Updated date:

Survival in the Arctic

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Marten Hartwell was a bush pilot in Canada's Arctic. In November 1972, he flew a twin-engined Beechcraft airplane out of Cambridge Bay with three passengers aboard, two patients heading for hospital in Yellowknife and a nurse. All but Hartwell perished in the unforgiving cold of the north.


Departure from Cambridge Bay.

Departure from Cambridge Bay.

Leaving Cambridge Bay

On the morning of November 8, 1972, Marten Hartwell left Yellowknife heading for an Arctic drill site. The weather was bad with intermittent fog and his destination was socked in, so he diverted to Cambridge Bay and landed there. He expected a layover until the weather improved, but an emergency changed his plans.

Another flight landed in Cambridge Bay. Aboard were a woman, Neemee Nulliayok, who was in labour with complications, a boy named David Kootook with suspected appendicitis, and a doctor who was attending both. The patients needed to get to the nearest hospital, which was in Yellowknife, 529 miles to the south. Would Hartwell fly them there?

The pilot had already spent more than five hours in the air that day and he was tired. He was doubtful that putting in another five hours in difficult weather was a good idea. Darkness was approaching in the short Arctic daylight of November and Hartwell did not have instrument-flying certification.

As The Ottawa Citizen pointed out, “He couldn’t legally fly in clouds where he would need to rely on the aircraft’s artificial horizon and other instruments to keep the plane level and on course.”

But, there were patients in desperate need of hospital care, so Hartwell decided to go. Nulliayok, Kootook, and nurse Judy Hill, 27, were boarded and the plane took off.

A Beech 18 similar to the plane Hartwell flew.

A Beech 18 similar to the plane Hartwell flew.

Hillside Crash

For the first hour of the flight, the weather had been bad, then Hartwell emerged into a clear, starlit night. He realised he had gone off course in the fog and tried, without success, to make radio contact with the ground station at Contwoyto Lake. He turned on his cockpit lights and consulted a chart; that's when his plane smashed into a wooded hill.

Nurse Hill had died in the crash. Neemee Nulliayok was in bad shape and would die within hours. Hartwell had two broken ankles, a shattered left knee, and a broken nose. David Kootook, 14, was the only person to have escaped injury.

The emergency beacon had been damaged and didn't work. As was common practice, the plane had survival supplies on board and, with Hartwell immobilized by his broken ankles, it fell to Kootook to do the work. He built a tent out of sleeping bags and gathered wood for a fire. They had about a week's worth of tinned food and surely they would be found before that ran out.

The obvious place to look for the downed aircraft was along its predicted flight path; 90 percent of all crashed planes are found in a band 20 miles on either side of the expected track. But, the aerial search found nothing because Hartwell had drifted out of that corridor.

A heavy snowfall at the crash site would make spotting the plane from the air much more difficult. Day after day, search and rescue teams flew grid patterns over a vast area but found nothing in the few hours of daylight they had. Clairvoyants were calling in with claims to know where the plane went down; the tips were checked out but revealed nothing.

On the ground, the situation for Kootook and Hartwell was getting dire. The temperatures had plunged into the -30s F and their food had run out. The two saw occasional planes in the distance and had turned on their damaged beacon, but no contact was made. On November 27, the search was called off; there seemed little hope of finding anybody alive in the vastness of the Arctic.

David Kootook was becoming despondent and depressed and Hartwell wrote out his will. By December 1, 23 days after the crash, Kootook weighed 75 pounds. He had lost 40 pounds during the ordeal and, on that day, he died.

The Search Resumes

Bending to public pressure, the government started searching again. Hartwell managed to get the emergency beacon working and, on December 7, a military plane picked up his signal. The following day, rescue technicians parachuted into the crash site and found Hartwell clinging to life.

How had he survived without food? But, there was food. There were three bodies frozen and preserved. It was sometime before the story of cannibalism came out.

The subsequent inquiries put the blame for the tragedy on Marten Hartwell, saying he had put his passengers at risk by taking a flight that was beyond his competence. His poor navigation skills had taken his plane 250 miles off his planned route. He lost his pilot's license for a while, but no charges were ever laid.

When it became clear that the cannibalism story was going to come out at an inquest, Hartwell went on television with a frank admission. He ended with a quote from the polar explorer Knud Rasmussen: “Many people have eaten human flesh. But never from any desire for it, only to save their lives and that after so much suffering that in many cases they were not fully sensible of what they did . . . ”

Arctic search and rescue is hazardous and extremely difficult.

