Community responders match their dedication with intimate knowledge of the land and local environmental conditions. As one Kitikmeot Roundtable on SAR (2020) participant pointed out: “We know the local weather. We know the conditions. We know the water and ice, the rocks. We know how the ice works. We know the best routes to take, the fastest, the safest routes to take. We know things that you can’t get from a GPS or a weather report. We know how the tides work.” The individuals that make up community-based SAR organizations are effective responders because of their intimate knowledge of local geography, sea and ice conditions, the potential challenges and risks that might face a search, and their fellow community members. They are comfortable reading the snowbanks and technology like inReach Explorer+ devices, constructing airstrips and iglus, and communicating with community members and the Canadian Armed Forces.
A story shared by Roger Hitkolok and Jack Himiak, the founders of Kugluktuk GSAR, captures just how challenging SAR can be in the Kitikmeot – and the incredible skills searchers bring to bear to overcome these challenges.
One November, when it was dark and the ice was still thin, a lone hunter went missing. He had no GPS or SPOT device with him, and he had told no one where he planned to go hunting. Kugluktuk’s GSAR team was notified and together they drew upon their knowledge of the land, ice, and hunting grounds to figure out where to look. They figured the man had gone seal hunting along the coast towards High Lake and Bathurst Inlet. Roger and Jack led a small team of GSAR volunteers down the coast. After 130 miles of travel in terrible weather and treacherous ice conditions, they finally spotted the hunter’s snowmachine. The man had shot a seal and went to retrieve it on his snowmachine, only to hit some rough ice, fall off, and hit his head. This left him disoriented and confused. The GSAR team delivered first aid to the injured and near-hypothermic man. Using his Ranger-issued satellite phone, Roger reported his position and requested a Twin Otter from 440 squadron in Yellowknife to evacuate the hunter. Next, he used his Ranger training to instruct his GSAR team on how to prepare an ice strip for the Twin Otter. The team filled pots, pans, and plates with whatever they could light on fire to illuminate the strip. The Twin Otter landed on the austere landing strip that the GSAR team had made on the ice and the man was successfully evacuated. As Roger casually concluded, “It was a hard one.”