11/30/2014 05:30 EST | Updated 01/30/2015 05:59 EST

Laimiki Pewatualuk, Nunavut hunter, survives 5-hour trek after falling through ice

A Pond Inlet, Nunavut, hunter is recovering at home after his snowmobile fell through thin ice, plunging him into frigid water and forcing him to walk five hours back to town in wet clothes in below-freezing temperatures.

LaimikiPewatualuk was hunting several kilometres from Pond Inlet last Wednesday when thin ice beneath him suddenly gave way, submerging the hunter and his snowmobile in the water below.

"I brought all the necessary emergency supplies, such as a SPOT [GPS tracking] device and a flashlight," Pewatualuk said in Inuktitut. "My CB radio went down with the snowmobile."

At the time, the temperature was about –26 C. Pewatualuk tried to use his locating device without success.

"I may not have pressed it long enough," Pewatualuk said. "I also fired several flares, but they weren't seen [in Pond Inlet]."

So Pewatualuk started walking — and continued walking for about five hours. Eventually, another hunter spotted him and drove him the rest of the way home.

How to survive a fall into Arctic waters

Pewatualuk survived with no major injuries, but several hunters have died after falling through the ice into Arctic waters in recent months.

Earlier this month, a hunter from Nunavik, Que., died from an apparent case of hypothermia after falling through ice. Another man died in October after falling through ice while riding an ATV. 

Adam Woogh, Arctic Response Canada's manager for the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, said people who fall into frigid water experience "cold shock."

"You start hyperventilating. You feel a tightness throughout your body. You're breathing way faster than you need to," Woogh said.

"And what you have to do is just keep your head above the water, focus on getting your breathing under control and know that that will pass." 

That shock usually lasts about a minute, but can stretch as long as four minutes.

"In terms of surviving the cold water, making sure you stay afloat in those first few minutes is going to be the most important thing."

Woogh said there's a short window of time to climb out of the water while muscles are still working. 

"As a defence mechanism, your body tries to shunt all your blood flow to your core in order to preserve body heat. So as a result, there's a lot less blood going to the surface," Woogh said.

"That means the muscles in your arms and legs are not nearly getting the oxygen they need to allow you to keep swimming."

That means even the strongest swimmers usually drown within the first five to 10 minutes of falling into frigid waters. 

Use common sense and caution near ice

Woogh said it's important to bring a partner who can help if you do become submerged in frigid water, and make sure to check ice conditions before leaving the house.

"Don't trust water over rivers," he said, referring to the ice over lakes usually being much thicker. 

And if you find yourself on the land wearing wet clothes, Woogh has one final piece of advice: "Keep moving. You need to keep your body heat."