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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Heroes 

What an amazing story, from Tuesday's Globe and Mail: Heroes from the sky
Alone, drifting on an ice floe in the Arctic dark, hunter Billy Wolki was facing the possibility of a slow, cold death. Then came ... Heroes from the sky
By Joe Friesen
Bill Wolki, an experienced Inuvialuit polar bear hunter and guide, was entering his 12th hour of frozen solitude on the ice.
He was thinking of his father, who had died in Arctic waters more than 20 years earlier when a boat laden with caribou meat overturned in bad weather. He was thinking of his older brother, who died more than 10 years ago, when his fishing boat capsized. And he was thinking of himself, wondering if his time had come.
Hours before, Mr. Wolki had set out in his aluminum fishing boat to collect a dead seal from an ice floe. He planned to use the seal as polar bear bait, for the benefit of a hunting tourist from Las Vegas.
As he always did, Mr. Wolki tied one end of a long rope to land, so he could pull himself back to safety. But when he was out on the ice floe, 10 metres from solid ground, the wind picked up and the ice began to move. The rope broke away.
Mr. Wolki was propelled into the unknown, adrift in the Arctic without a paddle.
His wife, Frances, and the American tourist watched helplessly. Fortunately, they had a satellite phone and could call for help. But there are few places as remote as Parry Peninsula in the Northwest Territories.
It took more than six hours for a Canadian Forces C-130 Hercules, dispatched from Winnipeg's 17 Wing, to reach the 70th parallel. It was joined in the air search by two Twin Otters from Yellowknife, but by then it was near midnight, and scanning the dark, barren ice was hopeless.
On the ground, a team of Inuit Rangers on snowmobiles came screaming across the ice from Paulatuk, four hours away. Among them was Mr. Wolki's brother, Hank. The Rangers were able to discern Mr. Wolki's last known location, and lined up their snowmobile lights to point the air search in the right direction.
They spotted Mr. Wolki crouched under his boat. A radio was dropped from the Hercules, and Mr. Wolki was able to speak with Sergeant David Cooper, a military Search and Rescue Technician.
He told Sgt. Cooper that he was unhurt, but he was cold and lonely. He had no food, no survival gear and, most importantly, no gun. He was scared that a polar bear might attack. Sgt. Cooper considered whether to attempt a rescue.
The risks were enormous. They would be aiming at a strip of ice 500 metres wide.
The sky was black, save for gently falling parachute flares. The wind was howling at 50 kilometres an hour.
Their trajectory would be entirely over water. If they came up short, they would smash through a thin crust of ice, drop into the frigid ocean and almost certainly die. If they overshot the mark, they would land on jagged, jutting ice that could leave them crippled.
The back of the C-130 Hercules opened wide, more than 900 metres above the Arctic Ocean. Outside, the temperature had dropped below -50 with the wind chill. Sgt. Cooper looked at his partner. They decided to jump.
Weighed down by more than 50 kilograms of extra equipment, they plummeted to the ground at a speed of six metres a second, falling straight down and slightly backwards.
At the last second, they pulled back on the parachute controls, slowing themselves enough to ensure a soft landing.
Mr. Wolki, dazed somewhat by his circumstances, watched them from a distance.
The SARTECS began unpacking their gear. Seven minutes passed before he even approached them. The first thing he asked for was a rifle.
Trusting that the polar bear hunter knew the dangers better than they did, the SARTECS gave Mr. Wolki one of the two compact rifles they had brought with them. He was immediately relieved. Seal carcasses — the polar bear bait that had sparked this crisis — were frozen in the ice barely 20 metres away.
The trio fought the elements together as they struggled to set up a tent.
The wind blew the canopy around like a flag, and the tent parts didn't operate well with the cold. Eventually, the group ran out of flares.
After 1½ hours, they succeeded in getting the tent up, and finally had some shelter. They lit a stove for warmth.
The three of them, with plenty of food, water and warmth, could now wait to be rescued.
They talked for several hours. Mr. Wolki told stories about bears he had hunted. He talked about the family members he had lost, and about his fear that he had been on the verge of joining them.
Even had they met in other circumstances, Sgt. Cooper said, they probably would have been friends.
The next day, they were expecting to be rescued before noon, but a helicopter hired by the Canadian Forces from a private U.S. search-and-rescue company was delayed by bad weather. A Canadian Forces Cormorant helicopter en route from Comox, B.C., to Whitehorse was diverted to retrieve them.
Mr. Wolki enjoyed a tearful reunion with his family.
He promised his brother, Hank, he would never make the same mistake again.
On Monday, Mr. Wolki was back out on the land, hunting polar bears.
It's what he does, he told his brother.

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