CORAL HARBOUR, Nunavut — Battling hypothermia and freezing skin, a trapped teenage hunter was forced to shoot and kill a polar bear as he waited for more than a day to be rescued from a large chunk of drifting sea ice in the Canadian North.
The teen and his 67-year-old uncle, who had gone out polar bear hunting, were reported overdue late Saturday, said Ed Zebedee, director of the Government of Nunavut’s protection services branch.
The snowmobile the pair were riding broke down approximately 18 kilometres from Coral Harbour, a tiny community on Nunavut’s Southampton Island in the northern part of Hudson Bay.
As they walked towards the community to get help, they became separated. A large chunk of ice broke off, setting the teen adrift, said Zebedee.
The uncle was picked up Sunday morning. Searchers on snowmobiles located the man as he walked on the pack ice off the coast of the island.
His nephew, meanwhile, remained lost.
Sometime between Saturday and Sunday, the teen, who was armed with a rifle, encountered three bears, likely a female and two older cubs, on the same large ice pan.
One bear, likely the adult, simply got too close.
“He did have to shoot the polar bear to protect himself,” said Zebedee. “There were two other bears on the ice pan but they stayed away from him so he didn’t shoot at them at all.”
The two cubs remained with the carcass and the teen managed to position himself as far away as he could from the remaining animals.
Jean-Pierre Sharp, an official with the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre at Canadian Forces Base Trenton in Ontario, said an aerial search was launched Sunday morning.
A pilot on a small plane chartered by a government search-and-rescue agency spotted the teen Sunday afternoon and also saw the carcass of a bear down below.
Zebedee said the crew on board dropped a plastic container of chocolate bars and candy to the stranded boy.
A Hercules aircraft also spotted the boy Sunday, but lost sight of him as the plane circled back to take another look and darkness set in.
The crew continued to search for the teen through the night, dropping flares to illuminate the snowy landscape, but couldn’t find him, Sharp said.
On Monday morning, the crew on board the military search-and-rescue aircraft again spotted the youth, who had drifted about 34 kilometres from where the snowmobile had broken down, said Sharp.
Two search-and-rescue technicians parachuted to a larger ice floe a short distance away to mount their rescue attempt.
“They had to sort of belly crawl across some of the ice floes to get to the one he was on,” said Sharp.
“Even after spending hours alone, huddling in temperatures that dipped below -15 C, the teen appeared to be in decent shape. He was conscious, slightly hypothermic and appeared to have some frostbite.”
The military search-and-rescue experts dressed the boy in warm clothes.
The two remaining bears were still in the area when the rescuers arrived, Zebedee said.
“I was just told nobody wanted to be on the ice with the bears too long.”
About an hour later, searchers who had launched a small boat from Coral Harbour located all three and took them to shore.
The 67-year-old man, identified by RCMP as Jimmy Nakoolak, and the 17-year-old boy, whose name was not released, were both taken to hospital in Churchill, Man., to be treated for hypothermia.
Zebedee, who has spent 30 years in the North, said the Inuit have a great deal of respect for polar bears and he doubts the teen hunter would have killed one if he had any other options.
“It’s quite amazing that things turned out the way they have,” said Sharp, considering the boy had no tent and nothing to keep him afloat if he fell in the water.
Rob Hedley, senior administrative officer of the hamlet nestled on the southern shore of the Arctic island, said there’s a great sense of relief among the roughly 40 people who spent hours combing the sea ice on snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles looking for the missing pair.
He saw the teenage boy as he was taken into the local health centre and marvelled that he was in good condition after spending a few days out in the cold with no supplies.
“It’s quite incredible that he’s in such good shape,” Hedley said. “He was conscious and he was speaking. He was cold and obviously had some problems with his extremities, but nothing that will cause any long-term damage,” Hedley said.
He agreed it’s a dramatic tale of survival that the teenage boy has lived to tell.
“It’s pretty incredible. As much as the polar bear is a bit of a dramatic aspect of it, he had his weapon with him, thank goodness,” Hedley said. “But also it’s basically surviving three days out on the land with little food or water.”
After preparing for the worst, it’s also a somewhat unexpected happy ending for the community.
Hunting on the land remains dangerous, especially when sea ice is shifting. Most understand that things can go wrong, Hedley said.
“I was expecting this not to end as happily as it did because the longer you’re out there, the more difficult it is to try and recover somebody,” he said.
—By Lisa Arrowsmith in Edmonton