12/31/2014 07:09 EST | Updated 03/02/2015 05:59 EST

Quebec family stranded in car overnight during Christmas Day snow storm

A Cree family in the James Bay region of Quebec is counting their lucky stars after being stranded in a car overnight on Christmas day in a howling snow storm.

Twenty-seven year old Alice Pepabano, her four-year-old daughter Isabella, brother Tyrone and sister Trifona left the community of Chisasibi, 17 hours north of Montreal, at 1 p.m. on December 25 to go visit family in Nemaska.

The trip normally takes about five or six hours.

But last Thursday, it took more than 24 hours and a snowmobile search and rescue by Hydro-Quebec workers at the nearby Eastmain 1 (EM-1) Hydroelectric complex.

When the family left Chisasibi it was snowing already, though the conditions were okay.

"It was already snowing, but just a little bit," said Pepabano. 

Emergency supplies 

Pepabano didn't have a shovel or emergency supplies in the car except for sandwiches, but she did have a hockey stick.

She says the stick came in handy when they got stuck on the access road to Eastmain-1.

"I noticed the weather got worse and the wind had picked up, so I said to my brother Tyrone, 'Let's turn around and sleep at the [rest stop] at kilometre 381 on the James Bay Highway."

The group had just turned around from a planned stop and visit with Isabella's father Nicky, who works there at Eastmain-1, when they got stuck.

Twice stuck

After digging themselves out with the hockey stick they made it another 18 kilometres before getting stuck a second time in a clearing.

"There were no trees and out in the open and the wind was strong and that was a snow drift and that's where we got stuck," says Pepabano. "We tried to get out of the snow, the snow was about three-feet high. Our pants were wet and we were cold, so we decided to give up and get back in the car."

After drying their clothes on the car heater they tried again to dig themselves out but it didn't work.

It was at that point Alice says she started to worry.

"The kids were fine, but [me and Tyrone] were worried and started pondering what to do next," she said. 

There is no cellular service on that part of the territory, but Pepabano's family had begun posting on a James Bay Highway road conditions Facebook page.

Stranded overnight

By the next morning, Isabella's father Nicky had left Eastmain-1 with some of his colleagues to look for the family.

Alice says she breathed a sigh of relief, when she saw someone approaching the car around 1:30 p.m. on December 26.

"I was really happy to see someone coming," said Pepabano.

"I was about to take a nap, the gas went down fast so I told my brother I'll sleep before we ran out of gas because we won't be able to sleep after, I also prayed and asked God to please send someone to rescue us, take care of us and keep us from being cold."

The family was taken one by one by snowmobile to the main highway and then to Eastmain-1.

Weather warnings 

The fire chief of the nearby community of Eastmain says people like Pepabano need to be more aware of the weather conditions before they set out.

"As community emergency departments, we can't just deploy rescue and search team, during heavy winter storms. We don't want to put our emergency and rescue workers at risk," says Roger Weapenicappo, Eastmain's Fire Chief.

When Pepabano finally saw her family everyone cried with tears of joy and hugged.

Lessons learned

Pepabano says she learned an important lesson that day.

"Always travel with a blanket during winter, warm clothes especially snow pants, something to eat & drink, maybe a shovel too and an emergency kit for the vehicle or even a tarp," she said.

Pepabano also wants to remind travellers how important it is to call or text someone when you leave your destination and tell them where you are headed.

"You never know what might happen and your family could get very worried."