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How I Got Home

How I Got Home

Sometimes, in the North, you actually do have to reinvent the snowmobile.
By Tim Edwards
Feb 10
From the February 2016 Issue

A broken boat and broken ribs

A leisurely two-hour jaunt becomes eight hours of survival on a Yukon River

Sergeant Steve Hahn is a Yukon-based Canadian Ranger whose speedboat instructor once told him, “Eventually you’re going to come to a day when your bravado is going to outstrip your experience, and you just need to be cognizant of that.” This is the story of that day.

“In the afternoon of a rather cool fall day, I decided to take my jet boat up from Carcross, Yukon, to see how far I could get up the Watson River—probably about five kilometres across Bennett Lake and then it’s a small river that snakes up back towards Whitehorse. I’d never travelled the route before and I wanted to see its navigability as well as check out the fishing opportunities. I started out at about 1 o’clock that afternoon and jetted across the lake and up the river.

“As I got farther and farther up, I started to notice that there was less and less water, but I’d been using a jetboat for quite a few years and felt confident that I would be able to make it. At about 4 o’clock, it was getting really skinny and I was having to make very precise moves to continue to get up the river, so I decided to abandon that idea and just return to Carcross.

“Unfortunately on my way down there was a rapid where the navigability was only about a boat-width across—rocks on one side, rocks on the other.

“With the setting sun and fall light, I was off just a hair and high-centred on a rock, and ripped a giant piece out of the transom (the horizontal beam supporting the back of the boat). At the same time, my jet engine kicked up out of the water. Jet boats rely on a certain RPM and water torque to maintain the revolutions, and with it only sucking air, it caused an over-rev. The engine I had has a computer in it, and when it detected an over-rev, it just locked up completely, so it wouldn’t burn out the engine. [The engine would have to be hooked up to a laptop with special software to unlock it. Thankfully, designs have changed now to allow for resetting the engine in the field.]

“The boat is a tiller control and I was standing up—which is the best position to be in when you’re jetting, to get your eyeline as high as possible. It went from 25 knots to zero knots and threw me forward into the front bench seat. Thankfully I had a life jacket on—in addition to flotation, it provides a high amount of body armour. But despite that, [the impact] caused some stable fractures of my ribs.

“So there I am, approximately 20 kilometres up the Watson River, high-centred on a rock. My boat is now sinking and my engine is effectively dead. So what do I do?

“Normally in this situation, most folks would be like, ‘Now what?’ With the Rangers, you’re always trained to plan for the ‘what-if?’ What is Plan A? Plan B? Plan C? I was wearing waders that day, had a survival kit for up to 24 hours, and I had the means to repair the boat hull.

“[The predicament was] you lift it off the rocks and then you have this 600- to 800-pound boat, that’s now full of water, going downstream. I just [went to shore] and hooked a line off to a tree and when I managed to get the boat off, I swung it like a pendulum to shore. Then, by bailing out the boat and by propping the stern up on a log, I was able to get it out of the water.

“I hammered the transom back into reasonable form with the back of an axe, and with both duct tape and this two-part epoxy adhesive, managed to temporarily repair the hull so I could get home.

“Using the oars—you should always have a secondary mode of propulsion—[along with] a small green pole [I cut down] I was able to pole out through the majority of the river.

“Of course, when I got back onto the main lake—this is a five-kilometre stretch over flat water back to Carcross—the wind was right in my face. Basically, what I did is attach the tow-line onto the back of my rescue-strap on my lifejacket, and walked across the foreshore the five kilometres back to Carcross.”

Use what you've got

Stranded on the sea ice with no snowmobile, two brothers set sail. But not across the water. 

Illustration by Beth Covvey

While you might not guess that this soft-spoken hunter from Pond Inlet, Nunavut, is a total badass, Solomon Awa has a reputation as the North’s Chuck Norris. He’s an expert iglu-builder and outdoorsman, and went Nunavut-viral on Twitter with the hashtag #AwaFeats, when Nunavummiut surmised that he could control the weather, crush rocks into diamonds with his bare hands to boost the economy, and laugh loud enough to knock a satellite out of orbit. When I asked him for a story about not panicking and getting creative in a bad situation, he casually told me about the time he travelled across the ice by sled and sail.

