Civilian Instructor (CI) Reid & I drove out to the Second Bridge on Thursday, September 29, for a reconnaissance mission. It was the late afternoon and we wanted to see if the area was in the optimal state to hold Operation Hill Top 16 (OHT16). (OHT is the annual field training exercise (FTX) 3045 Army Cadet Corps holds in September for the first & second year cadets). The FTX had already been delayed once during the "Week of Snow" in early September. If the weather wasn't good enough around the Second Bridge this time, OHT16 would be cancelled for good.
The Second Bridge is located in a valley on the Road to Nanisivik and is the last bridge you cross before continuing on to the old Nanisivik Airport and the Nanisivik Naval Facility currently under construction. The valley is higher above sea level than Arctic Bay so colder weather arrives much earlier.
CI Reid drove along the winding road that had been constructed back in the 1970s when the Nanisivik mine opened. The rocky terrain around us slowly turned from brown to white. A layer of white snow had formed on top of the rocks. After driving for some time, we came to a section of road that CI Reid had warned me about. There were two large patches of ice on the section of road that led down a hill towards the Second Bridge. There are no guard rails on the left side. If the truck spins out of control and goes over the edge, it's a long, tumbling journey to the bottom. He drove slowly over both patches. We felt the truck sliding a little bit but we successfully made it across the patches. We checked the camp ground around the Second Bridge and decided that the FTX was a go. We just hoped the weather wouldn't turn like it did two weeks ago. Driving back across the two ice patches was surprisingly easier.
The first and second year cadets assembled at the school gym on the evening of September 30th. CI Reid had spent the day driving supplies to the Second Bridge and pitching one of the white Fort McPherson tents. Attendance was taken, personal belongings were packed into a pickup truck and the cadets got into the back of another pickup truck. Both trucks are owned by Lt. May. We drove towards the Second Bridge.
I stopped the truck I was driving truck and watched CI Reid drive over the ice patches in his truck. When he was safely across, he placed the vehicle in park and walked back to where we were. I instructed all the cadets to start walking down the road. I walked with them. I wasn't comfortable driving across those ice patches and I was in no mood to put the lives of the cadets in jeopardy. I let CI Reid drive over the ice patches because he was more experienced. The cadets & I got into the first truck and I drove to the Second Bridge. CI Reid arrived shortly after.
The cadets unloaded all the gear we brought and pitched two tents: a white Fort McPherson tent for the females and a green military tent for the males. The two Canadian rangers that came along had their own tent. CI Reid & I would sleep in the supply tent. When the tents were pitched, the cadets were briefed about what would happen the next day. They were also given granola bars and juice boxes before retiring to their tents for the night. Everyone was asleep by 11pm.
Reveille the following morning was at 8am. Everyone slept in sleeping bags on air mattresses. The only difference was that CI Reid & I slept on cots. CI Reid & I cleaned up the supply tent and turned it into a makeshift kitchen/mess hall. Breakfast was held at 9am. The menu was Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs). Breakfast concluded at 10am.
The main purpose of OHT is for the first & second year cadets to complete a 7km hike. The second year cadets are required to wear packed rucksacks. Completing a 7km hike is part of the cadet program. It gets the cadets ready for more challenging hikes & expeditions later in the program. The hike would take place after lunch. With two hours left in the morning, I taught classes on wilderness survival, the phonetic alphabet, and proper radio communication procedures.
Everyone got ready after the MRE-themed lunch. The second year cadets and I would carry juice boxes, granola bars, toilet paper, and garbage bags in our rucksacks. I also carried GPS, SPOT, binoculars, and a walkie-talkie. One of the rangers would be coming along with us for polar bear protection. CI Reid would drive a pickup truck and alert me with his walkie-talkie if there were any problems. We would be hiking to the First Bridge near the airport because the distance between both bridges was 7km. Each cadet was given a pair of walking poles for extra assistance.
We began our trek to the First Bridge at around 1:30pm. The weather was still good; sunny with some clouds in the sky. The cadets walked in a platoon of six and one acting as the leader. The ranger & I walked behind the cadets. I reminded myself to take pictures of the cadets completing the hike for the corps's Facebook page.
CI Reid was waiting for us at the halfway point. We took a long break to give our legs a rest. While the cadets munched on snacks, I used my binoculars to look out into Adam's Sound. Narwhal hunting season had just started and I spotted up to seven boats driving around. I was too far away to hear any gunshots.
We continued our trek down the Road to Nanisivik. The snow covered rocks disappeared and the weather got warmer. CI Reid drove ahead and waited for us to arrive at the First Bridge. We passed several Inuit elders picking berries near the road. When the end was in sight, I ran ahead and photographed the cadets walking across the First Bridge. CI Reid drove everyone back to the campsite. (We walked across the two ice patches as a safety precaution).
The weather began to change after dinner. Large dark clouds were rolling in from the northwest and another large grey cloud was moving in from the east. Several minutes later, snow appeared to be falling from the dark clouds. CI Reid & the rangers were getting concerned that a blizzard may be on the way. These concerns made me think. Was it necessary to cancel the remainder of the FTX and head home? The schedule called for us to stay until Sunday morning. Our main objective had been completed and we were just killing time until then. Being the officer in charge, I had to make an executive decision.
The cadets were formed up and I explained that we were going home tonight because of the sudden change of weather. The tents needed to be disassembled, and everything needed to be loaded onto the trucks before we could leave. I took a group photo of the cadets before dismissing them. The arctic wind began to blow as the cadets raced to their tents. It took about an hour to take down the tents, collect all the garbage, and pack both pickup trucks with everything we brought. The cadets did a garbage sweep of the area before jumping in the back of the trucks. Night was beginning to settle as we left the Second Bridge.
I successfully drove across both ice patches. The truck didn't slide. Light snow was falling when we drove into Arctic Bay. The cadets were dropped off at their homes with their personal kit. CI Reid and I would look after Lt. May's trucks until the following morning. I went to bed that night wondering if I had made the right call. When I woke up on Sunday morning to see a blizzard rolling through Arctic Bay, I realized the decision I made was indeed the right one. Operation Hill Top 16 may have been short, but it was a success.
"Old Man Winter" returned to Arctic Bay in early October and by Thanksgiving (October 10), the snow was no longer melting. It was staying on the ground and turning the brown landscape white.
Suzanne, a nurse at the health centre, organized a potluck Thanksgiving dinner and I was on the guest list. Unfortunately, I had too much school work to do. I needed the time to prepare two European imperialism tests for my Grade 11 students. I could not use the tests I used in previous years. In short, I was starting from scratch. Blank copies of the tests, answer keys, and review packages all needed to be created. I thanked Suzanne for the invitation but politely declined to attend. I did go over to her place an hour before the dinner to drop off my edible contributions. A plate of food, wrapped in tinfoil, was brought to me as I was working on the tests. The meal kept me focused and my hunger satisfied.