A community hunter from Pond Inlet, Nunavut, who lost his brand new snowmobile to thin ice, is sharing the story of how he survived the frigid waters.
Mishal Pewatoalook and his family recently moved into a new apartment, and they wanted to host a feast to celebrate. So, on Dec. 27, Pewatoalook set out on his snowmobile with qamutik in tow, to hunt for caribou.
He drove out across the ice, on a route he'd taken just four weeks prior.
"I was driving and kind of noticing my qamutik [I was pulling] was getting a little heavy. And I kind of noticed that the ice was a little soft and the qamutik was kind of breaking the ice a little bit," he said.
Then, his machine stopped, and started sinking. He jumped off.
"When I hopped over I tried to go on my belly right away but the ice just broke off," he said.
Swimming to survive
Pewatoalook fell into the water and panicked. It was -30 C without windchill. He flipped over onto his back to float, and tried to catch his breath.
"I was having a sudden gasp that I couldn't control, because it's so cold," he said.
"When you suddenly go in water and it's frigid cold, suddenly, you can't really stop panicking…. It doesn't really matter how strong your mind is," he said.
Mishal Pewatoalook after a successful hunt. (Submitted by Mishal Pewatoalook)
He managed to calm down a bit. Then he looked over to see his nearby machine continuing to sink through the ice. He began swimming on his back toward the qamutiik, which had only partially sunk. He grabbed onto the jerry cans attached to the sled, hauled himself out of the water, and sat down on the back of the qamutik.
Calling for help
Pewatoalook had thrown his mitts off while swimming as they were too heavy, and his hands were freezing.
"My spare mitts were in my parka pocket, I grabbed those but they were soaking wet," he said. Then he remembered a pair of gloves in his cooler, which was right in front of him.
"I put on my dry gloves and there I had hot water so I drink a couple of sips of hot water.… I tried to warm myself up, shaking my hands, hitting my hands to each other, stomping my feet."
The front end of the qamutik was sinking, and he considered trying to cut the rope that attaches it to the snowmobile. Ultimately he decided the ice was too thin to even crawl over to that area, so he stayed put and called for help.
"I was wearing my polar bear skin pants and I always have my inReach [GPS device] there," he said.
He pressed the alarm, and it connected him to a search and rescue centre down south. He exchanged text messages with the centre and then started texting his friends in town for help.
Seeing the light
The qamutik continued to slowly sink.
"I was sitting there for about two-and-a-half to three hours until I saw a Ski-Doo coming my way, two of them," he said.
He noticed it was his dad, and he was a bit surprised. He hadn't messaged relatives because he didn't want them to panic and then make dangerous decisions in their efforts to rescue him.
"When I first seen the Ski-Doo light, it was just a big joy inside of me … when you're in a bad situation and you're on the other side of death, when you suddenly see that it's like a massive weight off your shoulders."
Not long after, a search and rescue crew showed up with a boat in tow, which they used to reach him.
When everyone was on safe ice, Pewatoalook then helped put the tent up in order to stay warm.
Pewatoalook says losing his hunting equipment is not just a loss for him, for his community and neighbouring communities too — with whom he shares his harvests. (Submitted by Mishal Pewatoalook )
Sharing country food
Pewatoalook lost all of his hunting equipment in the accident, even his Coleman stove. It's not just a loss for him, but the community and neighbouring communities as well.
"I always share what I catch … this summer I caught a bunch of narwhals and I shared so much maqtaq."
"A lot of people crave country food, and I try my best to make it available for everyone."
Listen to Mishal Pewatoalook's interview, in Inuktitut:
Pewatoalook has applied to the Qikiqtani Inuit Association for funding to help replace the equipment but says it will only cover $7,000 which is "nowhere near" what he lost. Pewatoalook has started a Gofundme page so others can contribute if they're able.
He recommends everyone who goes out hunting carries a GPS safety device. And if something goes wrong, he says not to lose hope.
"You just want to give up and just lay down when you're so exhausted. You just don't care. But you can't give up, for the family and everyone, right? So always never give up."