Jason Subgut has made the trip between Baker Lake and Chesterfield Inlet many times but, until last weekend, never had he spent it in a frenzy, wondering if his life was over.
Subgut, 31, loaded up his Ace 900 Ski-Doo around 7 a.m. on Friday, June 5 and headed for Chesterfield Inlet to see his infant daughter. He was carrying extra gas, his cellphone and a GPS.
A few hours into his trip, he encountered a mix of rain, snow and fog that limited his visibility and disoriented him. His cellphone died and his GPS began malfunctioning.
After a while, his GPS responded and he resumed his travels. Eventually, he realized the GPS was still faulty because he was being led in circles – evidenced by the same hill that he went around and he made the same river crossing for a second time.
“I freaked out from there,” Subgut admitted. “That’s the first thing I should never do is panic, but I panicked because I lost my bearings, I lost my way.”
He was also very low on fuel and he knew he was going to be stranded.
“No one knows where I am – not even my family knows where I am. I have no SPOT (communications device) with me. I have no satellite phone with me. I’m scared,” he said of the terrifying circumstances.
Fortunately, Subgut had informed his mother and a neighbour that he was leaving for Chesterfield Inlet. His mother notified Baker Lake Search and Rescue on Friday afternoon that he didn’t reach his destination.
Subgut decided to stay with his snowmobile. Because he hadn’t packed any food, he snacked on old withered berries. He drank water pooled in the depressions of stones.
‘I asked God to protect me’
He made a modest shelter using nearby rocks. Standing about two-feet high, it was enough to protect him from the elements when he huddled under it. He passed the first night there. The moss he used as bedding gave him a little added comfort but his windpants, parka and all-season boots didn’t prevent him from shivering overnight, when the temperature dipped to around -10 C. He could only sleep fitfully, maybe 20 minutes at a time.
“If I slept right through the night, I probably would have froze to death,” he said, adding that he worried about grizzly and polar bears hunting him since he didn’t have a rifle. “I asked God to protect me.”
Although Subgut knows it’s recommended to stay with one’s machine when lost, he said he was unable to fight the urge to start walking on Saturday.
His GPS, although unreliable, indicated that Chesterfield Inlet was still 160 km away. Baker Lake was approximately 75 km. But he only made it 2.8 kms before collapsing on Saturday evening.
“My legs gave out. My energy was drained. I couldn’t move anymore,” he recalled. “I was exhausted, hungry, tired, cold … I curled up into a ball to keep myself warm.”
He was fearing the worst as he lied there next to some boulders.
“I was like, ‘This is going to be my final resting place, whether they find me or not,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “All I could think about was my daughter and my son, nothing else.”
His son Rajon is four. His daugher Ava Marie was born in January.
Unbeknownst to Subgut, search and rescue volunteers Sam Qarliksaq, John Etegoyok, Solomon Mariq and Patrick Attungala departed Baker Lake on Friday afternoon and were scouring the landscape for him. Meanwhile, Baker Lake mayor and longtime search and rescue leader Richard Aksawnee coordinated the search without sleep on Friday night and into Saturday.
The searchers found Subgut on Sunday around 5 a.m. He was roused from his slumber by a snowmobile in the distance. At first he thought he was dreaming. Then he began whistling and waving his arms with all the strength he could muster.
One of the men spotted him.
“It was a real relief,” Subgut said. “They gave me food. They gave me tea, coffee. I was able to warm up with a Coleman stove under a tarp.
“One member (of the search and rescue crew) said, ‘We were not going to stop until we found you.’ They were really determined … I told them that there’s no amount of money I could ever give you to thank you guys.”
‘My dad’s looking out for me’
Aksawnee said there were about a dozen other volunteers in Baker Lake who were ready to help out in any way they could.
“If we have something that needs responding to, the community does come together right away,” he said.
The number of search and rescue missions has fallen substantially over the past decade – from more than a dozen year to about six – due to the availability of GNWT-provided SPOT devices that can be signed out by community members who travelling on the land, said Aksawnee.
Subgut, who started going on hunting trips at age four, had another close call while riding an all-terrain vehicle into a river last year. He was able to get himself out of that jam, but he said he heard a voice guiding him.
“My dad’s looking out for me. I love my dad. He’s up in heaven,” he said. “He’s always been on the lookout for me.”