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Arviat hunter loses hands to frostbite after surviving five-day blizzard

Arviat hunter loses hands to frostbite after surviving five-day blizzard
Ernie Kiinaalik Eetak can’t wait to get back to Arviat and hunt again, despite losing both hands to frostbite while trapped on the land in a blizzard. Photo courtesy of Ernie Kiinaalik Eetak

He lost both hands to frostbite after breaking down on the land during a hunting trip outside of Arviat, but Ernie Kiinaalik Eetak is all smiles and laughs as he prepares to return home and resume hunting.

“I can’t wait to see my steel arms so I can go hunting again when I get back home,” said Eetak from a Winnipeg hotel.

Both hands were amputated. Eetak will be getting prosthetics with a hook to retain some functionality of his arms.

He went caribou hunting for what was supposed to be just one day early in December. He was about 48 km from Arviat when he lost track of a group of caribou he was following.

“It was getting dark so fast,” said Eetak. “I went back home and saw Arviat’s lights, and my snowmobile stopped.”

He searched his equipment and found a new sparkplug, which let him drive a bit longer, but his machine broke down again outside of town.

Tired from a day of hunting, he walked from his snowmobile toward Arviat and took a rest by a rock. After falling asleep, he woke up to an angry wolverine. He quickly grabbed his lighter and looked for his foot trail back to his snowmobile, but the weather had changed.

“It was really windy, about 100 miles per hour, like a blizzard,” he said.

He initially tried to build an iglu, but his caribou mitts flew off in the wind.

Eetak propped up his snowmobile and used his tarp for protection from the elements.

“I died for five days because of the bad weather,” he said, remembering his brutally long experience hunkering down next to his snowmobile and under his tarp. “Negative 50, so cold.”

His hands froze, sticking to the tarp.

At one point, he remembered bright lights filling his vision, and he could hear gospel songs, “like somebody singing on the sky and somebody carrying me and wearing all white,” he said. “I went back to my life. I had a big breath.”

Finally, the weather cleared and the sun came out. He credited his traditional caribou-skin clothing and Inuit sunglasses for keeping him alive. On the way to town, he was found by a rescue team and taken to the health centre.

“I was so happy that day,” said Eetak. “The traditional clothes I wear survived me.”

His right eye had been damaged by ice and his hands were severely frostbitten. He was eventually medevaced to Winnipeg, where both hands were surgically removed.

Eetak, who will turn 42 this month, said he’s still going hunting again when he gets back home to Arviat. He has lived a life of hunting and sharing country food with the community, and he looks forward to continuing that tradition, even without hands.

He was thankful for his wife, Angeline, who supported him through his recovery.

Next time, he said, he will be sure to bring a GPS device, extra gas, a Coleman stove, warmer tent, more clothing and as many tools as he can carry, just in case.