When freestyle snowmobiler Hop Issaluk and Coral Harbour Mayor Willie Nakoolak set out on a cross country trek to Yellowknife from Baker Lake they hoped to make it there and back in 10 days.
However, as often happens on the land Mother Nature had other plans.
“It was definitely one of those adventures that pushed your buttons all the way through. I enjoyed it despite all the circumstances,” said Issaluk. “My biggest takeaway is to respect nature.”
The trip was organized by Issaluk, who had planned to pick up a large jump ramp from two snowmobilers from Cold Lake, Alta. They had arranged for the ramp to be delivered up the ice road form Yellowknife, where Issaluk and Nakoolak would meet them.
Issaluk, who is the first Inuk to race on the professional circuit in southern Canada, said his hope in bringing the ramp back to Rankin Inlet was to one day bring freestyle snowmobiling into Nunavut.
“That way we could have a lot of local riders turn their hobby into a profession.” he told Kivalliq News.
Issaluk had already booked off 10 days from work when his original partner for the trip had to back out due a work obligation. When Nakoolak read about Issaluk’s situation online he reached out.
“He actually approached me saying he is willing to help me,” said Issaluk, whose niece is married to Nakoolak’s son.
After a week and a half of preparations, Nakoolak had his sled shipped to Rankin Inlet and the two men set off for Baker Lake on March 27.
The first sign that things might not go their way came when they arrived in Baker and got snowed in for two days.
Once it cleared the two men set off along the Thelon River. Issaluk said the conditions along the way were awful.
“It was rough as heck,” he said. “All the snow drifts were almost a foot high so we were doing less than 20 km/hour.”
They ended up making it to the water survey cabin along the Thelon River, where they decided to unpack and stay for the night. However, that night another blizzard rolled through.
“What we thought was going to be one day ended up doing six days or so.”
Snowed in for six days
For the six days they were stuck in the cabin Issaluk said they did their best to keep busy by playing cards and making sure their gear, including a diesel generator, was in working order. Luckily, they had lots of supplies and fresh caribou thanks to Nakoolak who shot one on the Thelon right before the blizzard hit.
“We gambled a few cigarettes here and there. We went down to the water to chisel ice. We were fortunate to have a diesel heater. Every so often we could clear off the snowmobiles and qamutiik.
We did a lot of maintenance on the generator just to keep that going. And we made a lot of phone calls to family members just to make sure we were OK.”
Issaluk, who is a volunteer with the Rankin Inlet Fire Department and Search and Rescue, also spent a lot of time reading the journal that is left in the cabin.
“Just the fact that most of the journals are pre-social media. It just puts you back on your feet and makes you realize life should be like that,” he said, adding that most of the entries he read were from the 1970s. “It makes you feel humbled. And it makes you feel there was a time before Facebook where things were written down and you got to dive down into someone’s experiences.”
By the time the blizzard finally cleared, Issaluk couldn’t get his snowmobile started. The two men did their best to get it working for two days, with canvas tarps slung over the sleds and three Coleman stoves to try and thaw the machine.
“We spent a good two days working on everything until everything was running,” said Issaluk.
Once Issaluk’s sled finally started up they received an update from Yellowknife that the ice road was closing so they made the decision to call off the trip. The day wasn’t all bad though as both Issaluk and Nakoolak were able to shoot their first ever moose. Still, their journey was far from over.
Just eight kilometres from the water survey cabin, Issaluk’s sled seized up. Once they realized they couldn’t fix the sled themselves they called up Mike Nukapiak and Kyle Netser in Baker Lake, asking them to deliver a part to them.
It took them a day and half to arrive, during which time Nukapiak’s sled also broke down. After lots more repairs and rearranging of equipment, the four men regrouped and started making their way slowly back to Baker Lake.
“We had to leave two qamutiik behind and Mike’s snowmobile,” said Issaluk, who also had to leave his machine behind.
After all the ordeals they had to go through, Isssaluk and Nakoolak finally pulled in to Baker Lake at around 5:30 a.m. on April 10.
Since returning, Issaluk said he has spoken with the two snowmobilers from Alberta, and he plans to have the snowmobile jump delivered by cargo. He is also trying to make arrangements to have his snowmobile recovered by a survey helicopter.
Although Issaluk wasn’t successful in achieving his original mission, he said the trip was an experience of a lifetime.
“It’s one of those things that helps you grow mentally, physically, spiritually and physically. Much more than what society makes you go through,” he said.
“In the end you’re happy you went through it all. You’re pleased it’s over and you’re pleased you got to go through it.”