Monday, December 2, 2013

Lost on the land: a survival story

There have been a couple of wild stories in the northern news lately about hunters who have gone missing during snow storms while out on the land, such as the man from Baker Lake who was missing for three days or the father and son from Quaqtaq who were stranded under their sled for two days. It's a tragic risk that all hunters face here in the North, and just last week, Cambridge Bay dealt with its own near-tragedy when two hunters, a man and his nephew from our communities did not return as scheduled when they went out on the land.

I got to hear the full story from the hunter's father and grandfather when I attended church on Sunday.  When the pulpit was opened up to testimonies, he went up and opened his testimony with a prayer in Inuinnaqtun.  Then he told us the story.

The two hunters had gone out in the morning towards Starvation Cove on their snowmobile. It was cold that day, even for Nunavut. For some reason, their snowmobile ran out of gas, and they were stranded.  They began walking back towards town. After a while, they checked with their GPS and realized that they were walking in the wrong direction. They corrected their course. The weather got worse. They still had a long way back.

Meanwhile back in town, their families had noticed that they had not returned. The grandfather began asking around if anyone had seen them. "Our boys gone out this morning about 9;30 they went towards Starvation cove.anyone seen them out there," he posted on the Facebook news group. Eventually, their concern turned to alarm and they alerted Cambridge Bay's Search and Rescue Team.

It was pretty amazing to see the community support that was rounded up very quickly. For example, this online thread shows how so many people jumped immediately to offer their prayers and also volunteer to look for them, risking their own safety and lives in the winter weather.

 Out on the land, the hunters were becoming exhausted. They decided to stop walking and rather wait for rescuers to reach them.  Using their snow knives, they dug a tunnel in the snow to create a shelter for themselves in the ground.  There, they sat and waited.

One of the biggest worries that people have in these situations is hypothermia, of course.  The tunnel was protecting them a bit from the cold wind, but the temperatures were still in the minus thirties without the windchill. They would have to be rescued soon.  They would have to stay warm until they were rescued.

At one point, they heard a plane in the sky overhead. They knew it was their chance to be saved.  They stood outside their snow shelter and shot their flare gun into the air - but the plane did not see them.  It was difficult to spot the flares in broad daylight, against a white snowy landscape.  They tried it a few more times, nervous about running out of flares, but the plane flew away, to their disappointment.  

At this point, they were trying to keep their spirits up, but they were tired.  They were afraid of falling asleep and never waking up, or missing the chance to alert other rescuers of their presence.  They decided to sleep in shifts. One would keep watch while the other slept. They would take turns.  But they were exhausted, and fatigue can cloud your judgment, decreasing your vigilance. Soon the watcher fell asleep, and they both slept.

One hunter awoke and realized that he had fallen asleep. "Uncle!" he said.
The other hunter woke up. "Yes?"
"We must stay awake!"
But soon, they both fell asleep again.
The hunter woke up again. "Uncle!" he said.
This time, there was no answer.
"Uncle!" he called again, more frantically. "Uncle! Uncle!" 
Finally the other hunter responded. "What?"

They were hearing the sounds of snowmobiles' roaring motors nearby.

They ran out of their shelters and waved the snowmobiles down.  It was the rescuers, who had been searching for the hunters for hours and hours, trying to follow their trail.  By some miracle, in the middle of the vast Arctic wilderness that is Nunavut, the rescuers had found them.  They had been missing for two days.

Meanwhile, the grandfather narrating this story was at home praying.  The telephone rang.  The hunters, his son and his grandson had been found! He awaited their return to the family home, fearful of the terrible condition they might be in after this huge ordeal.

"Instead," the grandfather told us during the church service, "when they came home, they looked healthier than I was!"

I'm glad this story has a happy ending.  Sometimes these stories do not have a happy ending. It seems that stories like this happen far too often, especially this time of the year.  It's amazing to me when I hear about these rescues.  If you think about how huge Nunavut is, and how sparsely populated it is, it's a miracle to me that people can be found when they go missing.