The Arctic is a relentless and harsh wilderness and travelling in this region requires a lot of skill, equipment and knowledge. But even the most skillful hunters and Arctic residents might come into a situation, in which the difference between life and death depends on sheer luck. Three hunters from Hall Beach, Nunavut, just experienced such a situation and were rescued only by chance by Canadian military forces.

One of the rescued hunters surrounded by his rescuers, members of the 440 Transport Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Picture: Belinda Groves, Canadian Forces
One of the rescued hunters surrounded by his rescuers, members of the 440 Transport Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Picture: Belinda Groves, Canadian Forces

A Royal Canadian Air Force Twin Otter crew out for some search-and-rescue training accidentally found — and rescued — two Nunavut hunters on the land. Thom Doelman, a captain with the Royal Canadian Air Force in Yellowknife, said the crew was flying near Hall Beach, Nunavut, during Operation Nunalivut, a sovereignty exercise that happens each year in Canada's North. "You could probably go crazy trying to think of all the things that had to line up for us to see these guys out there," Doelman said. The training exercise comprised a search mission at an old mine site. Once the Twin Otter crew found the mine from rough co-ordinates, Doelman began an expanding-square pattern to survey the tundra. That's when from his window, Cpl. Jason MacKenzie saw something he didn't expect — a person who possibly needed help. "As you can imagine, we were shocked to hear this," said Doelman. By the time the plane returned for a second pass, there were two people waving on the sea ice. "We assessed it as a crew," Doelman said, recalling that they only had about 30 minutes before it would be too dark to attempt a landing. “We didn't know of any missing persons, but we felt that given that it's the Arctic, given that it was about to get dark, that we couldn't continue back to Hall Beach without checking on these guys."

Hall Beach is situated on the Melville Peninsula at the Foxe Basin, the northern end of the Hudson Bay. Unlike other hamlets, it was constructed during the 50s in the wake of the DEW (Distant Early Warning System against incoming Soviet missiles). Today, around 850 people live in the settlement. Picture: Ansgar Walk
Hall Beach is situated on the Melville Peninsula at the Foxe Basin, the northern end of the Hudson Bay. Unlike other hamlets, it was constructed during the 50s in the wake of the DEW (Distant Early Warning System against incoming Soviet missiles). Today, around 850 people live in the settlement. Picture: Ansgar Walk

The captain had never landed on sea ice with wheels on the plane instead of the skis, so he did what's called a "nose-off drag" where the main tires are dragged along the ice to check that it could hold the plane's weight. Once Doelman landed beside the pair's makeshift shelter, he immediately began preparing the plane to take off again. He estimated they had 15 minutes on the ground before it would be too dark to take off. They invited the two hunters on board and quickly took off again for Hall Beach. Doelman offered them food and hot water when they asked if he had found their friend.

"At this point my heart sank because to find out there was a third guy out there, it was unbelievable," he said. The three hunters had been out for three days at this stage. The two adults and the teenager had been on a hunting trip about 40 kilometers south of Hall Beach when their snowmobile broke down. They tried to activate their SPOT device, but it didn't work. While one adult started to walk back to Hall Beach, the two other hunters made a temporary shelter. But they didn’t see or hear anything from their friend anymore for two days.

The Twin Otter used for the lucky rescue mission was not fitted for landing on the ice. Nonetheless, pilot Capt. Doelman made a dashing landing and rescued the two hunters from their position. Picture: Belinda Groves/Canadian Forces
The Twin Otter used for the lucky rescue mission was not fitted for landing on the ice. Nonetheless, pilot Capt. Doelman made a dashing landing and rescued the two hunters from their position. Picture: Belinda Groves/Canadian Forces

After picking the two up, it was too dark to search — not to mention the plane was low on fuel — so Doelman called ahead to the Hall Beach airport for the RCMP, who, with the hamlet, organized a ground search. They found the third hunter near Hall Beach the next morning. He was flown to Iqaluit for hypothermia and frostbite, but is in stable condition. The other two had some minor frostbite on their toes, but are otherwise in good health. "They're the luckiest two guys in the Arctic that I know," said Doelman. "Such search and rescue missions are not our squadron's primary mission but we still train for it and practice it. It proves why we have to train to be ready for something like this."

Source: Canadian Broadcasting Company News