Three hundred kilometres, four feet of snow, two soldiers, one sled – that was the reality for soldiers from the Arctic Response Company Group (ARCG) during a ten day move for Exercise ARCTIC RAM 12.
The ARCG (reservists from 38 Canadian Brigade Group) used Light Over Snow Vehicles (LOSV) to travel tactically from Yellowknife to Gameti in the Northwest Territories. But the soft snow proved unpredictable, bumpy, and discreetly dangerous for some drivers.
“We have brand new LOSV drivers, moving in very rough terrain,” Officer in Command, Captain Ray Taylor, reminded platoon leaders. “Helmets must be worn at all times – no exceptions.”
The sleds were the most efficient way to move two platoons more than 300 km in winter conditions; with Light Armour Vehicles (LAVs) being too heavy for ice roads. Most sleds were shared by two soldiers, taking turns to relieve each other of driving duties; but the ride was felt by all.
“Your back starts to hurt,” said Bombardier Matthew Canart, 26 Field Artillery Regiment RCA. “And your hands stop working after awhile.”
The handles of the sled rattle, causing “throttle thumb:” a sensation of numbness lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour after the ride.
Mandatory stops were enforced to get ARCG soldiers off the vehicles and moving. Some did crunches on their sleds and roadside push-ups to keep their bodies motivated. On break, they’d eat treats high in salt and sugar to stay awake and medics passed by to remind everyone to keep hydrated.
During a long push at the start of Exercise ARCTIC RAM 12, some members of the ARCG even experienced hallucinations.
“I see [the driver ahead’s] body and his white helmet and above him, grey clouds that look like a monster,” said Corporal Tyson Campbell-Harris, North Saskatchewan Regiment. After that night, rides were shortened and more breaks were taken.
The ARCG soldiers were qualified to drive LOSV’s in Gimli, Manitoba during exercise ARCTIC APPRENTICE. There they dealt with sleds and komatiks (traditional Inuit trailers) getting stuck in the snow. The troops were well-rehearsed for when it happened up north, moving quickly to fix the issue.
Members of the Canadian Rangers rode with the ARCG and offered insight on the transport challenges.
“We don’t use komatiks, that’s Inuit country – the snow there is hard and thin,” explained Ranger Shaun Moosenose, who pulled a traditional toboggan fit for deep snow of the Northwest Territories.
“When I’ve seen komatiks pulled by the Inuit, often it’s attached by a rope 40 feet long; you see them pass by and then minutes later, the komatik.”
Moosenose said the ARCG komatiks may be bolted too closely to the sleds, creating weight and balance issues. It also increases the likelihood of “jack-knifing”: when a trailer pulls away from being directly behind a sled into a perpendicular direction, like a knife closing.
One new driver jack-knifed and tipped his sled, falling and breaking his collarbone. A few other soldiers sustained minor injuries from falls caused by the uneven terrain.
Despite the hurdles, ARCG soldiers moved successfully to complete their mission. And for some like Cpl Mike Smela, 737 Communications Squadron, the ride was a chance to see a part of Canada few experience.
“One thing about NB11, all we could see was Hudson’s Bay – this time we saw everything, we really saw the landscape.”
For more about life on the road with the ARCG, see photo essay On the Road.