The guys who went out in the cold

When a bunch of soldiers from the South try to survive in the Arctic, they screw up their igloo and catch fish too small to eat



A group of Canadian Forces troops have built a new kind of igloo. This one, well, wobbles.

The lumpy-looking snow house stands next to another, far more orderly igloo. To be fair, the first started as an oval, while their rivals used a circular design. But now the half-finished oval has acquired a tilt, its walls rising and falling chaotically.

“Elders can do it in about half an hour. We’ve been doing it all day. It gives you an idea of their skill,” says Master Cpl. Eric Viau, who smoothes another snow block on the wonky walls. Around him, fellow soldiers are placing bets on whether their igloo will stand by day’s end.

Viau is one of 84 soldiers from Gagetown, N.B., gathered outside Iqaluit at Iqalugaajuruluit, past Tarr Inlet, last Friday for a sovereignty operation dubbed “Glacier Gunner.”

It’s a fitting title for a mission that saw their powerful 50-calibre machine guns freeze, then break during firing practice.

Good thing the soldiers are accompanied by 11 Canadian Rangers. It’s no coincidence that the wobby igloo lacks the guidance of an Inuk, while their symmetrical rival has Sgt. Dinos Tikivik inside it, reaching to grab ice blocks passed to him by a string of soldiers.

“They’ve come a long way,” Tikivik says of the troops. “They only knew how to set up a tent.”

During three days the soldiers will build igloos, ice fish and hunt seal and caribou. Or at least they’ll try.

The morning began with Sgt. Brad Young clipping a parked snowmobile as he pulled up to Iqaluit’s Gas Bar to meet the mayor and escort her to camp. He’s apologetic, but doesn’t need to be — he won’t find much argument with a C7 assault rifle slung across his shoulder.

He lists off some lessons already learned.

Lesson one? Don’t stand still when it’s -25 C. Armed Forces personnel are used to loitering about as they wait for orders. It’s a good way to freeze. When Rangers notice the troops shivering, they tell them to run around their snowmobile and qamutik. Or they just wrestle them to the ground.

Lesson two: Look where you leap. When the soldiers’ snowmobiles bogged down in overflow slush, Young says their first instinct was to jump off and push. Bad move — their legs were soon soaked, and by the time they returned to base, had begun to freeze.

When a female Ranger saw this, Young describes how she took one man’s leg, pressed it against her bare belly and leaned forward. “That captures the spirit,” he says of the relationship between the soldiers and Rangers.

The Rangers’ Tikivik says the military’s also learned from Operation Narwhal during the summer of 2004, when two soldiers became lost in fog and spent a night by themselves before they were rescued.

“For here, if we’re going anywhere, it’s with two Rangers,” Tikivik says.

In return for the mutual aid, Rangers had a chance to fire off the guns used by the soldiers. Well, they did before they froze and broke.

A 15-minute snowmobile ride away, another platoon learns another lesson: Hang on to those military rations. The soldiers cluster around holes bored into the ice, hoping to hook a fish. Gunner Eric Landry was among the lucky: he caught one after about six minutes of jigging. Between the dozen-odd men, only five or six tiny fish have been caught.

“Not enough to feed an army,” says Gunner George Spilkin, who wasn’t so lucky and gave up after 10 minutes.

Back at base, the Rangers call the little fish “sardines.”

The soldiers have had to unlearn some southern training, like never put snow on frostbite. The Rangers say otherwise, arguing this lessens the shock to frozen tissue as it thaws. Ice-numbed soldiers seem to agree.

Much of the soldiers’ education involves how to stay warm. Before camping out, soldiers spent a night inside the FOL as they tried to adapt to the cold. The following evening, out on the land, a few others froze — until they followed Rangers’ advice and dug a cold trap at their tent’s entrance.

But they haven’t had to worry too much about the cold, with relatively mild weather of about -25 C most days, with winds pushing the temperature down to -44 C one afternoon out on the ice. Still, four soldiers on Friday are being treated for frostbite back in the FOL hanger while the others try their hand at survival skills.

Lesser lessons abound. It turns out the military-issue gloves, Thinsulate with leather grips, don’t keep out the cold as well as simple cotton workgloves that cost $1.50 from the Arctic Survival Store.

Snowmobile and sled tips include: don’t use the gas you mixed down south. It will foul the snowmobile, causing it to splutter and stall.

Oh, and you can forget about Stephen Harper. This operation was planned far before the recent federal election campaign, which saw Canada’s new prime minister promise to beef up our country’s military presence in the North. Far from television sets, the soldiers only become confused when asked about how their igloo-building skills fit into the next Prime Minister’s military scheme.

As the soldiers mill about on the ice, they look a little silly in their olive green uniforms, intended to provide camouflage in a forest. They do pack “whites,” but they won’t be used in this operation. Rangers are known to use the white uniforms to sneak up on seals.

By dusk, one igloo stands complete — the one the Rangers worked on. It’s big enough to hold 25 people inside, and some troops are talking about sleeping inside it. As for the wobbly one — it’s been given up as a lost cause.

During past operations, Rangers and other troops would sleep in different tents. Not this time — as each soldier prepares to bunk up, he can count on sharing a tent with a Ranger. That means if any of the Gagetown soldiers have questions about keeping warm, which they will, they’ll be sure to get an answer. Or at least a wrestling match.

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