A military search-and-rescue technician who helped save a 17-year-old boy stranded on an ice floe in the frigid waters of Hudson Bay, near the Nunavut community of Coral Harbour, says he'll never forget the dramatic experience.
"It [the rescue] was very rewarding and very challenging — the best one yet," Sgt. Randy McOrmond, based at CFB Winnipeg told CBC News in an interview Tuesday.
"It went very smoothly … to my relief. There were lots of challenges we had to overcome, of course."
The teen and his uncle, Inuit elder Jimmy Nakoolak, had been out on a weekend hunting trip when their snowmobile broke down on the way back to Coral Harbour, a community located on the southern coast of Southampton Island.
After Nakoolak departed on foot to get help, the ice cracked and the boy was stranded on an ice pan about 50 metres by 50 metres in size for about three days. Nakoolak was found on Sunday.
Jumped over ice chunks
McOrmond, along with another military search-and-rescue technician reached the stranded youth on Monday morning after searchers aboard a Hercules aircraft spotted him dozens of kilometres away from the community.
They parachuted onto a nearby ice chunk, and then spent about 10 minutes negotiating the freezing Arctic waters to reach the boy.
"We jumped over a few [floes]. We actually did end up falling into the water on a couple of occasions," McOrmond said, adding that they were wearing dry suits.
When they reached the boy, he was frostbitten and hypothermic, but coherent, McOrmond said. "He couldn't move. He had been on the ice wet for 45 hours. He was in rough shape."
Local rescuers stuck in boat
Four local rescuers then came on the scene, manoeuvred their boat through the ice and safely transported the boy and two military rescuers to shore.
But sometime later Monday, the boat got stuck while the men were trying to return to Coral Harbour. They were stuck about five kilometres offshore, 40 kilometres from the community.
"That vessel attempted to make its way back to the community in Coral Harbour. Unfortunately it has become stuck in the ice and it's unable to move," Capt. Mike Young of the Canadian Rescue Coordination Centre in Trenton, Ont., told CBC News.
On Tuesday, six additional men from Coral Harbour drove along the coastline on all-terrain vehicles, then walked for five to six kilometres on the ice pans to reach the lodged boat.
After a short rest and some discussions, all 10 men pulled the boat off the ice and hauled it back to shore — not an easy task at this time of year, since the ice pans are constantly shifting.
Never in immediate danger
"They were able to drag that vessel and kind of run it through the open water that was between them and managed that back to land, basically walking and dragging the vessel mostly," Young said.
The Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre — which groups the military, coast guard and other federal agencies for search and rescue missions — only learned Tuesday morning that the men did not make it back to Coral Harbour on Monday night as anticipated.
But Young said the men were never in any immediate danger, as they were wearing warm clothes and carrying emergency supplies such as heating sources.
Meanwhile, the rescued pair were in stable condition and being treated for hypothermia in Churchill, Man., on Tuesday.
Nunavut RCMP spokesman Jimmy Akavak told CBC News that both the boy and his uncle were flown to a hospital in Churchill for treatment and observation.
"Both are said to be stable, but the young man was very, very much hypothermic so they're taking precautions on how they treat him and how they handle him," Akavak said. "So hopefully he'll do better."
Akavak said while the teen was stranded on the ice floe, he was forced to shoot a polar bear that came within 150 metres of him.
Both police and conservation officers in Coral Harbour have confirmed that the polar bear was killed in self-defence.
Military personnel praised
More than 40 search and rescue volunteers from Coral Harbour, a hamlet of about 800 people, worked with RCMP and military crews in the three-day search.
In an interview Tuesday with CBC News, Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Walt Natynczyk praised the military personnel who took part in the rescue effort.
"It's what happens each and every day. Unless it's on the front page of The Globe and Mail, people don't recognize the courage, the professionalism, that our men and women do every day," Natynczyk said.
"I'm really proud of our men and women. But I'm also proud of their families, because those families at home had no idea that their loved ones were going to launch off to the Arctic, or what they would do, or the risks they would face."
Two Hercules aircraft, a Twin Otter plane and a helicopter were brought in to assist.
Nunavut RCMP reminded Nunavummiut to be careful with difficult winter conditions at this time of year, and to carry survival supplies and radio equipment when they go out on to the land.