Canoeists rescued twice in one day outside Arviat

Tourists had no GPS, no knowledge of tides


Travelling by boat along the Hudson Bay coast takes know-how and guts, because otherwise you may find yourself eye-to-eye with a polar bear or marooned in the mud.

“They weren’t unprepared,” RCMP Constable Bill Mooney generously said about a group of eight young women travelling by canoe who were rescued not once but twice in one day last week.

First, the canoeists, from a YMCA-affiliated camp on Wollaston Lake, Saskatchewan, had to be rescued from a polar bear.

Then they needed yet another rescue after they were stranded offshore by tides not far from Arviat, their final destination.

Last Thursday, the group set up camp at the mouth of the south fork of the McConnell River, 50 km south of Arviat.

Police said that at 2:30 a.m. a polar bear entered the camp, tore down a tent and then broke into the food supply.

The eight canoeists stayed in one tent while the polar bear circled around. They had a shotgun with them, but didn’t want to shoot the bear in the dark.

“I don’t know why they didn’t. For some reason they didn’t shoot it. The shotgun was awful rusty, and I don’t know if any of them had any experience. I don’t think any of them had ever looked in the eyes of a polar bear before,” said Cst. Sean O’Brien.

The scared women tried to fire emergency flares at the bear, with little effect. So they called the Arviat RCMP detachment via satellite phone, asking for help. At the time, they believed they were five miles south of Arviat.

O’Brien and Joe Saviqataaq, Arviat’s wildlife officer, went to answer the call for assistance on ATVs – but it turned out the women didn’t know where they were.

When O’Brien and Saviqataaq weren’t able to locate the camp five miles south of Arviat, they contacted the women via satellite phone and learned that they did not have a Global Positioning System device with them.

“They believed they were five kilometres from Arviat, but we asked if they could see the lights of Arviat, which you usually can see from 11 kilometres off, but they couldn’t,” O’Brien said. “They didn’t know where they were.”

The officers continued to search and finally located the camp 54 km south of Arviat after both parties had lit flares.

When O’Brien and Saviqataaq arrived on the scene, the polar bear, a young, seven-foot-tall male, was sitting on one of the tents.

“It was a mess,” said O’Brien. “Food was scattered everywhere.”

Savikataaq managed to scare the bear away using 30 mm rubber bullets and thunderflashes – a kind of pyrotechnic or firework.

The group left to continue the journey to Arviat via canoe, but found the headwinds and tidal waters on Hudson Bay too difficult to navigate, and, again, called for help.

Arviat’s search and rescue teams brought the tired canoeists back to Arviat overland on ATVs.

The previous week, a group of male canoeists from the same camp had also abandoned their canoes due to the tides.

RCMP officers say most non-residents can’t imagine the enormous tidal action in the lower Hudson Bay and are unprepared for it. Before the tide goes out, sometimes to a distance of three km, canoeists must head to shore and stay there or risk being caught in the tidal flats.

As for the bears, police say the canoeists should have carried wildlife scare cartridges that produce a noise when shot over the head of a polar bear.

Maps are also of little value in the flat landscape of Arviat, compared with GPS devices.

“If you have a chance to get that equipment, I’d recommend it,” O’Brien said.

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