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In the depth of a northern winter, hope persists for a vanished hunter

Jamesie Kootoo is the mayor of Kimmirut, Nunavut, but has been missing since he went on a caribou hunt alone at the end of November.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Exactly one month ago, the mayor of the Baffin Island hamlet of Kimmirut set out to hunt caribou in the rugged terrain of Canada's North, following the ways of his ancestors on what was to have been a one-day outing.

At noon on Nov. 26, shortly before the Arctic sun would start sinking on the horizon, Mayor Jamesie Kootoo crossed the path of another hunter. "I want to catch a caribou," Mr. Kootoo told him from his snowmobile.

That was the last anyone has seen or heard of Mr. Kootoo. As night fell, his wife called authorities to report him missing, setting off an extensive search.

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For the tight-knit Nunavut community of about 400, the disappearance of the 67-year-old mayor has served as a painful reminder that even a combination of ancestral tradition and modern search-and-rescue technology can meet its match in the unforgiving environment of the North.

"Young or old, even for the most experienced people, it can be very hard for anybody out there," said RCMP Sergeant Jimmy Akavak, who has been active in the search effort. "You can hit your head on a rock or fall through the ice. It can happen in a split second. Hunting can turn into something disastrous."

Mr. Kootoo loved hunting and was no novice. A Canadian Ranger, he was a whiz mechanic and had hunted since he was a child, maintaining a practice that brought sustenance to his family and linked him to age-old Inuit traditions. In remote communities such as Kimmirut, caribou remains prized for its meat and valued for winter clothing.

But the pursuit is never without risks. On Nov. 26, Mr. Kootoo is believed to have set out wearing sealskin pants and a fur-trimmed black parka. He is thought to have had a Thermos containing a hot drink but little food beyond some bannock or crackers.

Dozens of volunteers from several northern communities have joined in the effort to find him. They hope Mr. Kootoo, a cheerful and resourceful grandfather known for his survival skills, will be found alive.

"It's difficult for everybody, especially the family," said Sgt. Akavak. "It's never a good time for this to happen, but Christmastime especially is a time to be with family."

Mr. Kootoo isn't unaccustomed to mishaps in the outdoors. In 2008, while leading a group of Rangers during a dog-sled race, his snowmobile fell into a gully and he fractured his pelvis. He was missing for days, and survived by covering his head with snow to preserve heat and protect himself from the wind, according to local news reports.

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Mayor since 2008, Mr. Kootoo is also the local coroner. He acquired a range of skills working for the government of Nunavut as well as for the hamlet of Kimmirut, and is a capable oil-burner mechanic, fixing furnaces and boilers.

"He was a jack-of-all-trades," said Tommy Akavak, Sgt. Akavak's brother and a member of the local volunteer search-and-rescue committee. "He's also been hunting all his life and he knew what he was doing."

The search has focused on a lake northwest of Kimmirut where Mr. Kootoo was last seen. Fifteen volunteers drove by snowmobile from Iqaluit, sleeping in tents overnight, and others have surveyed the land by air.

But blizzards, rocky terrain and early-afternoon darkness have hampered their efforts. After an initial sighting, snowmobile tracks were erased by a fresh snowfall.

Some wonder whether Mr. Kootoo might have encountered unexpected open water.

"People have been talking about global warming. We hear that some rivers are still not frozen," said Tommy Akavak. "Nobody knows for sure, but it's part of our concerns."

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The community is not giving up. Many recall how an 81-year-old Inuit elder, Enoki Kunuk, survived a month on the Nunavut tundra in 2007 after heading out to hunt caribou in June.

The search for Mr. Kootoo will resume in January.

"Until we find evidence of his Ski-Doo, we won't give up, even if it takes us through the winter and spring," Sgt. Akavak said. "We still have the hope we will find him alive."

With a report from Carrie Tait in Calgary

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