Day 1 – Not the only enemy

Posted on March 8, 2012


I’m in the Northwest Territories, wearing Canadian Forces gear and slinging my camera like the soldiers have their rifles.

Take pictures, find stories, survive – that’s my mantra. I’m not a soldier, I’m a journalist.

I’m calling this day one, even though I spent most of yesterday with the troops in Winnipeg, arriving midnight at Yellowknife Airport with the Arctic Response Company group (ARCG), a collection of reservists from 38 Canadian Brigade Group. A ten minute bus ride took us to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Wolf, where we all shuffled into a warehouse and lined our sleeping bags in neat rows on dry boards that rocked like small see- saws.

The morning starts with reveille (wake-up) at 05:45. Line up for a hot meal and get ready to leave with the boys – but other than those orders, I’m a lone ranger without a map. The soldiers gear up outside in comfortable temperatures for the amount of kit they’re wearing; one thing about the North, you never want to be too hot.

The soldiers start their sleds in anticipation, ready to move at 09:30. I’m worried there isn’t enough time to use the designated bathroom tents so I run across the FOB, an enormous operating base seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  I enter the individual tent, zip it up and stare at an empty bucket – they don’t teach you how to use one of these in journalism class.

“You just take this bag here, once it’s opened there’s another bag inside – do your business, seal it and throw it over there,” said the soldier I pounce on to answer my (very) urgent question.

The departure time inches later, and we can fit in a quick hot lunch.

The mess tent

The last meal

“Eat up, it’ll be your last real meal for a week,” the cook tells the soldiers standing in line. In the large mess tent are rows of tables and a big screen TV showing highlights from last night’s NBA game. I eat quickly and grab peanut butter cookies for the road.

My driver is Private (Pte) Graham Barker, The Royal Winnipeg Rifles; a young reservist, like many others, on his first large-scale cold weather exercise. I hop on the passenger seat of the sled, and prepare myself for the four hour ride ahead. We’re moving to FOB Maiden II, and we should be there by 1700 for dinner.

Pte Barker

Pte Graham Barker fastens his snowshoes to his sled before leaving FOB Wolf.

But rarely do timings work when Mother Nature is involved. Our first two hours on the road I barely see Pte Barker; he’s jumping off the sled like a well rehearsed acrobat, pulling other stuck sleds out of the snow.  The road to FOB Maiden II is rough with four feet of deep snow, something the snowmobiles were not built to withstand when coupled with a heavy komatik or super- boggan trailer. For these two hours, ARCG soldiers work together to push forward, no matter how difficult the terrain.

Snow Sunset

The sun sets in the North

The sun sets early in the Northwest Territories. By 1800 we’re on a frozen lake road, in pure darkness.

“Just a little further,” Pte Barker assured me, even though I’m in good spirits. But as we continue to drive, and the visor of my helmet, fogged with breath, becomes a shield of ice in front of my eyes, I start to doze off.  I lose track of time, and it seems my group lost sight of the other.

“We’re waiting here for them to catch up,” said Corporal (Cpl) Nick Curry. It was then I looked up and noticed a brilliant display of vibrant green lights dancing in the sky above us. I’ve never seen such a bright light, and it changes so eloquently, surprising me with the direction it takes.

The guys begin moving closer together in a circle – “penguining” they call it – to keep warm. My extremities are tensing up, and I feel achy in my hips and shoulders. But the cold is not the only enemy. To pass the time we played the Pie Game.

“Lemon Meringue.”
“Pecan Pie.”
“Banana Cream.”

The only way to fail the game is to name a pie no one likes. Off in the distance we see a single glowing light. It turns into three, seven, thirteen – the rest of our platoon is here, and safe.

The final push to FOB Maiden II is a blur. Moving in and out of consciousness, but holding on tight to my passenger seat. My driver getting tired, who knew what time it was at this point? Moving over what feels like hard packed moguls, the sled swaying like a twisted version of the teacup ride. There’s a big swing and all I feel is snow.

Such a soft and slow tip of the sled, and we are both just fine. So close to the finish line, we get stuck in the deep snow just outside of FOB Maiden II. I get off the sled and walk into the camp, dazed.

There’s a command tent nearby and the ARCG Officer in Command, Captain (Capt) Ray Taylor, takes me inside to warm up.

“This is our intrepid reporter,” announces the captain to other officers in the tent.

I drink water, stop shaking and find my way to the tent groups, just wanting to get inside and go to sleep.

I crawl into my sleeping bag and fall asleep at 0400.

Related posts: On the Road (photo essay)

– Day 2 – Two platoon, two section
– Day 3 – Baby Monkey
– Day 4 – Relief, in place
– Day 5 – Hearts and minds
– Day 6 – The curse of FOB Maiden II
– Day 7 – Under fire
– Day 8 – With eyes watching
– Day 9 – Going home

Posted in: Field Notes