Simon Nattaq lost both feet to frostbite when his snowmobile crashed through the ice, made thin by rising Arctic temperatures.
All his gear plunged into the water too, leaving him stranded for two days. He now walks — and still hunts — with prosthetic feet, and believes God kept him alive to warn the world about global warming.
"Today I am here because the creator allowed it," says Nattaq, 61, a city counselor for Iqaluit, a one-time U.S. Air Force base that is today Canada's northernmost city with 7,000 residents.
Nattaq and other Inuit, the Arctic people of the United States, Canada, Russia, and Greenland — in Alaska where they're known as Eskimos — have been warning the world for more than a decade about the shifting winds and thinning ice. Hunting patterns thousands of years old are in jeopardy.
"Our way of life is at stake," says Sheila Watt-Cloutier, just nominated with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore for a Nobel Peace Prize for their work on climate change.
Watt-Cloutier will argue before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington on Thursday that the United States, as the world's largest emitter of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, is violating her people's rights.
Warming is an immediate threat
While for many global warming is a distant threat, for the Inuit its impact is a reality now. "It's about real people who live on top of the world," she said this week before leaving for the hearing.
The commission, part of the Organization of American States, has no authority over the U.S. government. But Watt-Cloutier says she's looking for a moral and political victory, to help make climate change a bigger issue in future elections.
Nattaq is one of 63 Inuit from Canada and Alaska on the OAS petition she is representing, filed on behalf of the world's 155,000 Inuit.
Another is Pitseolak Alainga, who says peculiar crosswinds overturned his boat in 1994. The freak storm claimed his father and seven uncles and cousins, who were together in a hunt for walrus.
An anchor sits as a memorial in Iqaluit's stark cemetery. The field of simple white wooden crosses sits next to the frozen Frobisher Bay, a massive inlet of the Labrador Sea on the southeastern corner of Baffin Island about 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
Alainga pointed across the cemetery from the warmth of his pickup truck. He recalled how the lessons his father taught him, handed down through generations of Inuit hunters, helped to keep him alive for three nights and four days without food or water.
"My father used to teach me how to take a layer of snow off frozen salt water and eat only the fresh snow," said Alainga, a 40-year-old father of three boys. "We take the first top half of the snow and we make a ball out of it and put it into our mouths and let it melt. He told us not to chew the snow, he told us to swallow it when it was warm."
Summer sea ice vanishing
The Arctic is the region of the globe hardest hit by rising temperatures. In a major report Feb. 2, a U.N.-sponsored network of scientists said some projections show the Arctic's late-summer sea ice will disappear almost entirely in the second half of this century, unless emissions are dramatically reduced by such developed nations as the United States, which is responsible for one-fourth of world's greenhouse gases.
The shrinking ice cap already is forcing the polar bear, seal and walrus to migrate farther north in search of solid ice. Inuit hunters report painful scenes of stranded walrus and seal pups left to die on floating ice because their mothers are too heavy to share the rafts.
Scientists last December discovered the 41-square-mile Ayles Ice Shelf had broken free in just a matter of hours from the coast of Ellesmere Island, 500 miles from the North Pole. The ice shelf was one of six major shelves remaining in Canada's Arctic, some packed with ancient ice more than 3,000 years old.
The Canadian weather service said last winter was the warmest on record there since they began keeping records in 1948.
Watt-Cloutier hopes to put a human face on the statistics.
"There's no heartbeat to any of these global negotiations," said Watt-Cloutier, 53, past chair of the highly respected Inuit Circumpolar Conference. "We bring that urgency, that immediacy, because we tell the story of the Inuk hunter who falls through the depleting ice, how it's connected to the industries, connected to the disposable world."
Watt-Cloutier, who traveled only by dog sled when she was a child, fears her 9-year-old grandson could be from the last Inuit generation to know how to read the stars, the wind and the clouds, to hunt the food that keeps them healthy, and the furs and skins that help them survive the elements.
"Within my grandson's lifetime, he will lose what I had," she said. "The wisdom and answers from our hunting culture may leave us, because the ice is melting so fast."