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This Politician Survived Eight Days Lost in the Arctic by Hunting Caribou and Carving Igloos

Nunavut MLA Pauloosie Keyootak carved his own igloo with a knife to survive the elements after getting lost in a blizzard during a snowmobile trip in Canada's most remote territory.

by Natalie Alcoba
Apr 1 2016, 7:15pm

Foto via Canadian Press/Kevin Frayer

They had one sleeping bag. A camp stove. Fuel, tea, and some sugar.

But, perhaps most crucial of all was the knife, which helped a 62-year-old member of the Nunavut legislature build two igloos and survive eight days lost on the tundra in Canada's punishing northern frontier.

Pauloosie Keyootak, his 16-year-old son Atamie Qiyuqtaq, and his nephew, Peter Kakkik, 47, were rescued Thursday night following an extensive search by ground and air that had stretched on for days after they failed to reach their destination. They were whisked to safety by helicopter and found to be in good condition, according to the Canadian Press, which spoke to Keyootak on Friday in his office at the Nunavut legislature.

"That's how we survived — the meat from the caribou."

The trio had set off from Iqaluit, the territorial capital, on March 22 on what was supposed to be an 11-hour journey. They planned to snowmobile the 185 mile trek to Pangnirtung, then head up the Baffin Island coast to Qikiqtarjuaq, both communities which sit on the Baffin Bay, the stretch of Arctic water separating Canada and Greenland. But they got lost along the way, caught in a snowstorm that disorientated them.

"We were in a kind of blizzard," Keyootak told the Canadian Press. "That's why I got lost. I lost the trail road. I turned in the wrong direction between here and Pang."

When they realized their mistake they didn't have enough fuel to turn back. All they could do was build an igloo and try to weather the wind and frigid -30 C temperatures (-22 degrees fahrenheit.)

"My son and nephew, they got a caribou," said Keyootak. "That's how we survived — the meat from the caribou." He had to rebuild the igloo that started to break down after a few days.

"We had one sleeping bag, one mattress. That's all we had. The sleeping bag went for my son.

"He was the most important to keep warm. Me and my nephew used our parkas to cover ourselves every night. It's hard for me to survive in that kind of weather, cold in the night."

Caribou near Opingivik, on Baffin Island. Photo via AP/Stephan Savoia

Keyootak, whose mother tongue is Inuktitut, was first elected to Nunavut's non-partisan, consensus-based legislature last February in a by-election, and hails from the tiny Inuit community of Qikiqtarjuaq, with a population of just 520 people. Temperatures in the town have been recorded below 40 degrees — the temperature at which Celsius and Fahrenheit meet. The remote community, as one of the north-easternmost in North America, previously served as an early warning post for Russian attacks.

This week, though, Keyootak and his companions were all alone.

"During the day it was all right, when the sun was up," he told the Canadian Press. "We would stay outside all the time. We would get up in the morning and go outside right away after drinking tea. We would stay outside and move around so we were not just sitting in the same place.

"There wasn't much said. I just gave him a hug."

"Only when it got dark we'd stay inside our igloo. We'd drink tea and go to bed right away."

The day they were found by a Twin Otter search plane, their supplies had run dry.

"I was jumping happy. Very much. I was crying," said Keyootak of their rescue.

Officials and searchers had remained hopeful while scouring a 5,700 square mile area, noting that the men were hunters and knew how to survive on the land. Still, it was nothing short of elation when they were found.

"Honestly I walked over and gave Pauloosie [Keyootak] a hug," Ed Zebedee, the government of Nunavut's director of protection services, told the CBC of the moment the men walked off the helicopter. "There wasn't much said. I just gave him a hug."

He noted that the searchers had followed their procedures, and that every time they do, people are found.

"We just hope people will start taking communication equipment with them so that we'll be able to find them immediately when they get in trouble," said Zebedee.

Follow Natalie Alcoba on Twitter: @nataliealcoba