“He took a shot and he turned around, went to the caribou and, so it wouldn’t be painful, stabbed it in the heart,” Mr. Iserhoff said. “It was so natural and, at the same time, supernatural.”
He also had an amazing ability to spot animals where fellow hunters saw none. David Kawapit, the 18-year-old organizer of the Nishiyuu trek, said that during a recent fishing trip he was about to cast his line but swung his rod too far back and accidentally snagged his uncle’s bag, hooking into a ptarmigan he had no idea was there.
“I didn’t know you killed one of those,” he recalls saying.
Mr. Mukash remembers a similar incident while hunting goose with Mr. Kawapit in 2011. After walking a while without luck, he realized he had lost Mr. Kawapit, who reappeared minutes later holding several birds. Mr. Mukash was astonished.
“When he got to me, he had his hunting bag full and I said, ‘What happened?’ And he said, ‘You went by a lot of ptarmigan and some goose and partridge.’ ”
This connection with nature was Mr. Kawapit’s education and greatest success.
He never made it to high school and was on welfare most of his life, said his cousin Rachel Kawapit, but he held various odd jobs, including in carpentry and construction. For some time, she said, he worked as a cell guard at the town police station and as a security guard at the local sports arena.
A lot of the work he did, however, was unpaid. “He would walk in the community and offer anyone to help them fix up their Hondas [gas generators] or their Ski-Doos,” Ms. Kawapit said. “He was a gifted man.”
He was known to help anyone in need, never attracting attention to himself, just as he let few people know about his demons.
“He was struggling with his life and yet he would always come in with a smile like he had no worries,” Ms. Kawapit said. “He didn’t have much material things – he had the clothes that he wore and yet I never heard him complain.”
Her favourite memory of her cousin was playing hockey together in the bush, using foam from old mattresses as goalie pads. (According to nephew David, he liked the Edmonton Oilers and Washington Capitals but hated the Montreal Canadiens.)
Mr. Kawapit married in 1992 but was hit hard when, nearly a decade later, the relationship broke up and he lost custody of his four children.
In 2002, “he took another turn down when his grandmother passed away,” Ms. Kawapit said. And the death of his son Kyle to pneumonia and heart complications five years later was a further blow.
Mr. Kawapit was known to be protective of the young. When Mr. George was a boy, he said a teenaged Mr. Kawapit was “a protector, a guardian.” He would wait outside a local pool hall to shoo away bullies who picked on the future chief and his friends.
He also fought to spare others his struggle with alcohol, which now permeates the community. David Kawapit was small and surrounded by alcohol at home when his uncle took him and his sister to live with their grandparents.
That memory and his uncle’s reputation as a humble and trustworthy man of the land prompted David to ask him to act as a guide for the trek to Ottawa.
“He taught me how to hunt, how to live off the land and how to survive,” said David, who killed his first goose in the company of his uncle.
Even attempting the 68-day trek was seen as a sign of Mr. Kawapit’s dedication – despite his skills as an outdoorsman, he was burdened with his demons, and knee trouble made carrying a staff a necessity. “I may likely die along the way,” he told Mr. Mukash, “but I’m going to do this for the young people.”
During the walk, he helped the younger men cook, kill porcupine to send back home, and avoid thin ice while crossing lakes and creeks. He boiled water, dried wet socks over a fire, and massaged David’s sore ankle with heated rocks.