Friday, June 20, 2014

Operation Spring Fix 14 - Part 1

The staff and cadets of 3045 Army had their final Field Training eXercise (FTX) of the regular training year on the weekend of May 23 - 25.  Cadet corps are required to organize at least three FTXs per year, in order to give cadets the opportunities to apply what they learned in the classroom out in the field.  These areas of study include: map & compass, bushcraft, knots, lashings, first aid, fieldcraft, and leadership.  The skills and lessons learned from FTXs also prepare them for a variety of summer camp courses.
Operation Spring Fix 14 would take place at Qajuutinnguat, a small isolated fishing area 33km to the southeast of Arctic Bay.  It only takes an hour to get there by skidoo.  The Inuit visit the location to ice fish, camp, and hike up the surrounding mountains.  Previous FTXs have been held at Qajuutinnguat but this would be my first time visiting the place.  It would also be the furthest I have travelled out on the land from Arctic Bay thus far.  To ensure a full day of training on Saturday, cadets & staff would travel to the camp site Friday evening, and return Sunday morning.    
CO - Lt. May
Planning an FTX requires a lot of time and effort from a collective group of dedicated individuals.  Going it alone is never a safe option.  In early May, the Commanding Officer (CO) assembled his senior staff for a meeting to discuss the necessary preparations and what kind of training should occur.  Using the 5 Ws & 1 H, (Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?), we put together a list of everything we would need (ie. food, warm clothing, tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment), came up with a training schedule, and decided how many skidoos & qamutiks were available for transportation.  We also contacted two Canadian Rangers to provide protection against possible polar bear attacks.      
I was designated the FTX's Officer of Primary Interest (OPI) - the person in charge.  It was my responsibility to make sure everything ran smoothly.  If something went wrong, it would be my fault.  (In military jargon, OPI also stands for "only person interested").  I would also be teaching a class on how to use handheld GPS devices. 

Preparations for the FTX kicked into overdrive two weeks before May 23.  With a small platoon of cadets, we collected everything we needed from the storage containers at the gas station and loaded them into the back of a pickup truck.  There were tents, sleeping bags, Coleman stoves, naphtha fuel, American-made Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), and kitchen utensils.  On a regular Wednesday training night, cadets were assigned sleeping bags, air mattresses, duffel bags, and heavy parkas if they needed them.  After that, I had them test the Coleman stoves to see if they were working properly and put up the tents to see if any were broken.  We would be bringing two green five-person arctic tents and one white Fort McPherson tent.  Thankfully, everything was in working order and we stored everything in a storage room until the big day.

The Ranger leads the way.
The cadets took their duffel bags home to pack civilian clothing and wash kits.  I did the same but added more things.  I have a habit of packing more than I need because I like to be prepared for most, if not all contingencies.  Even though we would be camping in late May, I decided to wear my Canada Goose Resolute parka, a pair of thick snow pants, and heavy winter boots.  I had no intention of falling ill like I did back in September.  I would later thank myself for making the right choice.  The cadets would also be wearing parkas, snow pants, and boots on this trip, but they were not as thick and heavy as mine. 

When the bell rang at 3:35pm on Friday, May 23, I made my way to Inuujaq School's gym where the CO was waiting for me and the cadets who were going on the FTX.  Working as a team, we loaded everything onto the pickup truck and drove down to the frozen ice where the skidoos and qamutiks were waiting.  With the assistance of a Ranger, the cadets emptied the back of the truck and placed everything in the qamutiks.  The general rule for packing a qamutik is to use every bit of available space.  Everyone was dismissed until 1845hrs so they could have dinner at home.  I headed back to school to collect my belongings and got a ride home with the CO.  I changed into civilian clothing, had a quick dinner, and checked to see that everything was packed.  When it was time, I walked down to the ice, fully dressed in winter clothing, with a backpack on my shoulders and carrying a green duffel bag.  I looked like a soldier heading off to war.
When all the cadets had assembled, a roll call was taken, and the CO gave a quick briefing.  Everyone hopped onto a qamutik and the skidoo drivers started their engines.  I turned on my SPOT device so it could record my location every 10 minutes.  If anything serious happened to me over the weekend, the device would enable me to call for help. 
The long drive began.
The convoy drove along the right side of the frozen bay, passing the cemetery and the point where the high western cliffs come to a drop.  We then crossed over and followed the skidoo paths on the left side of the coast, heading southeast, deeper into Baffin Island.  The qamutiks rocked up and down over the frozen ice.  We passed the location where Inuujaq School holds its annual Spring Camp and I photographed the mountain I hiked up last year.  The further we drove, the more taller and majestic the surrounding mountains became.  I think there was a moment when we spotted a seal in the distance, but the black dot disappeared in the blink of an eye.

About halfway to our destination, the convoy stopped in front of a large brown & grey rock that was sitting out on the ice, just a few feet in front of a large mountain.  The Inuit drivers concluded that the boulder must have broken off from the top and tumbled all the way down to the bottom.  Looking up at the mountain that was littered with small rocks, I could only imagine the speed at which the large boulder had attained.  If something or someone was in its way, the boulder would have just smashed through.  I snapped a few pictures of the cadets posing in front of the rock before we continued on our journey.
We have arrived.
We arrived at Qajuutinnguat after 2030 hours.  The fishing area is hidden between two large sloping mountains.  I photographed them from a distance last year when I was seal hunting during the school's Spring Camp (Part 1 & Part 2).  The sun was still in the sky but concealed behind a thick layer of clouds.  The cadets assembled into two platoons and were briefed by me on where to set up the tents, kitchen area, and fuel storage area.  The female cadets would sleep in a green tent, the adult staff in the other green tent, and the male cadets would share the large white McPherson tent.  The two Rangers had their own white tent to sleep in.  As the cadets set up the campsite, the CO designated two separate areas to serve as male & female washrooms, and the civilian supply officer collected ice in a large grey pot using my machete.  The ice would be melted to provide hot water for hot chocolate.  Once all the tents were pitched and everyone moved their personal belongings into them, a hot chocolate and snack break was called.  There was a gentle wind as everyone drank and ate outside. 

While the "night" was still young, the cadets decided to explore the high cliffs surrounding the two fishing lakes.  The CO and I followed closely behind.  The Rangers stayed in camp in case a polar bear paid an unannounced visit.  I left them one of my walkie-talkies so that we could stay in touch.  A river, formed from all the melting snow in the summer, runs through the small lakes towards Admiralty Inlet.  Due to the high cliffs surrounding the lakes, the river generates two waterfalls.  Unfortunately, there would be no falling water to photograph because it was still too cold for the ice and snow to melt.

I took plenty of photos of the lakes, cliffs, cadets, and surrounding mountains.  The cadets pointed out a hidden cave and wondered if a polar bear was inside.  Thankfully, there was none.  They also directed me to photograph a few patches of frozen ice that were clear blue underneath.  They explained that the frozen water in those spots were fresh.  After hanging out for some time, we made our way back to camp.  We slid down a hill covered in thick, slippery snow, as a loud formation of snow geese flew above us.  Upon arrival, everyone brushed their teeth and got ready for bed.  Lights out was at midnight.  As I got comfortable in my arctic sleeping bags, I wondered what tomorrow would bring.        

To be continued . . .

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