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Polar Bear School

From top: Soldiers snowshoe across a frozen lake; volunteers escape icy water during a survival drill; (inset) a ranger from Kashechewan, Ont., teaches soldiers how to build signal fires.

The soldiers pulled on their camouflage parkas, packed their guns onto the bus and went north to test themselves against the winter. They went seeking a hostile environment where they could practise winter warfare in the kind of high-pressure survival situation that toughens leaders and forges units.

The soldiers weren’t alone in this test. For the first time in Canadian Forces history the remarkable natives of the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group (3CRPG) travelled south to teach their methods of winter survival. By the end of their week in the snow the soldiers of 2 Combat Engineer Regiment (2CER) would prove to be good students of native-style survival, trading their waterproof tents and Hot Rod sausage snacks for snow forts and caribou on a stick.

This was Exercise Polar Bear. Starting in late January and running until the end of February, almost every able-bodied soldier stationed at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, more than 1,600 in total, would make the trip to Ramore, Ont., 50 kilometres north of Kirkland Lake, to take part in CFB Petawawa’s largest exercise of the year. Each soldier spent an average of five days camped in the snow, living off rations and enduring temperatures as low as -40 C. The soldiers practised snowshoeing, ice fishing, shooting and demolitions. But for many soldiers the highlight of the exercise was 3CRPG’s seminars on firestarting, trapping, bannock making, meat preparation and other fine points of winter survival.

“Polar Bear was designed to build basic soldiers skills and (give soldiers) the ability to deal with harsh conditions,” said Major Geoff Parker, operations officer for 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, (2CMBG). He explained the general purpose of Polar Bear and how it should help prepare soldiers for deployment to places like Afghanistan. “The soldier’s ability to cope and deal with harsh environments, whether it is extreme cold or extreme heat, is basically a mental thing. In extreme conditions like this, leadership becomes key and it’s a real focus on junior leadership. It’s a great opportunity for them to gain really good leadership experience—the kind they can take forward and use in more complicated scenarios like peacekeeping operations.”

After the six-hour trip from Petawawa, the soldiers arrive at the site and waste no time. They wriggle into their backpacks, find their assault rifles, strap on their aluminum snowshoes and make the short trek to their campsite. They dig pits in the deep snow and spread out the old circus-style tents that consist of heavy canvas, a tall metal centre pole and dozens of guy-ropes to anchor the sides and provide shape. The tents have no floor, so armfuls of spruce boughs are collected from the forest and placed inside to provide some insulation from the hard snow. While some soldiers fill their tents with several inches of fluffy boughs to ensure a dry and relatively soft week in the snow, others sprinkle an armload or two and call off the effort, trusting the Gortex bivy sacks they sleep in to keep them dry. The soldiers joke that these tents used to be five-man models until budget cuts turned them into 10-man models. And, to be sure, it is a tight fit. But the tents are warm and tough. They are also pretty good hiding spots when a white, silk parachute is draped over the top for winter camouflage.

Since there’s no kitchen, the soldiers will live off individual meal packets, (IMPs). Three times a day, the Coleman two-burner camping stove is fired up and a stack of entrees is fished from the boxes of rations sitting outside the tent. A typical breakfast includes an entree like ham and scalloped potatoes or hash browns and sausages. Lunch may be penne with beef while dinner might be lasagna or salmon fillet. Regardless of which small silver entree packet you get, the experience is largely the same. Since at least 40 per cent of the IMPs 3,600 calories comes from fat and since much of that fat is concentrated in the entree, each main course is coated in a slick gelatin—variously congealed—that tends to dominate the eating experience.

But foods like this, high calorie and fatty, are a traditional northern staple. When living outside during the winter the body has to work extra hard to stay warm, and it just so happens that fat is the richest source of calories. During Polar Bear, the nights averaged about -20 C and the days hovered below -5 C. Among the native Rangers who came to Ramore to teach survival skills to the Petawawa soldiers, the high-calorie entrees were a superb treat and coveted like candy.

