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Nunavut man survives 5-day blizzard, loses hands to frostbite — and vows to hunt again

Arviat's Ernie Eetak says wearing traditional clothing saved his life while stranded on the tundra

Ernie Eetak of Arviat, Nunavut, and his wife, Angeline Eetak, at the hospital.

Ernie Eetak of Arviat, Nunavut, and his wife, Angeline Eetak, at the hospital in Winnipeg where his hands were amputated. Eetak survived five days in the cold after his snowmobile broke down on a solo caribou hunting trip about 30 kilometres from Arviat.

Photo: Angeline Eetak

RCI

Arviat hunter Ernie Eetak survived five days in a blizzard, on the edge of death, and had both hands amputated due to severe frostbite, but he says that won't stop him from hunting for his Nunavut community.

I died for five days and came back to life, said Eetak from his hospital bed in Winnipeg, where he was taken after being rescued.

On Dec. 3, Eetak, an experienced hunter, set out alone by snowmobile to hunt caribou about 30 kilometres from Arviat, the southernmost mainland community in Nunavut located on the western edge of Hudson Bay. 

His snowmobile broke down, but he quickly replaced the spark plugs and got it running again.

I saw the lights of Arviat, he said. However, his luck was fleeting — his snowmobile stopped working again. He tried to pull start for an hour but the machine wouldn't go.

So he began the long walk back to town in the darkness.

Hunter wore traditional clothing

He could hear open water and stopped to take a long rest near a large rock.

A wolverine woke him up, and he grabbed his hunting gear and followed his footpath back to his snowmobile.

Eetak says he often goes out on the land wearing clothing made of caribou and bearded seal, as well as caribou antler sun glasses. He credits the traditional clothing he wore on his trip with saving his life. 

On the ice, Eetak is wearing clothing made of caribou and bearded seal, as well as caribout antler sun glasses.Enlarge image (new window)

Eetak says he often goes out on the land wearing clothing made of caribou and bearded seal, as well as caribout antler sun glasses. He said it's because of his traditional clothing that he's alive today.

Photo: Facebook

That night, temperatures were around –28 C on the tundra. Temperatures hovered between –25 and –30 for the whole week. 

It was really nice weather and dark and snowy, Eetak said.

But then, the wind kicked up, and when he tried to build an igloo, the high winds blew his caribou mitts away. 

Eetak attached his tarp over his snowmobile and kamotik, an Inuit-style sled. 

Inside my tarp, I stayed for a while and slept and died again for five days and came back to life.

Eetak said he saw a bright light and a group of people standing around him, and heard a nice song, like gospel song.

Making plans to hunt again

Now awake, he could see his hands were icy and frostbitten really bad. But after four days of blowing snow and wind, the weather cleared, and he began the walk to town on Dec. 8.

My left eye had ice, and my right eye could see. It was a bright, sunny day, he said. I walked for about an hour and search and rescue found me. I was so happy.

They brought him to the nursing station, where he almost died again, before he was medevaced to Winnipeg. That's where both his hands were amputated. 

Eetak is on the ice, holding a harpoon, waiting for bearded seal in July 2020.Enlarge image (new window)

Eetak (ᑮᓈᓕᒃ ᐅᓂ ᖃᑲᒥ) waiting for bearded seal in July 2020, in a photo posted to the Inuit Hunting Stories of the Day Facebook group.

Photo: Facebook

When he gets his prosthetics, Eetak said, he will go hunting again to feed his community. 

He often distributes country food like caribou and arctic char and goes hunting with his dad, who is an Inuk elder.

Eetak said he is thankful to those who prayed for him and thought of him during the search and rescue efforts.


Interviews by Cindy Alorut, produced by Teresa Qiatsuq and Kowisa Arlooktoo, written by Avery Zingel

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