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It was still dark as Simon Nattaq prepared for his regular Saturday hunting trip. He packed food, tea, a sleeping bag, a change of clothes and extra gas for his snowmobile. Usually there were two of them, but his partner had cancelled. This time, he would go alone.

Mr. Nattaq had grown up following the nomadic existence of his Inuit ancestors. Even after he had settled in Iqaluit, taken a government job and become deputy mayor, he remained a hunter - one of the most skilled and experienced in the community.

He finished his tea and took out his diary. February 17, 2001, he wrote. Minus 36 degrees and calm.

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For almost 20 years, Mr. Nattaq had kept track of the weather and ice conditions in small spiral-bound notebooks. He sensed that winter was changing. The old ways of predicting storms, which he had learned from his elders, were no longer reliable, and the snow was different - it wasn't good for building igloos until later in the season. More worrisome was the sea ice; it was forming later and breaking up earlier, and seemed thinner, less stable.

He and the other hunters weren't sure if all this was part of a natural cycle, or if the climate change they had been hearing about was to blame.

But seals, not global warming, were on his mind that frigid February morning almost seven years ago. At 6 a.m., he donned the traditional caribou parka and pants his wife, Annie, had made for him, tucked his eyeglasses in the back pocket and set out.

Four hours later, he was swimming.

CHAPTER ONE:

THE NEW WINTER

Winter is softening everywhere in Canada - despite what many people have seen out their windows in recent days. You don't have to be a climatologist to notice the signs, especially in Southern Ontario, where snowbanks aren't as big as they once were, and it's rarely cold enough long enough to bother building a backyard rink.

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After two of the warmest winters on record, Canadians have been told to expect a more traditionally frigid three-month blast this year. Environment Canada has predicted that, because of La Nina, a weather phenomenon that moves cooler air and water around the Pacific Ocean, this will be the coldest and snowiest winter in 15 years.

But one harsh year doesn't change the fact that the Earth is warming. Climatologists say they look at averages and patterns, and when they do, the future doesn't look so white. The trend, according to the Nobel-Prize-winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is toward warmer and wetter winters in Southern Canada. Satellite data show that snow cover in much of the Northern Hemisphere is declining. In a little more than 40 years, the panel predicts, all of Eastern Canada may be too warm for snowmobiling and other activities that require reliable snow.

Here in the Arctic, the story is even more dramatic. Global warming is accelerated, with temperatures rising far faster than almost anywhere else on Earth - and in the process changing the season that has defined the North.

From 1970 to 2000, average temperatures increased 3.5 degrees, versus a global increase of 0.7 degrees, and the rise has been more notable during the winter, says David Barber, director of the Centre for Earth Observation Science at the University of Manitoba.

Since August, he has been making three-week treks to an icebreaker in the Beaufort Sea from which he is studying how the Arctic marine system is responding to climate change. The project is part of International Polar Year, which runs until March, 2009, and will bring more than 50,000 scientists to the polar regions, many to investigate global warming.

Dr. Barber has been studying Arctic ice since 1981 and is astonished by how quickly it now vanishes in the summer. By mid-September of this year, the perennial ice that floats over much of the Arctic Ocean had shrunk to its smallest size since satellite measurements began three decades ago - an area 39 per cent smaller than its annual average from 1979 to 2000.

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The ice has melted, he explains, or gone south through the channels between Ellesmere and Baffin islands and Greenland. He estimates that by 2030, give or take 10 years, the Arctic may be ice-free.

When sea ice melts, it exposes darker water that absorbs the solar radiation that snow and ice would normally reflect back into space. This heats the ocean and in turn melts more ice, a loop that helps to explain why temperatures are rising so much more quickly in the North.

It also affects seasonal ice - the ice that forms every year. Sea ice always has fissures, according to Dr. Barber, but now that it appears later, it's often thinner and less reliable, even in midwinter.

CHAPTER TWO:

SIMON'S NIGHTMARE

Mr. Nattaq was about 40 kilometres southeast of Iqaluit - far out on Frobisher Bay - when the well-worn snowmobile track he was following suddenly turned to mush.

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His machine broke through the ice and he began to sink, a moment of panic and primal fear he has relived again and again. "That blue water," he says, through an interpreter, "the feeling of being under that water comes over me."

He struggled to get out, but the rifle slung over his shoulder caught on a ridge of ice and pushed him back into the water. He went under again, but finally got rid of the gun and was able to pull himself to safety.