Arctic search and rescue is hazardous and extremely difficult.

Bobus Factoids

  • It was David Kootook's labours that largely saved Hartwell's life although he lost his own in the process. In 1994, he posthumously received the Meritorious Service Cross, which is handed out for “a deed or an activity that has been performed in an outstandingly professional manner, or with uncommonly high standards.”
  • In October 1987, Marten Hartwell crashed again in the Arctic. This time, he pranged a Cessna 185 near Fort Norman in the Northwest Territories. He was found two days later alive and well. There was no one else on the plane with him.
  • At the time of Hartwell's Arctic ordeal the world was abuzz with a similar story. A plane carrying 45 passengers and crew, including members of a Uruguayan rugby team, crashed high in the Andes Mountains. Those that did not die in the crash, resorted to cannibalism until they were found after 72 days in the frigid cold of the high altitude.

Sources

  • “The Epic Tale of Marten Hartwell's Arctic Survival.” Blair Crawford, The Ottawa Citizen, April 10, 2019.
  • “The Ordeal of Marten Hartwell.” Alan Phillips, Maclean's Magazine, July 1, 1973.
  • “Crash Pilot's 31-Day Arctic Ordeal.” Sydney Morning Herald, December 11, 1972.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 01, 2021:

Pilots no matter how well trained, should mark they limit. Besides, the weather is an element that man did not create, and has no complete understanding of. Why then should he dare think he's a master of the uoiverse, or more specific the the firce cloudy wind? I was very alarmed at the distance the wind blew the plane off course.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on June 30, 2021:

There have been some thoughts expressed in the context of this unfortunate incident about the ethos of bush pilots: "We are tough guys. We can conquer the elements."

I think Hartwell was overconfidence about his abilities; it might have been more bravado than compassion that made him attempt the flight.

As for cannibalism: in extremis, I think I would chose to eat human flesh over premature death. But, it's a moot question, at my age, death cannot be called premature.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on June 30, 2021:

Rupert, what a story! Hartwell knew he shouldn't have flown that plane, but his compassion for those in need overpowered his better judgement. I think many would have done the same.

I don't know if I'd be able to bring myself to cannibalism. I can't eat an animal that I've known when it was alive. Yes, I eat meat, but I try not to picture the life before its death. Hypocritical, I know. But, I've never been in a do or die situation, so I can say for certain how I'd respond.

And I hope I never find out!

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 30, 2021:

Rupert I was thinking of the fish of the Arctic in the first place, and those small greens. My thoughts were general as to what needs to be done in an adverse situation. For example, the Andes wreck involving the footballers had a more vegetative scene than the Arctic. But did the boys learn to eat any vegges down the mountain? There's also a river down stream. I understand that Hartwell broken ankle make him a misfit. But a military man could know better. We have to forearm ourselves with much adverse knowledge than the 5 positive ways to increase your income! Thank you.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on June 30, 2021:

Miebakagh - The Arctic is a barren wasteland, there are no food sources. The only vegetation available was lichen and Hartwell and Kootook made soup out of it, but that is not enough to sustain life.

There was a lake about five miles away that no doubt had fish in it, but getting to it through deep snow without snowshoes would have been next to impossible, and totally impossible for Hartwell with two broken ankles.

Hartwell had a choice - cannibalism or death. There were no other options. Kootook chose death, while Hartwell did not.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 29, 2021:

More than that it beat the mind why a person or persons should have resort to cannibalism. Whithin a mile perimenter or radius of the scene, one can find vegetation or animal, until relief comes.

Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on June 29, 2021:

Very insightful and informative artical.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 29, 2021:

Rupert, interesting indeed. I've read about the Ande crash, but not the arctic story. Thanks for the read.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on June 29, 2021:

"Clairvoyants were calling in with claims to know where the plane went down; the tips were checked out but revealed nothing." - I know a Shaman in BC who helped police with some work. Doesn't always work but when it does, it's great!

"Many people have eaten human flesh" - I'd have no problem with it in those circumstances. I mean, if the person is dead, might just well. I would not kill a person to eat them but if they are dead already and I'm starving, it's not even a question in my mind on what I would do.

Interesting story once again. Thanks for sharing!

Related Articles