True stories: Lost in the Arctic
On Brian Koonoo’s fifth day alone in the wilderness
The snow stopped and the sun warmed the Arctic air. Brian ventured out of his canvas tent, huddling into his parka and adjusting his sealskin pants. He looked out at the snowdrifts, which stretched toward the horizon in every direction.
It was May 17, 2015, and Brian, then 36, had been out of communication range since the 13th. People were almost certainly searching for him, he reasoned, but what were the chances they could find him and his broken snowmobile, alone in a bleak, snowy expanse just above the Arctic Circle?
"If he was ever going to see his family again, he’d just have to start walking"
Brian climbed the hill next to his makeshift camp and scanned his hand-held radio, hoping to catch a signal. He built a fire, using cooking oil and what little debris and rubbish he could accumulate, but it burned hot and clean, producing a smokeless flame. He looked back to see that the snow had already covered his tracks. Any search planes would have a hard time spotting him—a tiny blob of colour in a sea of white snow.
For the first time since losing contact, Brian felt an overwhelming sense of despair. He thought about his family—the wife and five daughters who would be worrying about him back home in Pond Inlet, Nunavut in northern Canada. He began to cry.
In the distance, a wolf howled and Brian howled back. Then he made his decision: if he was ever going to see his family again, he’d just have to start walking.
The trip had begun as a hunting expedition
Pond Inlet is a hamlet of nearly 1,500 people at the northern tip of Baffin Island—a collection of corrugated metal houses out on the floe edge, where the sea ice melts into the open ocean. In recent years, the caribou hunt had been restricted to give the dwindling herd time to recuperate, but on the mainland the animals were still plentiful.
Brian’s plan was ambitious: he’d travel over 300 miles across the tundra by snowmobile, dragging a five-metre sled laden with supplies. Two hundred and eighty miles south of Pond Inlet, he’d meet up with friends, spend a few days hunting and then, if he was lucky, bring the much-needed game home.
On May 10, Brian left his family, travelled 20 hours southeast across snow and sea ice, took a short nap and kept going until he reached Igloolik, nearly 250 miles to the south, on May 12. He spent the night with his childhood pal Perry Atagootak and resumed his trek the next day, passing through Hall Beach.
As a Parks Canada employee who’d been hunting since he was three, Brian was a highly experienced outdoorsman. After leaving Hall Beach, however, his bad luck began. The plan had been to travel to a series of cabins in the wilderness—simple structures the locals used. He would use his SSB radio, powerful enough to reach over long distances, to determine exactly where his hunting companions were.
Now, as he stopped at the first cabin, he realised that the sack containing that device and his sleeping bag had fallen off the sled during the bumpy ride—lost somewhere in the snow. Brian had no way of communicating except through a hand-held radio with a signal so weak it barely extended beyond eyeshot. He spent the night there, then decided the best option was to try to get to Repulse Bay, a day’s journey away.
Further south, the flat terrain turned into hills and valleys, with rocks and drifts that threatened to swallow the snowmobile. That afternoon, the vehicle died, felled by a transmission issue. Realising he was stranded, Brian knew that the best course of action was to stay put and wait to be rescued. He set up his tent and hunkered down, keeping the Coleman stove burning to try to stay warm without a sleeping bag.
When Brian set off, his wife Samantha didn’t know exactly when she’d hear from him again. On a hunting trip in the north, communication is usually unreliable, and plans can be quick to change.
Samantha, 34, is doing a degree in early childhood education while raising five daughters, aged between three and 13. She was confident her husband could handle himself. But on Friday, May 15, Perry Atagootak wrote a Facebook post wondering if anyone had seen his friend.
When Samantha read the note, her stomach dropped. “I called his mum and told her, ‘I’m worried about Brian,’ ” she says. Brian’s mother contacted his Parks Canada colleague, who then notified the nearby search–and–rescue teams.
Over the next four days, while Brian braved the freezing cold alone, search-and-rescue teams assembled across the Canadian north. In this sparsely populated part of the country with its unforgiving environment, a simple mistake can lead to disaster.
Case in point: back in November 2011, the mayor of Kimmirut, on Baffin Island, went caribou hunting one morning and disappeared into the wilderness. His body wasn’t discovered until the summer thaw the following year.
Three snowmobiles had set off from Pond Inlet but they were initially thwarted by blowing snow. Searchers left from Hall Beach and Repulse Bay, all volunteers using their own snowmobiles to scour the trail for any sign of the missing hunter. That Saturday, the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Trenton, Ontario, got involved, sending a Twin Otter and a C-130 Hercules to fly between Repulse Bay and Igloolik, searching for Brian.
At home, Samantha felt like she was losing her mind. Should she jump on a plane to try to find her husband? What should she tell the girls? She lay in their bed, trying not to look at the spot where Brian should have been.
On May 17, Brian decided to take advantage of the clear skies to make his move. He had brought a GPS system, but it needed to be plugged into the snowmobile to work. With a jerry-rigged connection to his radio, he unit flashed to life. He was still 40 miles away from Repulse Bay, the closest hamlet. It would be a tough walk over hilly terrain, but by this point he had no other choice.
"Brian walked all day and well into the night, until he could walk no further."
