It was a pretty cold day, the Wednesday they went out to hunt a walrus. The water was calm as David and Lester Aqqiaruq prepared to set out from Igloolik’s shore, where aluminum boats lay overturned like turtle shells along the rubble beach. It was just over a year ago now. Lester, then 17, remembers their 10 a.m. departure, travelling out to an area where he and his father had gone hunting many times before, about an hour and a half from home in the Fury and Hecla Strait. He recalls wearing his traditional hide coat and packing the SPOT device, a tracking beacon that would notify authorities if something went awry. Which, since it was David and Lester out on the boat, it rarely did – Lester had learned to hunt as a child from his father, an experienced hunter who speaks no English and had grown hard of hearing as he’d gotten older.
At around noon that day, the pair bagged their walrus. It was a big one, too – Lester had taken the shot. Later in the afternoon, they were ready to head back. But the pair weren’t going anywhere. “The motor was frozen and it couldn’t go,” Lester says now. “I was thinking, I can get out of there and get home. But I couldn’t. We couldn’t do anything but turn on the SPOT.” And wait, he says. That’s what he remembers from that day. He doesn’t remember what happened to the walrus. The light began to fade.
“We don’t know if the SAR techs made it to the boat or not. We do not know if they’re together. We do not know the status on scene,” said one rescue coordinator. Another air assistant asked, “He’s concerned we have no Herc on top of them – is that correct?” The reply: “That’s correct.” “Holy shit.”
The Aqqiaruqs’ plight, or “Rescue 915” as it would come to be known, sparked one of the most harrowing search-and-rescue missions in recent Arctic history, and led to the death of its lead search-and-rescue technician, 34-year-old Janick Gilbert.
Rescue safety in the Canadian Arctic is a daunting task. Canada itself covers nearly 10 million square kilometres, four million of which is in the Arctic. If someone is lost in the Far North, even in good weather, it’ll take half a day for a Cormorant helicopter to fly up from the nearest rescue base down south. Even worse, search-and-rescue missions in Canada are a fragmented operation; the country’s 9,100 rescues a year are overseen by a myriad of parties. If the mission is on the water? Call in the Coast Guard. If it involves air travel? It’s one of the joint rescue-coordination centres, either Halifax, Victoria or Trenton, Ontario. Sometimes the army bases at Winnipeg or Gander, Newfoundland pitch in. Sometimes other agencies get involved: the RCMP, Parks Canada, Transport Canada. And then there are the volunteer groups that spring up from community to community as a necessary first line of response for expeditions gone wrong.
Those volunteers are crucial, especially in the Arctic, where international agreements govern the help that will be dispatched if, say, a cruise ship with hundreds of passengers runs into trouble. There are no such agreements for a hunter and his boy, stuck out in open water as the temperature drops and the winds pick up.
When the Aqqiaruqs didn’t come home by nightfall, Steve Sarpinak knew something wasn’t right. A nephew of David’s, a city councillor and a search-and-rescue volunteer, Sarpinak, along with his brother Johnny, knew when the pair was supposed to return, and noticed when they didn’t. It was a cruel night -– windy, minus-30, and blizzard-snow swirling across Foxe Basin and the Melville Peninsula, where Igloolik sits. They were worried. Sarpinak packed survival gear: a first-aid kit, flashlight, a bit of food and a thermos. He loaded up extra mitts, boots and parkas, hoping for the best. The brothers each climbed into their own boats and slid cautiously into the dark.
It felt like hours before they heard the Hercules plane flying overhead, finally reaching its destination after leaving from Winnipeg hours earlier. Working in tandem, the plane’s crew shot flare guns from the air as Sarpinak was on the water, scanning the horizon for a sign of his uncle and cousin in the exploding bursts of light. “We could see clear, like daylight. But as soon as the flare hit the water, then it got dark again,” Sarpinak says. Suddenly, he spotted the pair, who looked like they were sleeping in their little 14-foot boat, stuck between ice floes not far from shore. Relief washed over him for a moment, but then frustration hit – the sheets of ice were a barricade and his boat could go no farther. He loaded his gun and began to fire warning shots into the night, trying to wake David and Lester or send them a sign of comfort to let them know help was on its way. They didn’t wake up. Weary, Sarpinak and his brother had no choice. They turned back.