Gasping for air, he turned around in time to see his qamotik, the traditional Inuit sled he had been towing, slide into the ocean, taking all of his survival gear with it.

It was only 10 in the morning. He wouldn't be missed for hours and he hadn't told anyone about his plans. "No one knew which way I had gone."

His clothes were soaked and starting to freeze, so he took off his parka and began to slap it against the sea ice to get rid of the water. He worked frantically for two hours, also drying his pants and sealskin boots. Then he started to walk.

He didn't head back to Iqaluit, but went north, toward land and where he knew there was a shed on the tundra. It was closer than town and he was sure he would find some blankets and a stove there. As he walked, he left a trail of ice chunks to guide anyone looking for him.

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But he didn't make it off the ice that night. It grew dark and, when he was too tired to go on, he covered himself with snow for insulation and went to sleep. He was prepared to die. "I felt I had completed my journey through life. If God wanted me to go, I would go."

He was concerned, though, about his family; especially Annie. He knew how worried she would be. He prayed until he fell asleep and that gave him comfort.

"A warm breeze came over me. I felt as if I were wrapped in a blanket."

Back in Iqaluit, Annie had expected her husband home around 6 p.m. When there was still no sign of him at 9, she called the municipal search-and-rescue team and was told not to fret - that Simon was an experienced, well-equipped hunter and had probably decided to camp out overnight.

"They thought he was okay," she explains with the help of interpreter Jeanie Eeseemailee.

A gentle, straightforward person, Mrs. Nattaq can calm a grandchild with a few whispers. But her voice becomes strained when she describes the two terrible days when she didn't know what had happened to the man she had met almost 40 years earlier.

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That was in 1963. She was from Kimmirut, a small community not far from Iqaluit and famous for its extreme tides. He was from Hall Beach, on the Nunavut mainland. They were both in Toronto, having gone south for medical treatment, and found comfort in each other's company.

A few years after returning north, they married and started a family in Iqaluit, where Mr. Nattaq had found work at a residence for high-school students from remote settlements.

Although they lived in the Eastern Arctic's biggest community, they relied on what the Inuit call "country food" and Mr. Nattaq kept the family well supplied with caribou, seals, belugas and Arctic char. His wife went hunting with him until the third of their eight children arrived and she prepared skins and sewed clothing the way her elders had taught her. She was glad Simon was wearing his caribou suit and hoped it was keeping him warm.

On Sunday morning, she again called search-and-rescue, still to no avail. They were sure Mr. Nattaq was on his way home, but she was sure he was in trouble. He always came back around the same time, and there had been radio reports of thin ice on the bay.

CHAPTER THREE:

SIMON'S SALVATION

By then Mr. Nattaq had started walking again, revived after drinking from a puddle he found beside him when he woke up. It was still daylight when he reached the shack on the tundra. He opened the door, expecting to find blankets and a stove. "But there was nothing."

Feeling spent, he settled in as best he could for another night at minus 38. Again, praying gave him comfort and made him feel warm. As he slept, the search finally got under way, and the next morning, he heard a plane overhead. They were looking for him, but how could he get their attention? "I had to find a shiny object."

He ripped a metal shingle off the roof of the shed and used it to reflect light from the sun. The signal worked.

But now that he knew help was on the way, it seemed to take forever. The closest searchers were 24 kilometres away. When they finally arrived, it had been 53 hours since he had gone into the water. "I kept up my strength the whole time, but when I saw them, I collapsed."

By the time Mr. Nattaq arrived at the hospital in Iqaluit, the glasses in his back pocket were covered in a layer of ice five centimetres thick and his feet and legs were severely frostbitten.

But as Mrs. Nattaq rushed to his side, someone grabbed her arm and told her that, if it hadn't been for the caribou-skin clothing, her husband wouldn't have made it.

"I still wonder how he didn't perish in that water," she says.

CHAPTER FOUR:

ALIEN INVASION

In the 1970s, climate models predicted that global warming would affect the Arctic earlier and more dramatically than other parts of the planet.

Climate change was a hotly contested theory back then, but over the years, many scientists have become convinced that the heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate really are warming the Earth. Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its fourth report, and declared that the evidence is "unequivocal" and, unless something is done, there will be a rise in sea levels, more fierce storms, more floods and droughts.

