FEATURES August 23, 2007 - 3:00 pm

'I like your water. You Canadians have good water.'

Naval gazing in Hudson Strait


HUDSON STRAIT - On the frigid, choppy seas of the Hudson Strait a rogue Turkish ship makes its way for Churchill, Man., after dropping off a cargo of illegal drugs on Resolution Island.

Shortly after, a dodgy Twin Otter uses the old DEW Line airstrip to pick up the dope with the intent of shipping it to Quebec City.

But sharp-eyed Canadian Rangers spot the illicit drop-off and report it to military officials, who scramble a CF-18 fighter jet which forces the drug plane to land at the Iqaluit airport.

The Navy has a ship in the area, the HMCS Fredericton, and wants to give chase to the drug runner, but an ill-timed mechanical problem means the frigate isn't going anywhere.

But the Martha L. Black, a Coast Guard ship, is in the area. It takes on a heavily-armed party of sailors by Zodiac and sets off in hot pursuit of the drug boat, nicknamed Rusty Bucket.

This is how Operation Nanook, a 10-day Arctic sovereignty mission in the South Baffin area is supposed to work. The mechanical problem aboard the Fredericton is fake, but there were plenty of genuine problems with timing and weather that threw parts of Operation Nanook for a loop.

In fact, fog in Kimmirut and a broken landing system at the airport in Iqaluit forced military organizers to scrap a planned environmental cleanup exercise altogether.

But for the rank and file sailors aboard the Martha L. Black, it's just another example of the age-old military dictum of "hurry up and wait."

"This kind of shit happens all the time," says a remarkably frank Lt. Curtis Gear during a two-hour delay aboard the Martha L. Black.

And Brigadier General Chris Whitecross, the military's top soldier in the North, said the exercise, which marks the first time a Navy boarding party has operated from a Coast Guard ship, said Operation Nanook was still a success.

"We're getting really good at coming to a situation and reacting to it," she said. "We met all our training objectives. I'm ecstatic."

Eventually, Gear leads his dozen-strong boarding party up a rope ladder tied to the hull of the Rusty Bucket. In choppy seas, it's no easy feat to scramble up a ladder from one moving boat to another and if you fall, it's either going to hurt, or be very, very cold.

Wielding shotguns and MP5 submachine guns, Gear's men fan out aboard the ship in two groups. The first group secures the bridge, the second one searches the ship.

On the bridge, Master Warrant Officer Dave Porter, a military policeman from Petawawa, Ont., who's playing the role of the RCMP, questions and arrests the captain, played by Sub Lt. Ryan Bell of the HMCS Summerside.

Bell, doing a swarthy Middle-Eastern impression, chats with the boarding party, most of whom are looking really mean and not saying anything.

"I like your water. You Canadians have good water. Turkey is all brown and sludgy."

"You speak pretty good English," Porter says. "Where'd you learn your English?"

"Oxford actually," quips Bell. "I studied science."

While all this is happening word comes that the drug shipment has been found, and Porter arrests him.

Operation Nanook was also billed as a way to get its armed forces more familiar with some of the 4,100 Canadian Rangers north of 60. While the fogged-out environmental spill exercise limited the Rangers' involvement in Nanook, a handful still took part in the drug bust exercise as spotters placed on islands in Frobisher Bay.

"[The military] should come here more if they want us to get them out on the land," says Ranger Naisana Eecheak, 22, of Arctic Bay. "Rangers know a lot of things."

Still, Eecheak said Nanook is good practice for the Rangers.

"I'm glad to be a part."