Together, community-based groups involved in SAR in the Kitikmeot face a challenging task: providing 24/7 response capabilities, 365 days a year. As the community participants involved in the Kitikmeot Roundtable on SAR (KRSAR 2020) made clear, the vast majority of their searches involve community members traveling on the ice and tundra as they transit between communities or as they engage in hunting, fishing, and gathering activities. These journeys often involve snow-machines or all-terrain vehicles traveling for hundreds of kilometres across ice and land that is often rough and can be dangerous, leading to accidents, equipment malfunctions, and people getting lost. The number of searches is generally highest during the “shoulder” or turning seasons in the Kitikmeot, when ice conditions are unpredictable and often dangerous. Community responders have noted that every year seems to bring dramatic changes in the ice that increase the risks of accident, injury, and death.
KRSAR participants highlighted how the impacts of climate change and the loss of traditional skills (particularly among younger community members), coupled with the failure of some travelers to take the necessary fuel and equipment when on the land, has increased the number of SAR cases in the Kitikmeot over the last two decades. Some people will leave a community to travel or go hunting without shelter, rations, emergency kits, or additional fuel. Some have a mindset that they are only going 60 kilometres from home so they do not need to take anything with them. As an experienced community responder noted, this is “a recipe for disaster.”
Certainly, the number of public SAR cases in the region (as opposed to private ones that are not elevated beyond the community-level) has remained consistently high over the last five years, particularly in Gjoa Haven and Taloyoak (as the chart below recounts). Roundtable participants were quick to point out that these numbers are not reflective of the actual situation – the chart represents the public searches that involve Nunavut Emergency Management or the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre, and does not account for community SAR members responding to private searches, breakdowns, and when people run out of fuel.
Additional SAR challenges relate to visitors and newcomers visiting the Kitikmeot. “Everyone thinks they are an explorer when they come up to our communities,” one community responder warned. “This can lead to trouble.” Community responders worry about newcomers who go out the land – whether on foot or on snowmachines – without knowing the dangers or how to survive. “There should be some training or at least warning provided to new teachers, or RCMP, or whoever, to let them know how to be safe or to say, maybe avoid these areas,” one concluded.
Even more concerning are the growing number of tourists and adventurers coming to the Kitikmeot, who represent an additional burden on an already overburdened SAR system. In 2014, for example, Taloyoak Search and Rescue had to rescue a French adventurer when he developed frostbite on his feet nine days after he left the community on the start of a planned 80-day unassisted and unsupported expedition to Qaanaaq, Greenland. The successful search took twelve hours. In early 2019, a Norwegian adventure tourism company took a group of tourists on a 400-km trek over the sea ice from Cambridge Bay to Gjoa Haven. Over the course of the journey, the Cambridge Bay GSAR team had to pick up and transport several of the expedition members back to the community after they complained of exhaustion and other minor injuries. On the marine side, over the Labour Day weekend in 2010, the Cambridge Bay Coast Guard Auxiliary and a member of the RCMP detachment had to rescue a French adventurer after he floundered in rough and icy waters about 90 kilometres east of the community during his attempt to transit the Northwest Passage by rowboat.
As climate change continues to make the waters of the Kitikmeot more accessible in the summer months, marine traffic has increased substantially. In recent years, Cambridge Bay has witnessed the third highest increase in vessel traffic in Nunavut. Resource development in Slave Geological Province around Bathurst Inlet, cruise tourism, localized maritime activity, and the possible creation of a low-impact shipping corridor are anticipated to bring more vessels to the waters of Dolphin and Union Strait, Coronation Gulf, Dease Strait, Bathurst Inlet, Victoria Strait, Queen Maud Gulf, Simpson Strait, Rae Strait, Bellot Strait, and the Gulf of Boothia.
As KRSAR participants highlighted, a longer operating season and increased accessibility is encouraging community members to travel further in their boats, which could lead to more marine SAR cases in the future. The increasing number of private pleasure craft that transit through the Kitikmeot also concerns them and they anticipate future rescues involving these vessels. In late August 2018, for instance, an 11-metre-long sailboat, Anahita, with two Argentineans on board, sank in Bellot Strait. While the crew managed to activate the vessel’s emergency beacon, they were forced to evacuate onto an ice floe and await rescue. JRCC Trenton responded by deploying a Hercules aircraft and the icebreaker CCGS Henry Larsen to the scene, where the ship’s helicopter managed to rescue the two crewmember from the ice floe.
The last decade has also witnessed three incidents in the Kitikmeot that could have spiralled into major maritime disasters and Mass Rescue Operations. In 2010, an adventure cruise ship, MV Clipper Adventurer, ran aground 100 km east of Kugluktuk, Nunavut. The accident strained local emergency response systems, with 128 passengers safely evacuated, but only after the cruise ship waited two days for a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker to come to the rescue. Although this accident did not result in any causalities, it did raise concerns about regional capacity to respond to a larger-scale rescue operation. Also in 2010, the tanker MV Nanny, which was delivering fuel to Taloyoak and had 9.5 million litres of diesel on board, ran aground on a sand and mud shoal in Simpson Strait, about 50 km southwest of Gjoa Haven. Luckily, there was no fuel spill and, after several days, Nanny managed to dislodge from the shoal by offloading cargo with the help of a sister ship. (In August 1996 the cruise ship Hanseatic, with 149 passengers and 110 crewmembers, also ran aground in Simpson Strait while on passage from Gjoa Haven to Resolute Bay. All of the passengers were transferred to another vessel or flown home.) On 24 August 2018, the 364-foot Russian cruise ship Akademik Ioffe, with 102 passengers, 24 expedition staff, and 37 crew members on board, ran aground on a shoal about 72 km north of Kugaaruk. Ioffe’s sister ship, Akademik Sergey Vavilov, was able to make it to the stricken vessel in sixteen hours and transfer passengers via zodiacs. It subsequently brought the passengers to Kugaaruk to await a plane ride south. In each incident, good conditions prevailed. Had the weather or sea conditions been worse, each could have demanded a complicated mass rescue operation.