Since Sunday, members of 38 Canadian Brigade Group (38 CBG) have been busy learning a variety of skills necessary for far-north operations as part of Exercise Arctic Bison 13. Alongside 85 reservists from 38 CBG, 16 Canadian Rangers were present to teach winter survival skills.
On Wednesday, the Canadian Forces (CF) invited media and members of the public to the camp to get a glimpse at the training. Where the previous two days had focused on patrolling and search-and-rescue operations, the third day of the exercise was dedicated to cold-weather survival.
“We’ve been out here for three days,” Saskatoon reservist and University of Saskatchewan student Lt. Cole Janett said.
“It’s a good opportunity just to get out here and learn how to live in the cold. The temperatures haven’t been too bad … We’ve been in colder situations and whatnot. But with the help of the Rangers and a few of the more experienced guys, it’s just basically learning how to do our job in cold weather.”
The CF has declared its intent to expand the military’s Arctic presence as part of a larger shift of resources from overseas operations in Afghanistan back to Canada.
Speaking to reporters, Lt.-Col. Geoff Abthorpe went into detail about the CF’s renewed domestic focus.
“We’ve made the Arctic a priority in the government’s mind, and as such, we need to reconsider retraining ourselves to operate in these environments,” Abthorpe said.
“Many of our solders in the Canadian Forces throughout the last 10 years have been very focused on a desert-like environment for obvious reasons, and as such, we’ve ignored what we have as Canadians have come to appreciate, which is we live in a winter climate.”
Underscoring the CF’s changing priorities, he added, “This is not a war-fighting organization that we’re representing. We’ve had our fill of that, and we’ve done a really good job for the last 10 years. Now we need to turn our attention back to what Canadians need, and that’s Canada’s priorities here -- so domestic operations.”
The camp setup at Candle Lake was designed to facilitate the soldiers’ Arctic training and included a command centre, maintenance tent and medical support.
Lake temperatures on Wednesday were blisteringly cold and a reasonable facsimile of the Arctic tundra -- appropriate conditions for the day’s focus on cold-weather survival.
Soldiers that day travelled through four different winter survival “workshops,” which included signals, fire, shelter, and food and water.
Canadian Ranger Pte. Lindsay Blair was one of the signals instructors. He told the reservists how to use signal fires and signal mirrors to help people find them if necessary.
“In the event that they’ve had an aircraft crash or a mechanical breakdown or ran out of fuel or got lost or been injured … they need to attract attention of individuals randomly passing by or those searchers who are specifically looking for them,” Blair said.
“They want to get taken out of that circumstance. So this is one of the best methods of letting others know … where they are.”
At the three other stations, soldiers learned the finer points of making a fire in winter, building a proper shelter that maximizes heat, obtaining water by melting snow and getting food by making snares to catch animals such as deer and rabbits.
The members of 38 CBG were trained to identify early warning signs of hypothermia and frostbite. But equally vulnerable as the troops themselves was their equipment.
“Weapons maintenance is huge,” Warrant Officer Nathan Guiboche said.
“All equipment in the cold, it doesn’t work. Everything takes a lot longer, so you’ve got to really, really find out what the tricks are. You can’t take the weapons in and out of warm and cold -- they freeze up right away. So every day (the reservists) work on their weapons maintenance and make sure that it’ll work for us when we need it.”
With the help of the Rangers and a few of the more experienced guys, it’s just basically learning how to do our job in cold weather. - Cole Janett
Aside from the cold, snow can also be a severe hindrance to the troops’ equipment. One of the most frequent problems is vehicles getting stuck.
Thus, all soldiers on Wednesday participated in an exercise to dig snowmobiles out of snow and attach bungee cords to another that could help haul it out.
“It’s just one of the problems we run into a lot, is when we get stuck,” Janett said.
“We’ve never used a bungee before this year … so it can kind of be a bit of a process to get the sleds out. If you have to tow it, it can be kind of hard in the sleds.
“Using that bungee is just adding a little bit of elastic force to help you out. So it improved it a lot being able to use that … It’s just basically one of the new toys that we got and we were testing it out and it worked well.”
Following Wednesday’s activities, Thursday will see the troops engage in a new task -- community outreach.
Each platoon will deploy to Choiceland, Smeaton and Christopher Lake to find the local leadership, explore available facilities and engage with members of the community for 24 hours.
While such a mission might appear easier than performing more obviously military tasks in frigid weather, Guiboche said the troops had responded well to Arctic Bison 13 in its entirety.
“You can just see them from day one as they’re going along, they’re getting better and better and better, and the morale is really high,” he said.
“Our troops are … really enjoying this.”