The Rangers came from communities so deep in northern Ontario that no roads go there, places like Peawanuck, Kashechewan and Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug. The Rangers were hugely popular among the soldiers and it was easy to see why. In everything they did they had a sense of implacable calm and the kind of profound confidence that comes from years of experience. In fact, and this may be hard to believe if you didn’t see it, the Rangers had a sort of legendary quality about them. Consider some of their stories: Master Corporal Mathew Gull is a giant of a man who is frequently called on to defend his community of Peawanuck from aggressive and extremely dangerous polar bears. Gull has killed six now, the first when he was 14 and he recently killed one with a small .22 calibre rifle. Ranger Ralph Wayne Mekanak is called Duke because he is uncannily accurate with his Lee-Enfield .303 rifle—numerous eyewitness reports have him repeatedly knocking the gold centre out of a toonie at more than 50 metres. Duke says he never misses and people believe him. Ranger Terrance Meekis, the youngest of the group and known more commonly as Junior, proved to have fire starting skills so advanced they resembled magic.

With a crowd of veteran engineers standing around him, Junior sat down on an upturned log and gathered some twigs into a pile. He took out a magnesium fire starter and said, in a distinctly calm voice, that this was how to start a fire. Just then the wind whipped in hard off the frozen lake. It must have been about -15 C, but Junior didn’t flinch. He put his hands around the semi-airborne twigs and, without pausing, struck down some magnesium shavings and then sparked a small glowing fire. In a few moments, despite the wind, he had a good-sized campfire. It was a remarkable feat that took a great depth of unseen knowledge. It was enough of a display to quiet the normally boisterous soldiers, until Sapper Colin Lagaarden exclaimed “that was awesome!”

“I don’t think anything could freak them out. And that’s what I like about them,” said Lagaarden. “I love how they hang onto their heritage so much; they stay so strong with it. They’ve learned from their fathers and their grandfathers and their great-grandfathers. It’s just amazing. The knowledge they have—the survival knowledge—is unbeatable.”

The Rangers were formed in 1947 to help defend northern Canada during the early days of the Cold War. They provide a military presence in the North, reporting unusual activity, performing community service and supporting military and rescue operations. Recruited from local natives and Inuit, there are currently 4,500 Rangers in 165 communities spread across the Far North, from Goose Bay in Labrador to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.

“These guys are the leaders of the northern communities,” said Captain Guy Ingram, a former military policeman who’s now second-in-command of 3CRPG. “The rangers tend to end up being the volunteers for everything. They’re the search and rescue experts. They’re the guys who get involved with the fire department. They’re volunteering to help youth groups and stuff like that.”

Despite their leadership role and the tremendous respect they receive from the regular forces soldiers, the Rangers are distinctly unlike any other Canadian Forces unit. They receive only seven days of basic training, have baseball caps as official uniforms and, somewhat distressingly for many CF officers, elect their leaders by voting. So far, 3CRPG leadership has allowed the Rangers to continue their tradition of electing their own patrol leaders, but, like in most modern democracies, they do try to persuade the electorate against rash or uninformed choices.

“If a large family shows up at a meeting they may vote in the wrong person, a person that doesn’t possess the right skills to be the leader of the patrol,” said Ingram. “However, we don’t tell them to vote for any one person, though we do tell them the skills that are required to be a leader and we tell them there are people in the community who have those skills.”

The 2CER soldiers spent the better part of a day rotating through the Ranger teaching stations. In addition to fire starting with Junior, they also learned how to build strong and warm shelters out of snow and spruce boughs. Some of the things learned at this station were put to use on the final day of the exercise, when the soldiers went out into the woods in small groups to build shelters and spend the night outside.

At another Ranger teaching station the soldiers learned how to make traditional bannock, a kind of heavy bread that’s wrapped around a stick and roasted over a campfire. They also learned how to fillet caribou hind, skewer it on a stick and roast it in the flames; although many of the soldiers chose to eat the caribou raw, in the preferred native style.

During the course of their morning with the Rangers, some longtime members of 2CER had a reunion with Mathew Gull, who they’d last seen during a unit visit to Gull’s hometown in 1997. During that visit, 2CER built the community a schoolhouse, which Gull’s daughter will be attending in the fall.

