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A journey to the north

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By Graeme McNaughton

I had been given a mission.

Following a nearly two-hour delay at the Toronto Island airport, I was finally in Thunder Bay and awaiting my flight to a remote location hundreds of miles further north. I was sitting in a small airport terminal alongside two other reporters – one from Thunder Bay and the other from Dryden – waiting for our single-prop four-passenger plane to be fueled up and ready to take us to our respective destinations.

I was set to be dropped off at Big Trout Lake, just outside of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation. Why was I going there? I was going to be dropped in and spend time with an army unit – I didn’t know which one at the time – who was taking part in Operation Trillium Response. This is an annual exercise that enlisted and reserve units from across the province, including Oshawa’s own Ontario Regiment, takes part in to prepare themselves for winter warfare.

In fact, it is because of the Ontario Regiment’s 150th anniversary that I was here. I would, in a very small way, be taking part in what these men and women do.

But alas, it turned out that I had another mission ahead of me as well.

“We have something for you to deliver,” one man clad in camo told me.

He handed me a shopping bag and was gone as quickly as he came. What was it that I was going to be bringing in? Was it something integral to the operation?

Well, in a way, I suppose it was. I was bringing cold medicine and energy drinks. It turns out one of the commanding officers at my location has been fighting a cold. And I imagine after more than a week out in the cold and in the middle of nowhere, a can of Monster couldn’t go wrong.

Landing

After three hours in what had to be the smallest plane I’ve had the chance to fly in, I had made it to Big Trout Lake. The weather was cold – something like -20 C with a stiff wind to boot – but nothing I couldn’t handle. Thankfully, I got outfitted in Thunder Bay by the army with some of their cold weather gear.

Prior to living in Oshawa, I was living in Yellowknife, and one of the big things I learned there was that the right clothes make all the difference. Sure, long underwear, snow pants and big boots aren’t necessarily sexy, but man do they ever help.

Anyways, all talk about my undies aside, I had finally made it to Big Trout Lake and the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, which I soon learned was known by the locals as KI. I never did learn how to pronounce the name correctly.

After unloading my backpack, duffle bag and sleeping bag (more on that later), I made my way into the shed serving as the airport’s terminal to find…nobody. Well, that’s fine. It’s been a busy week for them for sure, so no worries on them being a few minutes late.

So that few minutes grows and multiplies, and I’m still waiting nearly an hour later. Thankfully, a local resident – as soon as I said I was a reporter, he said not to use his name – offered to give me a lift to the campsite. A 15-minute drive later, and there I was. I later learned there was a mix-up between Thunder Bay, running on EST, and KI, running on CST, as to when exactly I would be at the airport.

When I arrived at the camp, I was immediately greeted by those on site. All in all, there were about 25 people at the site, which I later learned was dubbed Camp Kawach, and I was made to feel a part of this group, which it turned out was an enlisted unit out of Petawawa.

After a few quick hellos and introductions, I was told to get my gear on. I was heading out to the frozen Big Trout Lake. What exciting adventure was I going to be taking part in?

On the land

Well, it turns out that exciting adventure was going to be ice fishing.

Earlier in the day when I was back in Thunder Bay, Captain Lazlo Benak, who had been serving as one of my go-betweens with the military since I first heard about this trip at the end of December, notified me that the main focus of this exercise was winter survival. All told, more than 900 troops from throughout the province would be sent to 13 locations throughout Northern Ontario to learn the craft. A big focus with this is to work with the Canadian Rangers – local residents who, more often than not, have lived in these areas for much of their lives and know the area and what it offers better than anyone – to learn how to survive in the harshest of conditions.

Given Big Trout Lake is right there, one of the biggest traditional food sources for the people of KI is the fish from the expansive body of water.

It was on the ice that I met Lieutenant Colonel Sonny Hatton, a 20-plus-year vet of the military and commanding officer of the 2nd Regiment of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. Hatton was out on the ice with Glenn and Jonas, two of the Canadian Rangers taking part in the exercise with the lieutenant colonel’s troops.

Another big part of this trip was community engagement, and Hatton told me he was going to be doing his part toward the end of the exercise, taking part in a 30-plus-mile hike between KI and the next reserve over, Wapekeka, alongside the communities’ two chiefs.

The walk came after troops at the camp put together $500 to go toward the community crisis fund, which provides much-needed money to families facing a death or other struggle.

“Many of the families here are poor,” I was told.

With the wind picking up on the frozen lake and visibility dropping by the minute, the group of us had to make our way back to camp.

Next up for me was checking the traps and snare lines around the camp. One of the skills that the soldiers at the camp had been taught was how to catch their own dinner off the land. When I first arrived at the camp, I had already been treated to the site of a gutted rabbit on a table.

“One of the two we’ve caught so far,” I was told.

The five of us took a hike along a trail made just a few days prior, although some parts were still waist deep in snow. Thank goodness for snow pants.

It wasn’t until we reached the end of the trail – I’m guessing at least a kilometre, but given the weather and terrain, it’s tough to tell – that we finally found a snare that had caught something.

