A man walks in the boreal forest near the town of Moose Factory, Ontario, Canada
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Lost in the Boreal Forest

March 19, 2018

A little over a year ago I travelled to the community of Moose Factory, near James Bay in northern Ontario, for a magazine assignment. While there I was introduced to Arthur “Archie” Hester, a 72 year-old member of Mocreebec First Nation. Archie had an amazing story: while in his youth, he had survived almost two weeks outside in the freezing cold, after getting lost on his snowmobile in the dead of winter.

I asked Archie if he could recount his story for publication here – and he agreed. His account below, in his own words, is an inspiring tale of survival. Not only does his tale reveal how easy it is to become lost in the outdoors (because of small incremental mishaps that compound), it also demonstrates how survival often comes down to endurance, resourcefulness and hard-to-believe forces of luck or serendipity.

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It was February 1971 and I was 26 years old. I was working as a cook in the small town of Fort Albany, on James Bay, in Northern Ontario. At the time of the incident I’m about to describe I had a few days off and made plans to travel home to Moosonee – where my wife and kids had already left to, on the plane, the day before. My plan was to drive a skidoo there, 120 kilometres, through the snowy boreal forest. It was going to be my first time doing it.

I spent the day before making preparations – filling up on gas and getting the skidoo ready. That evening a friend came to visit. He knew I was making a big trip the next day. Just before he left he turned to me and said, “Don’t forget to take lots of matches with you. Put them in tin foil, wrap them up and keep them in your pocket.”

I didn’t smoke at the time – I had quit cigarettes for a while. So I didn’t carry around any matches or lighters. My friend knew that and told me to get some matches right away before I forgot. So I did.

I left at around 4am the next morning. The plan was to follow an ice road that ran along the bay and was used for moving supplies between the two communities. But someone also told me there was a short-cut I could take that split off from the ice road. I didn’t know exactly where it was, but it was described to me in detail. I figured I’d be able to recognize it when I saw it.

Early in the trip, I came to a fork in the ice road thinking this was the shortcut. So, I turned right going inland into the bush. As I kept following this path it didn’t seem to be leading anywhere. The trail started to narrow. I began to think this wasn’t the shortcut. But I kept going anyway, hoping and expecting it would merge with ice road again.

By noon, I should have arrived at Moose Factory – but I still hadn’t gotten anywhere. By then I was really convinced I was going the wrong way and decided to turn around and follow my tracks back. But when I tried to do that, I discovered there weren’t any tracks to follow. I had driven deep into the muskeg (around 40 miles inland, I would later learn), and a warm spell a few days back had melted the top of the snow which had since frozen into ice. I had been driving on ice and my tracks were really hard to see. I couldn’t turn back.

So I kept following what little remained of the path. I ran across a small riverbed which I started to follow, hoping it would lead me back to James Bay. But after a while I realized I was following the creek in the wrong direction. I was going upstream, deeper inland, instead of downstream towards the sea. Before I could turn around, the skidoo got stuck in some snow. It took a while but I managed to pull it out. But by then it was getting dark.

I spent my first night by that creek. There wasn’t much around for shelter. Few trees to make a fire. So I slept on top of a grass-covered beaver house on the creek, wrapped in a tarp I had with me. I didn’t even have a sleeping bag.

The next day I woke up and could hear a plane flying to my north – where the flight route is along the coast. So I went off in that direction with the skidoo. But I had really bad luck again that day. After a few minutes the skidoo ran out of gas. There was nowhere for me to go. So I made a shelter for myself in a small patch of trees in the wide open muskeg. I felt pretty vulnerable. I had no food. I ate my last sandwich the night before. Some whiskey jack birds came around and I shared that sandwich with them. I also finished a thermos full of tea, which was all I had to drink.

Luckily, my friend who warned me to bring matches also told me to take an axe with me. So I used that to cut some wood and make a fire.

That was where I’d spend the rest of 12 days while out in the bush.

It was pretty cold most of the time. There was a lot of snow and I knew I was far inland. Trying to get out on foot was really risky. Because I wanted to increase my chances of survival, I decided to stay in one spot and hope that rescuers would eventually find me. I made a big S-O-S sign on the ground out of sticks and branches in the open area near my shelter.

