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Rescued boater recalls fighting for life in freezing Kakisa Lake waters

One of the men rescued from a capsized boat in N.W.T.'s Kakisa Lake says he 'accepted death' while fighting for his life in tumultuous lake conditions earlier this month.

Dan Acton says men decided to turn around and bring life jackets prior to boat capsizing

Dan Acton of Yellowknife holds up a life jacket. He was one of three men who was rescued earlier this month after their boat capsized in tumultuous waters in Kakisa Lake, N.W.T. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

One of the men rescued from a capsized boat in N.W.T.'s Kakisa Lake says he "accepted death" while fighting for his life in tumultuous lake conditions earlier this month — and that it's a miracle he's alive.

Dan Acton and his friends left for a fishing trip on May 16.

After their boat overturned in rough weather conditions, the men made a distress call from an emergency device. The call was routed to the United States, then to Fort Providence RCMP at 7:20 p.m., who alerted Kakisa Chief Lloyd Chicot. 

Chicot said the three men were saved after community members boated out and found them roughly three kilometres from shore.

The incident was nearly fatal, said officials at the time.

Started out beautiful

Acton said the men took a 14-foot Fiberglas boat from Yellowknife to fish in the Kakisa Lake area.

They had never been there, but had assumed it was fairly small and an "easy task to go across," said Acton.

It started off as a warm, beautiful day of fishing and exploring the beach, but Acton said the weather suddenly changed. 

The mouth of the Kakisa River, roughly three kilometres from where the boaters were found in distress. (Joanne Stassen/CBC)

"One of the things we didn't do is check the forecast before we left, and it turned out it was going to be a nasty evening," said Acton.

When the winds started blowing, the men decided to cross the lake and head back home.

"We just kept riding the waves," recalled Acton, who described strong winds and said waves were hitting into the boat. 

The men had a pump and a bail bucket. 

"We were bailing away and kept moving forward." 

Then it happened.

"All of a sudden a big wave came in front of the boat. And before we knew it, water was rushing in the back and it was sunk." 

Waves were roughly four feet high, rolling over us at times. ​​​- Dan Acton, Rescued boater

Fortunately for the men, they all had life jackets. Acton said that initially, the men left town without them and had turned around "without hesitation" to grab them. 

"I think that was real emotional to think about, that we almost left without life jackets," said Acton.

All three men were shocked and struggling to catch their breaths for the first minute, said Acton. That's when he made the distress call.

Dan Acton down by his dock on Yellowknife's Back Bay. Acton says initially, the men left town without life jackets and had turned around 'without hesitation' to grab them. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

Clinging on to hope

"It was pretty scary, I must say. Being in the water," said Acton. "Waves were roughly four feet high, rolling over us at times." 

One of the boaters suggested linking arms to prevent anyone from being swept away, said Acton.

"Stay together. That was the key focus."

Acton said he reassured his buddies several times that help was on its way. He said the men kept moving around their legs to keep warm.

"About 30 minutes in, we almost decided, 'Look this is it, help might not ever come,'" said Acton. "We had some pretty deep thoughts."

The co-ordinates provided by police placed the boaters just a few kilometres from the community's boat launch. (Google Maps)

Acton said that thanks to some of his emergency training working at a diamond mine and with the volunteer fire department, he was able to remain relatively calm.

Acton said he kept hoping that rescue teams would show up.

"But that moment never really did come for quite a while. Just sitting in the water, you start to lose hope." 

He said he still tried to keep the morale up.

They were roughly 20 feet away from us, and they couldn't still see us.- Dan Acton, Rescued boater

"I just gathered the guys and I ... told them — 'Look it guys, we're going to get out of this. This is not over yet. Just keep kicking your legs.'" 

But Acton said there was a moment where he almost let go, after his buddy told him about his children at home.

"I was thinking that was the end ... We were going to be a body recovering mission," he said.

"We accepted death. It was a very, very powerful moment between the three of us." 

'Holy smokes, look how big these guys are'

Acton said soon the men were slipping, starting to get severe hypothermia. He estimated they were about 15 minutes to letting go, when Acton saw something he thought was a mirage — the splash of a blue boat.

"They said they were roughly 20 feet away from us, and they couldn't still see us." 

He said one of the first things out of a rescuer's mouth was, "Holy smokes. Look how big these guys are." 

He's six-feet-one-inches tall and 300 pounds — and said his two friends were similar.

"They were able to pull us in the boat when it was life or death," said Acton. He said his body was not responding to signals and he couldn't feel his legs. 

After reaching shore, the men were medevaced to Fort Providence.

Looking back, Acton said the men should have taken more precautions, including speaking with community members before taking the trip to the new area.

"[It's] pretty emotional," said Acton, "To know that you went up and knocked on the gates but they were locked. We weren't allowed in. So I'm pretty thankful to be here today."

He says it's humbling to be on dry land again.

Written by Priscilla Hwang, based on an interview by Loren McGinnis

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