On Oct. 18, 1994, 10 Inuit hunters set out on a journey from Iqaluit that would tragically affect the lives of many family and community members.
Eight hunters would end up dying in the icy waters of Frobisher Bay, leaving only two young survivors. Now 25 years later, 53-year-old survivor Pitseolak Alainga is sharing a detailed account of this dark tragedy.
At the age of 12, Alainga began hunting with his father Simonie Alainga, a prominent hunter in the Iqaluit area. He learned many skills while helping to provide food for their community.
From his father, Alainga would also learn survival skills. This knowledge would one day end up saving his life.
Father and son, along with eight other relatives embarked by boat and headed onto Frobisher Bay to hunt walrus.
They reached their first outpost camp on Oct. 18 and settled in for the night. Early the next morning at around 4 a.m. the group travelled toward a second outpost camp. They remained there and visited some relatives for a few days until Oct. 25.
As they continued on their journey, the hunters encountered strong winds and had to return to the outpost camp. They tried again the following day and successfully anchored their boat closer to a walrus colony.
With harpoons and rifles ready, four older men and six young men went out to catch walrus. They hunted late into the evening until they caught and butchered 13 walruses.
The joy of the hunt however, would not last long. A crisis was looming on the horizon.
The next day, the hunters woke up to heavy winds and radio warnings informing them that the tail-end of a hurricane was going to hit Baffin Island. They decided to immediately head back but on the night of Oct. 29, their keel broke in heavy seas and the boat started taking on water.
“We had an electric hand pump to pump out the water but the water was flowing faster than we were pumping,” explains Alainga.
Eventually the water reached the engine and “killed” it.
A distress signal was sent out by radio. The communities of Kimmirut and Pangnirtung heard the call.
With the boat now starting to sink, all 10 men boarded an 18-foot canoe they had brought with them. They made it through two big waves but the canoe did not survive the third. The smaller boat capsized and everyone went overboard.
Eight of the men drifted away into the dark waters except for Pitseolak Alainga and Billy Kownirk.
“In just a matter of few minutes, the eight men perished,” recalls Alainga.
“It was approximately 11:30 at night. I remember because I had my watch on and it had a little light button so I could see what time it was.”
Alainga was wearing winter clothing, ski pants and boots. He thought he was going to sink but knew he could swim.
“So, I was about three feet underwater and then I said to my mind, ‘it’s not time for me to go, I could swim.’ So, I got my head out of the water and started breathing.”
Swim for survival
Despite swallowing some saltwater mixed with diesel, he swam the approximately 15 to 20 feet to the big boat. It was three-quarters sunk, remembers Alainga.
Kownirk, who had been wearing a “floater suit,” had made his way to the wreckage before Alainga. Once on board, the two men shouted out for the other hunters but to no avail.
Both survivors remained on the boat for four days and three nights while it snowed.
“We were wet all that time. If we had to go to the washroom we peed in our pants. We had no drinking water,” says Alainga.
For a drink, they scraped off the snow that had accumulated on the boat and let it melt.
Alainga explained that his father always told him never to chew the snow or swallow it right away. It was important to let it become warm water before swallowing it.
“Every night we couldn’t sleep. Altogether for the three nights and four days we slept 15 minutes.”
Each night both of them would see a little girl in a milk crate if they fell asleep.
“The little girl would say, ‘Come here where it’s good and dry.’ But every time that little girl was getting closer, we were getting closer to the water, almost falling in.”
The young men turned to prayer and tried to maintain a positive attitude.
“I kept telling my buddy not to fall asleep. I told him to pray with me and just sit beside me and we’ll get through this,” says Alainga.
The following day, on Oct. 30, they could see planes searching for them and even hear a search boat from Iqaluit.
Rescue at last
On the second to last day before their rescue, Alainga even recalls seeing a boat about 10 kilometres away.
“My feeling was we’re gonna get rescued.”
His feeling turned to reality, when on Nov. 1, a Hercules search and rescue aircraft spotted them.
When Alainga noticed the plane in the sky, he quickly found a piece of glass from the wreckage. As soon as there was an opening in the clouds and the sun was shining on the boat, he pointed the glass skyward to make it flash. This attracted the pilot’s attention and the plane began circling around them.
A life raft was dropped for the men. They were rescued from the life raft and loaded onto another boat. Within a few hours they were at an outpost camp, where they boarded a helicopter for Iqaluit.
“Before we got transferred to the helicopter all those nights me and my buddy couldn’t cry. We prayed to God. We tried crying. We couldn’t cry. I lost my dad, three uncles and four cousins.”
Upon seeing the location of their submerged boat from the helicopter, the survivors were finally able to cry.
Today, Alainga’s eyes become teary as he remembers the moment he was reunited with his wife and two sons at hospital 25 years ago.
Over the years, it has been Alainga’s wife and siblings that have helped him cope with the aftermath of the tragedy. When he occasionally struggles with the thought of losing his father and relatives, his family is always there for him.
“Every time I tell the story, the burden that I’m carrying becomes lighter and lighter. If I had not talked about it, I probably won’t be here today.”
With time, Alainga has come to terms with what happened.
“It was a tragedy that happened but I have to move on. We can’t go backwards and bring them back to life. No, we can’t do that. We have to move forward. One step at a time.”
Today, Alainga is a traditional Inuktitut instructor. He teaches students about the land and boat safety. He continues to pass along the knowledge that was once taught to him by his beloved father.
Despite the tragic disaster, he continues to go hunting for walrus.
“Thinking about that accident will never stop me from going hunting,” smiles Alainga.
The eight hunters who perished on Oct. 29, 1994 were Simonie Alainga, Johnny Shoo, Sammujualie Kootoo, Jopie Panipak, Epeebee Peterloosie, lola Nooshoota, Ooletoa Pishukte and Kellypiak Pishukte.
Nunavut News was unable to reach the other survivor, Billy Kownirk.