IPCC scientists say that, by 2050, winter in Southern Canada will be rainy, more like an extended November. The Arctic will still get snow, but it may be falling on trees instead of tundra, and invasive species may squeeze out many native plants and animals that, from bacteria to polar bears, have adapted to the cold.

The people also have adapted to the cold, says Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, and are now paying a heavy price. They rely on ice and snow for food and travel - imagine having your highways and grocery stores turn into a puddle.

She says the Inuit are uniquely positioned to sound the alarm on global warming because they are living through the kind of dramatic changes that scientists say could affect every country in the world.

She believes that they can make a case for taking action on global warming that can't be ignored.

CHAPTER FIVE:

SIMON TODAY

Simon Nattaq still can shoot a caribou from his snowmobile, but he can no longer load it on his qamotik. By the time he was rescued, his feet and lower legs were so badly frostbitten that he had to stay in hospital in Iqaluit until April. Then he was flown south to Ottawa, where doctors finally decided they had to amputate.

Now 62, he has learned to walk in snow on his prosthetic legs, but he can't kneel, so when he goes hunting, he takes along a folding chair. "I have to quarter the caribou before I bring them home."

And yet with his broad shoulders and proud carriage, he remains an imposing figure. His can look and sound stern, but enjoys a good laugh, whether pretending to mistake rooftop Christmas reindeer for caribou or claiming that he is really David Suzuki. (There is a resemblance.)

It is cozy in the kitchen of the home he and his wife share with two grown sons: The Queen smiles benignly on the wall, Annie is at the stove frying bannock as two visiting grandchildren curl up on the couch watching television.

But as her husband tells the story of how he almost died, and shivers in the process, a distant look comes over his face and Annie seems so stricken at times that Jeanie, the interpreter, reaches over to comfort her.

Almost seven years after his ordeal, Mr. Nattaq's memories - preparing to die as he lay in the dark on the ice, hearing a search plane pass him by - remain so vivid that "sometimes I shed tears," he says.

How did he survive? He believes it was a miracle and credits the power of prayer and hope - and his wife. "Annie's craftsmanship must be recognized."

He doesn't mention his enormous physical and mental strength, but is hard to imagine many men making it through such an ordeal, or taking their first steps just one month after having their lower legs amputated. "I'm not the type of person who sits around. Everyone was amazed at how fast I recovered."

To get around, he uses walking sticks with nail-like tips - one if he's in town, two out on the land. He walks stiffly, but confidently. He doesn't like to complain but, like many amputees, he still experiences "phantom pain" in his missing feet and shins.

At first, his wife didn't want him to hunt again and refused to make more traditional clothes. Then she relented and sewed a wolf parka with polar bear pants. But he wears them only on land. He has tried to hunt seals again but, every time he steps on the ice, "I get overwhelmed by fear."

His freezer contains what is left of the caribou he killed in October and Mrs. Nattaq nibbles on a frozen piece of its stomach lining as she digs for whale blubber and seal fat under the frozen pizzas. But her husband says he's not the hunter he once was. "Before the accident, my family had the best choice of country food. I could go further to get the best caribou. I can't go as far now."

He is certainly more cautious and recently cancelled an outing for more caribou because his snowmobile was acting up. When he does go, he always carries his cellphone. (Most hunters now travel with cellphones or satellite phones, which work, he says, even 40 kilometres out on the ice.) He also takes a small red light to flash, should he need to attract the attention of a rescue team.

He also wishes he could afford to keep a dog team, which can sniff out thin ice and guide a sled around it. Dogs also put a hunter in closer contact with the ice. Snowmobiles travel so fast that they can go from safety to danger within seconds.

He keeps busy. Although he had to stop working at the school after the accident, he is still on city council - a paying position - and attends the Anglican church. He also belongs to a community group formed to pass on traditional Inuit skills and knowledge. He teaches how to build an igloo or how to make qamotiks.

He doesn't talk much about his accident, especially to outsiders, but hopes it can inspire people. "As we go through life, we go through many hardships. Never give up."

As for global warming, he believes that the Inuit will adapt and stay in their ancestral lands, come what may. He is more worried about the animals - the polar bears, caribou and seals, which he says are already showing signs of stress.

People need to understand the problem is real, he says. "I feel that everybody in the world should work together on global warming.

"If we work together, we can find a better way to do things."

Anne McIlroy is The Globe and Mail's science reporter and Fred Lum is a staff photographer.

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