1) At 9:19 p.m. on October 26, 2011, David and Lester Aqqiaruq, stranded in the ice off Igloolik, trigger their SPOT beacon. Two hours later, a Hercules transport plane, Rescue 340, leaves Winnipeg, arriving on scene at 3:50 a.m. and dropping emergency supplies.
2) At 9:52 a.m. on October 27, another Herc, Rescue 323, leaves Trenton, Ontario, carrying three SAR techs. They reach Igloolik at 3:05 p.m. and parachute toward the stranded boaters. The Herc, low on fuel, then departs.
3) At 7:54 a.m. on October 27, a Cormorant helicopter, Rescue 915, departs Gander. It hops up the East Coast, arriving late that evening, almost 14 hours later. It picks up the Aqqiaruqs and two of the SAR techs. The third, Sergeant Janick Gilbert, is found dead in the icy waves.
After his rescue, Lester would tell reporters of the longest night, during which the boat tossed in churning waves and was thrashed by 70-kilometre-an-hour winds. They ran out of fuel for their camp stove, the only source of heat they had with them, and their hands grew too cold to open the packets of food they had left. “I thought we were going to die,” Lester says.
Overhead, the Herc kept circling. As the sun came up in the morning, the crew dropped a survival kit to the Aqqiaruqs shivering below. In it was a radio, which the plane used to talk to Lester, and a stove, too soaked by the water to light. The hunters were losing hope. Help was still hours away and they were ill-equipped for another day stranded out on the ice. Little did they know their ordeal had barely begun.
“I got caught up in a 30-foot swell and I was attached to the hook and I had Janick on top of me. With his weight and my weight we got caught up in a wave where I was under the water. Let’s just say it’s the longest I’ve gone without breathing.”
In the meantime, down at CFB Trenton, three search-and-rescue technicians – master corporals Max Lahaye-Lemay and Marco Journeyman and their team leader, Sergeant Janick Gilbert – were preparing to race north. They loaded into a Hercules plane, dressed to parachute into frothing, ice-choked seas during a polar storm. Then they waited. Hour by hour, the plane ticked off the kilometres toward Igloolik.
Finally, at 3 p.m. that afternoon, they made radio contact with Lester and his father. They learned the hunters were growing more dehydrated and hypothermic, their hands too cold to use the supplies the last plane had provided. They dropped a life raft, which, crawling along the ice, Lester and his father were able to reach. They were lucky. Not long after, they watched their aluminum boat sink into the frigid sea. Soon after that, the Aqqiaruqs’ radio signal went dead.
Afraid the SAR techs had permanently lost contact with the pair, rapidly losing daylight and knowing there’d be no plane above them with backup for another four hours, Sergeant Gilbert and his partners made the decision: They parachuted into the water and away from all contact. They were on their own.
After that, phones all across the country began to ring. “We don’t know if the SAR techs made it to the boat or not. We do not know if they’re together. We do not know the status on scene,” said one rescue coordinator on a recording obtained by an access-to-information request filed by the Toronto Star. Another air assistant asked, “He’s concerned we have no Herc on top of them – is that correct?” The reply: “That’s correct.” “Holy shit.”
The three techs landed in crashing waves and stunning winds. Lahaye-Lemay and Journeyman were close to the hunters. But Sergeant Gilbert landed farther away, and was unable to reach them. He pulled off his helmet, tugged on a neoprene hood and lit up a strobe light. It was then that he realized his life raft, which was supposed to be tethered to him, was missing, the threads frayed where the raft should be. He hit his beacon twice, the signal the team agreed would indicate trouble in the water. Still, there was nothing the crew in the Herc above could do. They were low on fuel. They had to turn back, leaving the two hunters and the techs waiting below.
Overnight – the second night of the emergency – everyone’s conditions worsened. Despite the efforts of the two SAR techs who’d made it to the life raft, David suffered frostbite and Lester’s foot froze while his hands turned numb and wooden. Then, the sound of a helicopter. A second rescue crew had finally arrived, having travelled by Cormorant nearly 3,000 kilometres from Gander, offering the Aqqiaruqs and the SAR techs a sign of reprieve.
