. It was crisscrossing the area and the deep roar from its engines drowned out her words.

Instead of the ferry’s two scheduled runs, three were planned Monday, to bring RCMP resources from Gillam to York Landing.

Leroy Constant, chief of the York Factory First Nation, said that by the afternoon there were more than 30 police officers in the area, including tracking dogs and a helicopter.

“No updates as to any sightings since yesterday,” he said. “There’s really a huge effort here to locate them.”

Constant said even members of his community who live by fishing, hunting and trapping are astounded the pair might have made it to York Landing from Gillam on their own.

“You have to know the land to get around here. If you don’t, it will eat you up,” he said.

“It’s heavily, heavily wooded area. Terrain is swamp and heavy woods. We’re thinking of scenarios of how they made the trek here.”

He said it couldn’t have been on the ferry. Crew do a careful passenger check and head count before departing. And the community’s small airport, although having a 3,000-foot gravel runway, is carefully monitored.

“They’d be noticed and pointed out immediately.”

Roads are also monitored. Both Split Lake and York Landing are dry communities, meaning alcohol and drugs are not permitted there and road checks regularly search arriving vehicles.

“We have our local First Nations Safety Officers that do searches for drugs and alcohol and just question persons entering the community about what they’re intentions are here,” said Constant.

And although it is connected to Gillam by the Nelson River, he said the route can’t be traversed easily either.

“No possibility, they’d be sucked into the current; they are very strong. You can’t sit on a floater and drift down the river. There are hydro dams.”

Nobody knows for certain whether they did make it to York Landing.

“Officers on the ground have not made contact with the individuals, as such, the RCMP is not yet in a position to confirm that these are the wanted suspects,” the RCMP said in a statement Monday afternoon.

Hours later, there was still no answer.

“After a thorough and exhaustive search, RCMP Manitoba has not been able to substantiate the tip in York Landing. RCMP resources will continue to be in the York Landing and Gillam areas,” the RCMP said in an update late afternoon.

Sinclair said the community is on edge, waiting.

“Some people are scared, I mean, I am.

“Usually you hear the children playing outside. But now — I’m listening — there’s no sound of children at all. No kiddos about at all. Everyone is keeping their children inside. No one is out walking around at all.

“It’s eerily quiet.” Until the Hercules makes its next pass.

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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