Brian boiled water and filled his Thermos. He gathered the stove and tent into his tarp, but soon realised that dragging the weighty bundle would be impossible. He made the decision to fill his knapsack with essentials: his remaining ham and bread, emergency candles, plastic bags, a hunting knife, radio, GPS and ammunition. He wrapped the knapsack in the tarp and cinched it with a rope. He checked his coordinates and fixed his eye on the horizon. Then he picked up his rifle and started walking.
Brian maintained a steady pace, tracking the wind direction and keeping the dunes aligned so as not to veer off course. He moved through the half-a-metre deep snow, trying not to sweat or become too exhausted, taking sips of hot water from his Thermos as he travelled.
In mid-May, the sun doesn’t set above the Arctic Circle. Warmer weather would soon melt the snow, but for now, temperatures remained below freezing. Brian walked well into the night, making his way about 15 miles until he couldn’t walk anymore. On the bank of a creek bed, he found a snowdrift against a rock. With his knife, he carved out a snow cave—an emergency shelter his father had taught him to build. He sliced enough room for his body and covered the hole with his tarp. He crawled in, ate and fell asleep.
When he woke up a few hours later, Brian felt energised and ready to walk. But the next stretch was harder, the terrain hillier. He began playing the mind games you indulge in when you’re alone and desperate. Keep climbing, he’d tell himself, and you’ll see a hunting cabin just over the ridge. Then he’d make it to the top only to see another hill.
Midway through that day, Brian spotted planes in the distance. At first he assumed they were heading to one of the northern communities. When they returned, however, he realised that they were looking for him. Brian waved his gun, hoping they’d notice the glint of the metal. As they approached, he turned on his radio, fruitlessly trying to catch their frequency as they winged past.
That night the snow was barely deep enough for him to build a shelter. Brian cut a few blocks of snow from a drift and stacked them, then stretched his tarp between a rock and the improvised wall. He lit an emergency candle and filled his Thermos cup with snow, holding it above the flame until he could drink. Shivering, he pulled his arms inside his coat, buried his face in the soft lining and fell asleep.
The next morning, Brian was still shivering
His breath had created condensation inside his parka overnight. It was an ugly day, with blowing snow that reduced visibility to a few metres around him, and 40mph winds that cut through him like a blade. For the first time, he began to panic. His core body temperature was falling, and hypothermia was setting in. He knew if he didn’t move quickly, he’d die.
Brian hurriedly tossed his supplies into his knapsack. As he pulled the zipper shut, it broke, so he abandoned the bag. He stuffed his knife, GPS and radio into his pockets, filled a zip-lock bag with snow and stuffed it into his parka to melt for drinking water. He grabbed his rifle, wrapped the tarp around his shoulders and started walking again.
Three days into his voyage on foot, with little food, sleep or water, Brian was suffering. He would walk just 50 yards before collapsing, lying still until he summoned the energy to trudge forward again. At one point, the wind caught the tarp, ripping it from his hands. He chased after the scrap of plastic, but it was out of reach. Weak and exhausted, he watched it sail away. With little water, he was becoming dangerously dehydrated. One leg began to cramp up, and Brian silently prayed for strength, limping as best he could until he regained mobility. Then the other leg cramped.
Weary, he collapsed again. This time he didn’t rise. This is how it feels to give up, he thought, gazing at the snow swirling across the sky. His legs were at rest. He let his mind drift.
Lying there, Brian dreamed of his family. At home in Pond Inlet, their life was simple—watching films and hunting seal. In his mind, he heard his daughter, Alina, a rambunctious toddler who was constantly laughing. “Ataata,” she said, Inuktitut for father. Suddenly, he was jarred awake.
A nearby ptarmigan kept calling, an irritating cluck that seemed to grow louder and louder. Brian sat up. I want to see my wife. I want to my kids grow up, he thought, rising to his feet. I’ll start walking.
Brian trudged on. At times the hills were so steep he needed to use his knife to cut footholds into them. About five miles from Repulse Bay, he spotted radio towers—the first sign of a community. He staggered forward until he glimpsed a cabin at the top of the hill. With the last of his energy, he climbed up and broke in.
Inside, Brian turned on a stove and immediately heated some snow, gulping down the warm water. He found a package of vegetable soup mix and ate that. He removed his boots for the first time in a week and saw his feet—pale as snow, curled and wrinkled. Then he found a blanket, hunkered down on the couch and slept solidly for 12 hours.
The walk into town the next day was easy
Brain arrived at 5.30am on May 20, to find everyone still asleep. He felt suddenly shy. He didn’t know anyone in Repulse Bay, and he was sure he looked like a crazy person.
Brian saw a taxi pull out from a house, a sure sign that its inhabitants would be awake. He approached the home and opened the door. A woman was dozing on the couch.
Brian awkwardly explained what he’d been through. He didn’t get far before he broke down. The woman stared. “You’re the guy we were looking for,” she said. Her husband had been part of the rescue operation, trying to find the man who had just stumbled through her door.
Today, safe at home, Brian still gets emotional recounting the welcome he received. “Everyone was very happy everywhere I went,” he says. He recalls the feast in the school gym, the way the hamlet’s elders came to meet him—the man who’d survived in the wild, the man who’d refused to give up.
Back in Pond Inlet, he had another homecoming. At the edge of town, where the sea ice meets the shore, Brian held his wife and kids in his arms and broke down. The throng cried and clapped and cheered as he finally took his last steps home.