With the yellow helicopter holding steady in the air, Sergeant Brad Hiscock took charge of the hoist as Sergeant Daniel Villeneuve and Master Corporal Shawn Bretschneider were lowered to where the hunters waited. Submerged in water and dodging chunks of ice, Villeneuve and Bretschneider wrapped the three men in a rescue harness – a “horse collar” – and clipped it to the hoist hook. The five men were dragged to the safety of the helicopter, where Villeneuve immediately went to work resuscitating the hunters. With two rescuers still down below, Bretschneider was lowered back into the storm to save the second SAR tech, awaiting rescue in his life raft. He dragged him to safety. Then Bretschneider was lowered into the water one more time, to look for Sergeant Gilbert.
At first, he saw no trace of him. Then, dangling from a cable, soaked by freezing spray, he spotted a helmet floating in the water. And a few minutes later, he saw his colleague, limp, tossing in the waves. He tried desperately to secure Sergeant Gilbert to the hoist line, but was smacked in the head with the hook. Dazed, he continued. Later, Bretschneider would say: “I got caught up in a 30-foot swell and I was attached to the hook and I had Janick on top of me. With his weight and my weight we got caught up in a wave where I was under the water. Let’s just say it’s the longest I’ve gone without breathing.” It finally took the strength of four techs, including the two who’d just been rescued, to drag the two men into the helicopter. “We managed to get [Sergeant Gilbert] on board,” Bretschneider said. “From there we did what we could if there was anything to revive him. He was cold. His eyes were glazed over with ice, his chest was hard. There wasn’t much we could do.”
Members of the community gathered at the airport as the chopper made its landing, overjoyed that the hunters were alive and could walk, with assistance, to the car that would take them to the health centre. The town didn’t yet know what had happened to the men’s rescuers. “Later, we learned that one of the rescuers couldn’t be revived and we were very touched by this,” said Celestino Uyarak, a hamlet official and the lead search-and-rescue coordinator in Igloolik. Traditionally, when a rescue is successful, or a hunter has had a close call, the town marks the occasion with a celebration. There were no festivities in the community that day.
The rescue was a stunning example of drawing resources from across the country – Gander, Winnipeg, Trenton – yet still not having enough. General Walt Natynczyk, then chief of the Canadian Forces, compared search and rescue in the Arctic to waging war in Afghanistan. “We are challenged more by operating in our own domain than in operating around the world,” he said. “It is harder to sustain operations in our High Arctic than it is to sustain operations in Kandahar or Kabul because in the Arctic, it’s what you bring.”
In a policy paper written in January for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, Ron Wallace stated that the Canadian government has promised initiatives to improve its piecemeal SAR program, including stationing an army reserve in Yellowknife and building a training centre in Resolute Bay and a naval refueling centre on Baffin Island. Still, the Harper government has adamantly refused to create a rescue operations base in the Arctic, saying the prospect is impossible.
A year after the rescue, the techs and crew were awarded international medals of bravery for their work on that long night. A yet-unfinished investigation will determine exactly why, and how, Sergeant Gilbert died. And things in Igloolik are changing. Hunters are more cautious. They bring radios, satellite phones, SPOT beacons and extra gear, just in case. Still, Arctic weather is unpredictable and resources are a long flight away. Earlier this winter, a hunter set out from Igloolik and was rescued after an overnight search conducted by the community team. “We have a search and rescue team,” Sarpinak says. “Anyone who’s willing to go, they go.” The community is not quick to forget.
And neither is the boy who fought for his life that night. Lester is still haunted by the day he and his father got stuck in the ice. Reached by phone in Igloolik more than a year later, he says, “I could not believe that I lived.” Lester was in the health centre in Igloolik when he learned Sergeant Gilbert had died. But by that time, the other SAR techs were already gone. “I wish I could talk to them. I never talked to them,” he says, in choppy English and his voice shaking. “I’m sorry,” he says. Overcome with emotion, he hangs up the phone with a soft click.