“In the spring, we used to go out to the floe edge to go walrus hunting, seal hunting, duck hunting, all that stuff. I think they still do; I’m not living in Pond Inlet anymore.

“Me and my brother went out. We’re at least 10 miles from Pond Inlet and we had to cross an open crack. Normally, every hunter in Pond Inlet, when we’re going down to the floe edge, we’ve got a little boat. That boat is about a two, three, four-man boat with no engine but an oar. We carry it on top of the qamutiq (sled). And we were using a brand new machine, which is the [Ski-Doo] Tundra, and those Tundra skis are very, very tippy. One little bump on one side and you’re off.

“We had to cross. It was almost 10 feet wide, the open crack. What we normally do is the snow machine goes fast and skids across. Because the qamutiq is carrying the boat [and it is fastened on], I can throw the rope across and the boat just floats and it goes to the other side, pulled by the machine. That is the normal way. 

“There was a little bump we didn’t know about on [our] side of the crack. [My brother] was going to go fast and skid across. And then I was getting my qamutiq ready, and he had no rope or nothing on [his skidoo] so he backed off farther out, and then he started speeding up trying to cross the crack. Just before, he hit the bump and it threw him off the machine. Because the side of the machine is plastic, it is really slippery. And it was really windy, and when it’s windy the ice is slippery. When [the Tundra] goes on its side, the track is on its side and one side of the ski is up. I was watching it and it hit the water. I was trying to run over to the machine so I could try to grab it but I was too late: it sunk. All of a sudden, we got nothing.

“It’s windy from the north and it’s going toward Pond Inlet. Probably about 40, 50 miles an hour, something like that. So that part of the ice is melted snow, covered with water, and there’s no one else around. There was only me and him, one machine [which was now gone], one qamutiq. We took the little boat off the qamutiq and then put the oar in the front, and then put the tent to make a sail, so we were thinking of sailing back on the little boat. The little boat, even though it’s plastic, it’s not really smooth on the bottom, so it won’t really go, so we figured maybe the qamutiq is better.

“So then we tow it back to the qamutiq and we put it back on the qamutiq and we try again, and we were able to sail by wind on the ice.

“We have two oars, so we put those two together to make [the mast] longer. We also have a tent big enough for us, big enough to make a sail. It’s not a triangle shape, it’s a rectangle shape. [Not canvas.] The new material. Very light.”

And you got all the way back to Pond Inlet? I ask.

“Not really. A lot of people are camping in the springtime, everywhere. There were a lot of people camping along the way. Probably about eight miles from Pond Inlet, we were able to go there on the qamutiq with the sail on it. We figured out how to make it turn. We were trying to make it turn by pushing it. But we figured out how to make it turn: just tilt the sail.

“We were okay. We were going by the wind. Probably sometimes a little bit faster than a dog team. And we would [stop and] have tea, keep going, you know.

“That’s how we were able to get back to the camp, and the people in the camp were able to take us back to Pond Inlet.” So if you ever lose your snowmobile, keep Awa’s story in mind.

Keep a carpenter around

When you're in one of the first planes to fly to the North, chances are parts will be tough to find. 

In March 1921, two Imperial Oil Ltd. planes, the Rene and the Vic, were the first to touch down in the Northwest Territories. They took fuel in Hay River and then set off for Fort Providence, then Fort Simpson, on their way to the Norman Wells oil fields. But they hit a snag. Or rather, a snowdrift. Twice.

The Rene busted its propeller upon landing in Simpson. So pilots George Gorman and Elmer Fullerton secured the Vic’s propeller and one of its skis onto the Rene and set off again, only to have the engine stall, busting their lone propeller on another snowdrift. This was March, and the pilots wouldn’t be able to get replacement parts shipped to the community until July. Luckily, they’d brought a plane engineer and the local Hudson’s Bay post had a skilled cabinet-maker, Walter Johnson.

In just under a month, the Vic was once again airborne. On the front of the plane spun a wooden propeller, fashioned out of oak and birch toboggan boards and held together with moose hide glue—and built to last. The Vic made the trip all the way back to Peace River, Alberta. (The Rene, still badly damaged, remained for repairs.) Today, one of the sturdy wooden props sits at Yellowknife’s Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.