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How an Innu elder, a doctor, and some caribou sinew saved a teenager’s life

Now 26, North West River man Craig Montague had a close brush with death as a teenager. He says he’s lucky to be alive after he accidentally pierced an artery with a hunting knife.
Now 26, North West River man Craig Montague had a close brush with death as a teenager. He says he’s lucky to be alive after he accidentally pierced an artery with a hunting knife. - Contributed

Craig Montague has a lot to look forward to in his life. The 36-year-old from North West River is engaged to his lovely fiancé, has a good job in Voisey’s Bay, and lives in a town where he’s surrounded by family and friends.

But more than 20 years ago, his life was nearly cut short before it had barely started.

It was March 1998, and 15-year-old Craig had just shot and killed his first caribou. He was on a hunting trip with his father, Ray Montague, and his uncle, Mike Montague, near Wattie’s Cove at Grand Lake. The three hunters had their caribou out on the ice to skin the animals.

Craig began skinning his caribou from the hind leg, when the large knife slipped and stabbed him right through the thigh and “down to the bone."

“As soon as it went in, I knew that it was bad...and I felt my leg getting warm with the blood,” Craig recalled.

“Every time my heart would beat, blood would squirt about three feet away from me. At the time I couldn’t feel any pain...but I kept my cool, I didn't panic or nothing like that.”

Craig had hit an artery with his knife. His father, Ray, began to panic. The men had no medical experience - and no first aid kit.

Craig remembered something he learned in school.

“It happened that the week before, we did a first aid course in school,” said Craig. "So, I knew a little bit about that stuff. I was losing blood and I just kept putting pressure (on the wound). I remembered learning that in the first aid course.”

Against the clock

Time was not on Craig’s side. The three men only had their snowmobiles to get Craig back to North West River, which would take at least 40 minutes. Even then, the nearest hospital was in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, another 40 kilometres away.

Craig was losing blood rapidly and there was no way to close his wound.

Whether it was by luck or by fate, two more people arrived on snowmobile at Wattie’s. One was Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue, and the other was Jane McGillivray - the doctor who served the people of Sheshatshiu and North West River.

“They were only like 100 yards away, and I bawled out to my father, 'go get her',” remembers Craig.

To this day, Ray is amazed at the timing of their arrival.

“It was just in the perfect timing. You couldn’t have called an ambulance to get there with any better timing. It was just like someone was watching over Craig,” said Ray.

“Can you imagine how fortunate it all was?”

McGillivray and Penashue were taking a quick ride up Grand Lake that day because they wanted to see some of the caribou in the area. When McGillivray saw the state of Craig’s injury, she confirmed the seriousness of the situation.

“There was obviously an artery cut and pulsing,” she recalls.

“When it’s pulsing like that you know it’s not a particularly small artery.”

The doctor knew she had to close the wound. There was only one problem: she didn’t bring a first aid kit, either.

Penashue, however, had a creative solution. She hauled out a sewing needle and some caribou sinew.

So, without any painkillers, McGillivray began stitching the wound with a sewing needle and sinew. The feeling of the wound being sewn shut is something Craig still remembers well.

“It burned when she put that needle in there. A bad, bad, burning feeling,” said Craig.

“So, I looked the other way. I was kind of sitting on the seat of the Ski-doo and grabbed a hold of the handle bars and squeezed tight. Shut my eyes and just looked the other way.”

Incredibly, Craig and McGillivray say the teen didn't scream from the pain.

Craig then took out a roll of electric tape and used it to secure a glove over the stitched-up wound.

Another challenge

Now that the wound was closed, Ray and Mike had to get Craig home, which would be yet another challenging task. They seated Craig inside a small komatik box and towed him back to North West River using Ray’s long-track Bravo. Craig’s uncle, Mike, followed them on his own snowmobile while hauling the caribou.

The weather conditions only succeeded in creating yet another obstacle for Craig’s survival.

“Jesus, was it ever fucking cold. It was frosty,” recalls Ray.

“So, you can imagine how cold Craig was, and he was numb, because he had to rip his ski pants and get down to the bare leg.”

To make matters worse, the ice conditions forced Ray to drive slowly.

“Grand Lake was the worst condition I have ever seen it in my life, and I travelled Grand Lake since I was a kid,” said Ray.

“The drift banks were so high, and they were hard as a rock. So, the komatik would come off of every bank and slam down on the hard snow. If I went any faster than I did, it would have beat Craig up, it would have beat the komatik box up; he would have never made it.”

When the men finally made it home, Craig was put into the back of Ray’s car and Craig’s mother, Wavey Montague, drove him to the Melville hospital in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. A doctor there was able to treat Craig’s wound and put in proper stitches.

“I remember the look of my leg when they took everything off...my right leg was about twice the size of the other one,” recalled Craig.

Lucky to live

Craig spent six weeks on crutches after being released from the hospital that same day. But that didn’t stop him from getting back on his snowmobile immediately.

“I was out on ski-doo again the next day,” said Craig. “I went to the cabin with crutches on the ski-doo. I couldn’t bend my leg; my leg was straight. I had to drive with my arms straight out so I could reach the throttle with crutches on the side.”

As for Craig’s father, Ray, he is often reminded of how lucky Craig is to have survived, thanks to a souvenir he’s kept from the incident 21 years later.

“I still got the same knife. I use it all the time for cutting bait off for trouting and smelting.”

Most importantly, Ray still feels gratitude for the two women who helped save his son’s life that day.

“We didn’t know what to do. And it was only for the grace of God that Jane McGillivray and (Elizabeth Penashue) just happened to turn their heads in towards where we were,” said Ray.

“That’s the most important thing about the story. He made it because of them.”

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