I kept a fire burning the whole time I was there. It was a small fire, but it kept me warm if I slept close enough to it. I didn’t sleep very well because I had to wake up in the night to put wood on the fire to keep it going. One morning I woke up and saw that my pants were on fire – because I slept too close to it. Luckily, I put out the flames before they could badly burn me.

To keep the fire going I had to cut wood every day. When I heard a plane flying, I would throw lots of brush on the fire to make it smokey in the hopes that the plane would see it. It never worked. I guess the smoke was too thin and the planes were too far away.

Because there was nothing to eat, I had less and less energy to collect wood. I tried to find food, but there were no animals to catch and eat. I never saw a single squirrel, rabbit, or any larger birds. Not even their tracks.

To make water I used a small, soft-shell cooler bag – the kind with plastic lining inside. I filled that every night with snow and placed it beside the fire. Close enough but not too close. The heat would melt the snow inside and I would pour the water into my thermos to drink from. That worked for a while. But one night, about a week in, I placed the cooler bag too close to the fire and it got burnt. When that happened I didn’t know what I’d do to melt snow. After thinking for a long time about a solution, I walked over to my skidoo hoping to find something there that would do the trick. I looked at the chain guard on the skidoo, which was bowl shaped, and realized I could pull it off and use it to melt snow. I cleaned it as best I could and tried it out – it worked!

That’s how things were. It’s all a blur now. I remember hoping people would show up, but no one ever came.

By day 11 I could barely cut enough wood to keep me warm during the night. I was so weak. I’d chop one piece of wood and then sit down and rest for a long time before doing it again.

That day I realized that if I didn’t make it back to the road, I would die there in my shelter. I didn’t know where I was exactly but I knew where James Bay was from the direction of the sun and the sound of the planes. As a last ditch effort to survive I decided to just walk in that direction. I figured with some luck and effort I could make it to the road.

A man walks in the boreal forest near the town of Moose Factory, Ontario, Canada
Photo: Darryl Sit

So, I abandoned the camp early in the morning on day 12. It was hard going. The snow was up to my knees. And I had to push through heavy bush. I was so weak that I was barely moving sometimes. But luckily it was a nice day and the sun was out.

At around noon I got really tired. I cut some brush and spread it on the snow in a clearing. I laid down on it and slept for a while. When I woke up I had more strength to continue. So I started moving again.

I was pushing through more bush when I suddenly heard a plane approaching. I wanted to be seen and managed to get back out in the open. I saw the plane coming – and it was really low. So I pulled off my parka which was orange inside. I turned it inside out and started waving it. The plane flew almost right over me. It went past and then it started wobbling from side to side before it made a hard turn and came over me again.

They had seen me!

The plane landed nearby, but I had to go through more bush and some knee-deep snow to get there. I was praying they wouldn’t leave. When I got into the next clearing I saw the plane with the pilot standing outside.

I reached the pilot and he said to me, “Are you Archie?”

“Yeah,” I said.

He said, “Everyone’s been looking for ya.”

I found out it was a Ministry of Natural Resources plane heading to Attawapiskat, and they spotted me by accident. It turned out I was still around 35 miles away from the road. I was so happy they found me!

When I got on the plane, one of the passengers was eating a sandwich. He offered it to me and I said: “No thanks, but I’ll have something to drink.” I was worried I’d get sick if I suddenly ate something after starving for 12 days. So he gave me a can of pop, which I sipped really slowly. It tasted so good.

The guys then took me straight to Moosonee.

I was met by the Ontario Provincial Police at the airport and was taken to the hospital in Moose Factory. I had a little bit of frost bite on my fingers and had lost 22 pounds. But other than that and being weak, I was OK. I was at the hospital for four days. I spent three of those days asleep. The nurses only woke me up during that time to feed me.

I was reunited there with my family who were happy to see me. My family were what kept me going – the thought of my wife and kids and wanting to see them again. I told myself during those 12 days that I had to keep going for them. I had to survive for my family. It was a good thing that I decided to leave my shelter because everyone thought I’d fallen through the ice in James Bay near the ice road. No one ever thought of looking for me in the bush. Rescuers called off the search after a week.

On my last night in the bush, when I made the decision to leave camp, I had a dream that I was lying in bed and my mom came and sat beside me and handed me a plate of spaghetti. I started eating it. Funny thing was I wasn’t exactly a spaghetti man. I spoke with an elder a few years ago and he told me that the dream was probably a sign that everything would be OK in the end.

And so it was.

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