Hunters from Fort Chipewyan, Alta., usually start their spring hunt each April. South winds warm the air, the ice on Lake Athabasca melts, the rivers begin to flow and hunters head to their trap lines.
But no one is hunting this year. Instead, they're searching for four men from the community of about 1,300 who went missing last week. For them, nothing is more important than bringing their friends home.
Walter Ladouceur, Andrew Ladouceur, Keith Marten and Keanan Cardinal set off from Fort Chipewyan last Sunday. They were headed to a nearby area known as Devil's Gate, but did not come home that night.
The search began Monday with officers of the RCMP and Parks Canada and at least 70 volunteers taking part.
Searchers found the party's boat early on in the week, and later a boot that belonged to one of the men.
By Wednesday, RCMP ruled the search a recovery operation, with their families expressing dwindling hope the four could have survived without leaving any signs of their presence.
"It's hard to look in the faces of the families when you keep coming back with nothing," said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. "It's frustrating."
'It's a heart-wrenching feeling'
Walter and Andrew Ladouceur worked for the First Nation. Cardinal played on the ball team. Marten's daughter called him "the hunter, the provider."
Adam said he knew them from the time they were young. They're all experienced hunters known as bushmen and they're dads with young children.
"It's a heart-wrenching feeling," Adam said. "How can you explain it when you find a boat that's all damaged? You look around, there's no trace of them other than they were hunting."
Adam spent two days on a boat in the Rocher River and another on one of two helicopters searching from the air.
The river is treacherous, Adam explained. The water is deep and chunks of ice compound the danger. But the people in the boats go out, determined to find their friends and let the men's families know what has happened.
"We're a family," Adam said. "We want to bring them home. That's the way we are. Hopefully Mother Nature will give them back to us."