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Alone and adrift on an ice floe, teen refuses to give up

A chartered aircraft circles above a stranded teenager in Nunavut after having airdropped food supplies.

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

The pair had hunted the dangerous white carnivores before on the unforgiving landscape around Southampton Island at the mouth of Hudson Bay, but as the unpredictable sea ice broke apart, the men found themselves on separate, desperate journeys to survive.

Nursing two bad knees, the older man would crawl into the arms of a rescue party two days after the ordeal began. His nephew, stranded on a drifting ice floe, was forced to shoot a polar bear that was stalking uncomfortably close, before he was plucked to safety a day later.

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From his hospital bed in Churchill, Man., where he is recovering from hypothermia, 56-year-old Mr. Nakoolak recalled the terrifying experience.

"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.

"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," he said.

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, which blankets the region from November until July, 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 mercury dipped below -20 they waited for the sun to rise and tried to make their way to shore.

But on Saturday the ice cracked again, and the two men remained adrift. They lost sight of each other.

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Meanwhile, their abandoned snowmobile had been found 10 kilometres south of Coral Harbour and a rescue party was mobilized, but little could be done on foot as the ice heaved, broke and 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.

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

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

Phil Amos, a pilot with Kenn Borek Air Ltd., was at the controls of a de Havilland Twin Otter when he 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-defence.

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"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 Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Trenton, Ont., was scrambling a Hercules aircraft to the scene, but only caught a glimpse of the young man before flares proved useless and they lost him to another night.

As daylight broke on Monday, another Hercules aircraft went up and located Mr. Angootealuk. Sergeant Randy McOrmond, Master Corporal Rob Richardson and Master Corporal Eric Beaudoin 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 a seven-metre aluminum boat waiting nearby 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 where his uncle anxiously waited to be reunited. As the story of the teen's courage made its way across the North, it was a tale Joan Griffin, general manager of Nunavut operations at Kenn Borek Air, called bittersweet: cubs left orphaned, but a young man found alive.

"That's the glory of the Arctic," Ms. Griffin 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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About the Author
Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More

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