Alone and adrift on an ice floe, teen refuses to give up
by Dawn Walton
Condensed by Native Village

An aerial photo shows a stranded teenager, identifiable as a small speck in the upper middle of the frame, who spent two nights on an ice floe in Nunavut before being rescued on Nov. 9, 2009.

Calgary: Another polar bear season dawned in Nunavut. In Coral Harbour, 17-year-old Jupi Angootealuk and his uncle, Jimmy Nakoolak, a seasoned hunter, set out to prowl not far from home.

The pair had hunted polar bear before on the unforgiving landscape. But this time, it was different. The sea ice broke apart, and the men found themselves on separate, desperate journeys to survive.

Nursing two bad knees, Mr. Nakoolak crawled into the arms of a rescue party two days after the ordeal began. He was rushed to a Churchill, Manitoba hospital.

Still stranded alone on a drifting ice floe, Jupi was forced to shoot a polar bear that was stalking uncomfortably close. He was rescued a day later. 

“He's really relieved to hear that his nephew was found,” Jerry Panniuq, the hamlet's mayor, translated from Inuktitut as he visited with Mr. Nakoolak, 56. “It was nice to know that he had a rifle with him and [I] was kind of worried that he might have been attacked by a bear or something. When [I] heard he shot a bear [I] was happy to hear about it.”

 Mr. Nakoolak shared his terrifying experience:

The men left Coral Harbour (pop. 769) on Friday on a single snowmobile. That afternoon they dismounted, leaving the snowmobile loaded with gear, including a rifle, a cooler bag and thermos.

They walked out on the sea ice to test its strength – only to have it crack under their feet.

That separated them from their sled and from each other as darkness began to fall. As the temperature dipped below -20°, they waited for the sun to rise before heading for shore. 
But on Saturday the ice cracked again, and the two men remained adrift. They lost sight of each other.

Meanwhile, their abandoned snowmobile had been found, and a rescue party was mobilized. But little could be done on foot as the ice heaved and broke. Another night came. By Sunday morning, Mr. Nakoolak had been pushed back to shore.

“He was all soaked and wet and started crawling at least two miles on his knees because he was so tired and it was hard for his legs,” Mr. Panniuq said.

Searchers found him at 10:30 a.m. But his nephew's nightmare had taken a turn for the worse.

By Sunday, Jupi had drifted about four kilometres offshore and was 42 kilometres from Coral Harbour. Meanwhile, air support had been called in.

Pilot Phil Amos spotted footprints, then the teen standing on a 30-metre patch of ice and, perhaps 30 metres away, two polar bear cubs with the carcass of their mother.

Mr. Angootealuk had shot the animal in self-defense.

“We had circled around him for about 40 minutes or so. He never waved at all. I don't think he really wanted to move because the bears were so close,” Mr. Amos said.

“I kind of flew down to see if I could get the bears to move away, but they were very adamant about sticking around their mom.”

An emergency kit – including a lighter, flashlight and some candy – was dropped to the teen. At the same time, the rescue team in Trenton, Ont., tried to get another aircraft to the scene but only caught a glimpse of Jupi before another night set in.

As daylight broke on Monday, another aircraft located Mr. Angootealuk, and rescuers jumped to the ice below.

“The fact that our technicians were able to parachute in to land on an ice floe close by is an amazing thing for them,” said Jean-Pierre Sharp, maritime search and rescue co-ordinator.

“It's kind of like if you would imagine trying to jump from lily pad to lily pad out on some ice and slushy water,” he said, describing how they crawled on their bellies to the teen.

Mr. Angootealuk was conscious, but suffering from hypothermia and frostbite.

Rescuers in an aluminum boat waiting nearby. They picked their way through the ice and carried all four men to safety. As the teen was whisked to the local health-care centre, children poured out of the school and residents lined the street of the tiny community.

“Everybody was clapping and cheering when the truck pulled up,” said RCMP Constable Chad Butler.

Mr. Angootealuk was taken to the same hospital in Churchill and was reunited with his uncle. As the story of the Jupi's courage spread across the North, it was a tale most call bittersweet:  cubs left orphaned, but a young man found alive.

“That's the glory of the Arctic,” one person said. “A 17-year-old young man and he's seasoned enough that he was able to save his own life – so very resilient. It is amazing.”

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