Canadian Arctic hunter survives 5-day blizzard, losing both hands to frostbite

Ernie Eetak and his wife Angeline Eetak at the hospital in Winnipeg. (Photo: Angeline Eetak)

Arviat hunter Ernie Eetak survived five days in a blizzard, on the edge of death, and had both hands amputated due to severe frostbite, but that won’t stop him from hunting for his community.

“I died for five days and came back to life,” said Eetak from his hospital bed in Winnipeg.

On Dec. 3, Eetak, an experienced hunter, set out alone by snowmobile to hunt caribou about 30 kilometres from town.

His snowmobile broke down, but he quickly replaced the spark plugs and got it running again.

“I saw the lights of Arviat,” he said.

His luck was fleeting — his snowmobile stopped working again.

He tried to pull start for an hour but the machine wouldn’t go.

On foot, he began the long walk back to town in the darkness.

He could hear open water, and took a long rest near a large rock.

A wolverine woke him up, and he grabbed his hunting gear and followed his footpath back to his snowmobile.

Eetak was wearing all traditional clothing, which he said saved his life.

Ernie Eetak often goes out on the land wearing all caribou, antler sun glasses and bearded seal. He said it’s because of his traditional clothing that he’s alive today. (Photo: Facebook)

That night, it was around -28 C on the tundra. Temperatures hovered between -25 and -30 for the whole week.

“It was really nice weather and dark and snowy,” he said.

But then, the wind kicked up.

He tried to build an igloo, but the high winds blew his caribou mitts away.

Eetak attached his tarp over his snowmobile and kamotik.

“Inside my tarp, I stayed for a while and slept and died again for five days and came back to life.”

Eetak said he saw a bright light and a group of people standing around him, and heard a “nice song, like gospel song.”

Now awake, he could see his hands were icy and frostbitten “really bad” but after four days of blowing snow and wind, the weather cleared.

Hunts food for his community

He began the walk to town on Dec. 8.

“My left eye had ice, and my right eye could see. It was a bright sunny day. I walked for about an hour and search and rescue found me. I was so happy.”

They brought him to the nursing station, where he almost died again, before he was medevaced to Winnipeg. That’s where both his hands were amputated.

When he gets his prosthetics, Eetak said, he will go hunting again to feed his community.

Eetak often distributes country food like caribou and arctic char and goes hunting with his dad, who is an Inuk elder.

He said he is thankful to those who prayed for him and thought of him during the search and rescue efforts.

Ernie Eetok (ᑮᓈᓕᒃ ᐅᓂ ᖃᑲᒥ) waiting for bearded seal in July 2020, in a photo posted to the Inuit Hunting Stories of the Day Facebook group. (Photo: Facebook)

Interviews by Cindy Alorut, produced by Teresa Qiatsuq and Kowisa Arlooktoo, written by Avery Zingel

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canadian hunter survives 4 days on the land with no food, plenty of polar bears, CBC News

United States: Man survives being struck by a plane on sea ice north of Alaska, Alaska Public Media

CBC News

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