The members of 2CER certainly remembered Gull as well, because it was Gull who was instrumental in the rescue of a 2CER soldier who’d become hypothermic during a reconnaissance patrol in the extreme cold. “I noticed one of the privates was limping,” recalled Gull. “I went up and asked him if he was cold. A major saw what was happening and said the soldier would be fine.” But Gull knew the signs of hypothermia, and knew something had to be done. “I stepped in and took care of him. I gave him all my spare stuff and we got him warm. The major was shocked at how organized we were.”

Though the 2CER soldiers certainly appreciate the Rangers, they didn’t come all the way to Ramore just to sharpen their survival skills; they were also here to do what the engineers do best, building things and blowing things up. During one exercise, a squad of engineers went out during the day to build small bridges using lumber cut from the surrounding forest. Later, another squad was given the mission to attack and destroy those bridges using C4 plastic explosives.

The mission sounded straightforward, but navigating on a moonless night in waist-deep snow proved to be quite a test. Though one or two errors set some soldiers off course, all the squads eventually found their targets, set their charges and blew up the bridges on schedule.

During another event, on a cold morning in mid-exercise, the soldiers underwent immersion training. Seven volunteers, dressed in bright red survival suits, walked out onto a frozen lake and jumped into the open water. With the men bobbing in the lake, the instructor explained what to do. Venturing out to attempt a rescue is dangerous, and so the first step is to encourage the victims to save themselves. Though getting enough grip on the wet ice to haul your rapidly freezing self out of the water seems pretty unlikely, there is a technique. It’s a full-body manoeuvre called the dolphin kick and it actually works. With maximum effort and a lot of splashing, the swimmers get up out of the water and, looking distinctly like a group of seals, roll across the ice to safety. The crowd of watching soldiers erupts into a chorus of seals barks. Everybody laughs.

Laughing and entertaining each other is something the soldiers spend a lot of time doing. Almost every free moment is filled by reciting favourite lines from movies, debating the merits of various actresses and, most of all, telling improbably funny stories about the past. Several of the most experienced soldiers, the sergeants and warrants, seem to have developed material and routines, moving from group to group like professional entertainers. These men are widely admired.

The comedy routines also serve a purpose. On the second day of the exercise, a warrant officer went around the tents telling funny stories about the men who’d gotten sick the night before. Apparently all of them had eaten a particular ration. Shortly after the warrant’s visit, a rumour spread among the tents that the tarragon chicken strips are bad. Only the bold and strong-stomached had the tarragon chicken after that.

The system of spreading information through speculation is another favourite pastime for some of the soldiers. While the engineers are out in the forest building the shelters for the final night’s survival exercise, the rumour comes around that fresh rations are inbound. And for a few minutes it seems like a sure thing—confirmed by the oldest and wisest among us—that dinner will be hot and fresh and it’ll be at 6 p.m. Not only that, but we’ll be having a rum ration. Sadly, 6 p.m. comes and the trucks don’t show up. Instead, it’ll be a bag of saucy fat or a bag of fatty sauce, depending on what you get.

The lack of fresh food, however, did nothing to dim the soldier’s spirits. On their final night of the exercise, spent out in the shelters they’d built, most of them stayed up late telling stories around the campfire. This was unit bonding in action, exactly as the planners hoped. And things only got better when out of the total darkness came a yell that the rum ration was here.

In the end, Exercise Polar Bear was a success. No soldiers lost any body parts to frostbite or disappeared into the wilderness and the 3rd Royal Canadian Regt. completed its daring grand finale, a parachute drop at night onto a frozen lake. As for the Rangers, their participation in Polar Bear was deemed so successful that the Land Forces Central Area Command has directed 2CMBG to set up another Ranger training exercise next year. The soldiers, who can sometimes seem pretty tough to impress, will be very happy about that decision. “Some things don’t live up to the hype, but the Rangers totally live up to the hype. Their experience, the way they carry themselves and the respect they give the land—they don’t demand respect, just meeting them and training with them you automatically feel that right away,” said Corporal Cory Coulson, a 2CER soldier from Cambridge, Ont. “I have a lot of respect and admiration for them, just for what they do and how they live.”

“If I was attached to a group of them,” Lagaarden chimes in, “I’d be like ‘whatever you want me to do man, I don’t care, I know it’ll be OK.’”

Though it’s often said an army marches on its stomach, it seems that for these soldiers respect and admiration may be the stronger motivation. Although a bit of rum also helps.


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