“Man, that thing’s been here for a while.”

The white rabbit had fallen prey to the trap, and then had been stuck out in the subzero temperatures for hours. The befallen creature was as stiff as cardboard.

“Guess we’re not having him for dinner tonight.”

Mealtime and bedtime

Dinner that night was mix between military ration packs – I had a shepherd’s pie that had not been cooked all the way through, which I was told was expected – and some of the pike that the guys had caught out on the lake earlier in the day.

With the temperatures dropping and the camp fire dying down, it was time for bed.

Sleeping at the camp had been one of the things that had been worrying me a bit leading up to this trip because, in all honesty, I really didn’t know what to expect. Sure, I’ve gone camping before, but it was always in the summer. I can’t say that I’ve ever really looked outside, saw the mercury drop below zero and a foot of snow on the ground and thought, “Yeah, this is camping!”

Most of the troops were sleeping in 10-man tents with a small Coleman stove providing heat. The people in the tent took turns throughout the night keeping watch to make sure it didn’t go out and to put more fuel in if necessary.

On one of the first nights at the camp, one of the tents had decided to just sleep and not watch the stove. Naturally, it went out, and the troops inside were subject to one of the coldest nights there, when the temperatures dropped down to the neighbourhood of -40 C.

However, due to a lack of room in those tents, I was going to be bunking with Captain John McNeil, also a 20-plus-year veteran of the armed forces and a veteran of operations in Afghanistan and South Sudan.

McNeil had a cot to sleep in, while I would be on the floor. Rather than the 10-person tent that the other troops were sleeping in, McNeil and the other commanding officers at the camp had what is known as a prospector tent – a white canvas tent with a wood stove and attached chimney.

The wood stove was the source of heat for the tent and because I was the one sleeping on the floor, that was going to be my job for the night.

My sleeping situation was, as expected, far from five-star luxury. I was given a one-inch slab of foam, an air mattress that inflated to maybe two inches – it’s just to keep me off the cold ground, I was told – and the most complicated sleeping bag I’ve ever seen and one that I’m sure was designed for someone shorter than I.

The military’s winter sleeping bag consists of three parts: the inner down-filled sleeping bag, the outer down-filled cover and a bivy bag, which holds everything together. The result, at least for me, made me feel like my legs were bound together and held at a slight bend to keep everything in the bag. The inner layer also had a hood that could go over my head and also serve as my pillow.

I slept with my arms outside of the sleeping bag so that I could access the stove whenever it needed to be stoked or given more wood. Over the next six-odd hours, I was up once an hour feeding that damn thing. It’s tough trying to open and close a wood stove when you’re half asleep, but I did not let that fire go out. No freezing on my watch!

Attempted landing

OK, so sleeping with my arms outside of the sleeping bag was a bad idea. I woke up with frozen arms and hot and sweaty legs from the mummy’s wrap of a sleeping bag. It’s a, to say the least, very confusing feeling first thing in the morning.

We were woken up at around 5:30 or 6 a.m. to be told that I had to be taken to the airport. There was some freezing rain coming in, and I had to get to the landing strip for when the plane arrived. The trip was being cut short by a few hours, but it was either this or having the trip extended by a day at the very least.

By the time the plane finally appeared in the skies above Big Trout Lake, a couple of hours had passed. I had been told that the pilots weren’t even sure if they would be able to land, as the weather had picked up in that time. Thankfully, on the last try, the plane was able to land and I got on board to find…no other passengers. The reporter from Thunder Bay was supposed to be the first person picked up from Sachigo Lake, about 100 miles west of me.

“Too much freezing rain. We couldn’t land. He’s stuck there for another day,” I was told.

Rather than one stop to pick up the third reporter in Fort Albany and then back to Thunder Bay, the plane had to make a stop in Attawapiskat, the reserve made famous a few years ago for the housing crisis there, with many residences lacking running water and electricity. While I didn’t get outside of the airport, you could see from the air that the community, while expansive for where it was, needed some work. But I’ll cover my thoughts on that, and the state of communities like it, in a column next week.

After dropping off supplies and refuelling the plane, we were off to pick up the third reporter and make our way back to Thunder Bay.

So after six hours flying in a single-prop plane, unloading supplies and trying to snack on the pack of beef jerky in my ration pack – it really gave my jaw a workout – we had finally returned.

Back home

A few days removed from the experience, I’ve had a bit more time to digest everything that happened in the short period on the ground in Northern Ontario. After just that short amount of time, I was exhausted, and I didn’t feel like I was totally rested until this past weekend.

I can’t imagine how it must feel for the troops – both enlisted and reserve – who did this exercise for more than a week. Those troops, like me, have now made their way home, and I can only hope are getting a much deserved break.

Prior to the trip, I already had a sense of appreciation for those in the military. My stepbrother was in the British Royal Marines in Iraq, and my grandparents on both sides of the family were involved in one way or another during the Second World War. But to live like they do, even for just one night, made me appreciate even more what they do.

But I’d be lying if I said I’d be totally OK not sleeping in that sleeping bag again.

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