Six fish, two birds and four weeks in the
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
June 30, 2007 at
1:33 AM EDT
Enoki Kunuk can measure much of the past month in a
catalogue of numbers.
On June 1, he set out alone on a week-long journey to
hunt caribou on the Nunavut tundra about 100 kilometres north of his home in
Igloolik. He bagged not a single beast. Instead he caught six fish and two
ptarmigans, provisions the Inuit hunter had to make last 28 days when his sled
and snowmobile got stuck in the spring thaw, leaving him to live off the fat of
an unforgiving land until rescue came under the midnight sun
The most impressive number of all is his age. At 81,
Mr. Kunuk survived an ordeal his hamlet celebrated, southern folks romanticized
and he and his family almost shrugged off as not unexpected.
“You never give up,” said Zacharias Kunuk, a respected
filmmaker who is also Mr. Kunuk's son. “He knows the land like the back of his
Mr. Kunuk is a respected elder in the Far North
community of about 1,500, which, despite its harsh climate and remote location,
has been continuously occupied by people dating back to 2000 BC. Europeans
visited in the 1880s, a Christian mission was later set up as well as a Hudson's
Bay Company outpost. Since then, the hamlet has steadily been growing and the
traditional lifestyle of fishing, sealing and hunting has not fallen victim to
On June 1, Mr. Kunuk was equipped with food, gasoline,
warm clothing, a gun, ammunition, tarps, a kamotiq (sled) and a snowmobile, but
no communication device.
After eight days, when he did not return, his family
began to search for their loved one.
“He got stuck into the slush and he couldn't pull his
sled and Ski-Doo out,” Zacharias said. “At his age, he's not that
By then, a massive air and ground search was under
way. A rescue team aboard Hercules aircraft was dispatched from CFB Trenton and
swept the area. So did a Cormorant helicopter, but poor weather kept that
machine largely on the ground. Soon melting snow prevented a ground search by
snowmobile. Even the many corporate planes busy ferrying goods and people around
the north and to mining areas in the region saw no signs of him.Mr.
By June 18, the military called off the search, but
the Iglulingmiut did not. Instrumental in keeping the hunt going was Mayor Paul
Quassa, who helped persuade businesses to free up aircraft to continue searching
an area the size of Prince Edward Island.
“We were worried, but after 25 days you start to plan
for the worst,” Zacharias said. “With no trace, you didn't know where to look.
The area has been covered.”
Mr. Quassa told CBC Radio that people in his community
were beginning to have dreams about where to find their lost soul, one
suggesting that he was in a valley near a river. Elders had pointed over and
over again to a popular fishing river. The oldest woman in the community, a
woman aged 97 or 98, kept spirits high with a story about Mr. Kunuk's
It was the first time some had heard that she had
survived an igloo collapse that left her husband dead and her alone shivering in
“This elder was giving us this talk and giving us
hope,” Zacharias said.
On Thursday, the mayor convinced Air Inuit, based in
northern Quebec, to lend a Twin Otter for another sweep. This time, searches
spied signs of life. A snowmobile. A sled. A tent. Jerry cans. But there was no
hint of Mr. Kunuk.
The pilot followed the landscape down a valley, along the
shore of a river where, at around 7 p.m., they spotted Mr. Kunuk about 130
kilometres from home.
His family, who translated Mr. Kunuk's experiences
from Inuktitut, the Inuit language, said he kept hearing planes overhead and
snowmobiles in the distance. He said he even found a campsite with recently used
tea bags from which he managed to squeeze drinks. All the while, he said, he was
never fast enough to catch anyone's attention, but never once was he
“He said he did a lot of exercise waiting,” said
Zacharias, whose acclaimed feature, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, won the best
first feature award at Cannes in 2001.
“He went by the shore and figured sooner or later
people going fishing would have to run into him.”
Zacharias was on the tarmac filming early yesterday
morning as a helicopter brought his father home. The whole community was there
“We were overwhelmed. At the first sight of the
helicopter coming in everybody started clapping,” he recalled. “He's fine. He's
just tired at his age.”
Will his father venture out on the tundra alone
“He said not till summer,” Zacharias said laughing,
“Not until he can boat.”