Son describes emotional mission to find missing Arviat hunter
Thomas Hiatalaaq Alikaswa was missing for 10 days after going out on the land May 2
It was a red object spotted in the distance and a hunch that it might be something important that led Jamie Kablutsiak to his father.
It was May 12, and Kablutsiak was taking part in one of several search flights as a spotter in one of Ookpik Aviation’s Twin Otter planes, scouring the land for Thomas Hiatalaaq Alikaswa.
Alikaswa had been missing for 10 days. He went out on the land on his snowmobile and his qamutik, a traditional sled, around May 2.
When Kablutsiak learned his father still had not come home by May 5, he didn’t think much of it.
It wasn’t until Kablutsiak himself spent the May 6 and 7 weekend on the land that he learned a search-and-rescue mission had been formed to find his father. He soon joined in.
The week rescuers spent looking for his father was stressful and scary, Kablutsiak said. And yet he, his family and the community held on to the hope that his father was still alive, somewhere out there.
“I had that confidence deep down in my heart, and I knew that dad was OK,” Kablutsiak said in a phone interview.
“I had that confidence that I’ll find him.”
A pivotal moment came May 10 when Alikaswa’s qamutik was discovered, trapped in some branches with most of his supplies still there, including his gun.
The searchers used the qamutik as a point of reference for future searches.
Kablutsiak said he shed tears at times when his father still couldn’t be found.
But then he spotted the red object in the distance through his binoculars.
Knowing Alikaswa often goes out in a red jacket, Kablutsiak had a hunch it was him.
“We were all yelling away in disbelief,” Kablutsiak said.
The crew brought the helicopter closer to Alikaswa, who was waving them down.
“I got off the chopper, ran to my dad as fast as I could, hugged him really hard and tight,” Kablutsiak said.
“We had a big group hug… I had that fight in me to find him, I had that confidence.”
Alikaswa was located about 175 kilometres outside Arviat.
For Thomas Hiatalaaq Alikaswa’s friends and family, this was the best news they could have hoped for.
Daniel Alareak, the community’s search-and-rescue co-ordinator, made the announcement on a local radio that Alikaswa was found.
“They are now bringing him home; he is OK,” he said in Inuktitut.
He recalled the excitement among his colleagues when the news came in that Alikaswa had been located.
“There was some yelling happening and tears in [the] hamlet office,” he said. “It was pretty exciting.”
When Alikaswa stepped off the plane, he was greeted by a large crowd of Arviat residents who came to celebrate his safe return and lead him on a parade through town.
Then he was taken to a health centre as a precaution but was able to go home the next day.
Kablutsiak said his father is not ready to share details from the ordeal. But when he is ready, Kablutsiak said, Alikaswa will have a good story to tell.
Since coming back, he has spent time with his family and friends.
Kablutsiak reiterated his appreciation for the work of the rescuers who looked for his father, and thanked everyone from Arviat and beyond who wished his family well with their words and prayers.
“I just want to thank the man upstairs for guiding him, and for all the prayers that were said for my dad to be safe, and for all the support that we got from the community,” Kablutsiak said.
“Thank you is not enough.”
Alareak urged anyone who becomes stranded on the land to stay close to the tools they have and survive off the land; doing anything else could make the search more difficult.
“Stay where you are when there’s engine failures or [you] cannot move anymore,” he said.
“Please stay where you could survive from your stuff.”