Canadian, U.S. troops share knowledge at Arctic military operation

Hundreds of Canadian soldiers have converged on Canada's High Arctic, conducting snowmobile patrols and Arctic dives to boost survival skills in the punishing conditions. They're also preparing for a big arrival - with the help of some southern visitors.

Operation Nunalivut, taking place near Resolute this year, has about 230 participants

Hundreds of Canadian soldiers have converged on Canada's High Arctic, conducting snowmobile patrols and Arctic dives to boost survival skills in the punishing conditions.

Commanded by Joint Task Force North and based in Resolute, Nunavut, Operation Nunalivut 2016 involves more than 230 personnel, including members from the Canadian Army, Navy, and Air Force.

The operation, which runs until April 22, is designed to practise specialized Arctic skill sets — not the least of which is simply surviving, according to Lt.-Col.Timothy Halfkenny.

"There are unique aspects of the Arctic environment that you just do not know about, or don't experience," he said.

"The Arctic is something completely different. It is a white desert. And it is very, very challenging to operate, and there are things you need to know.

Op Nunalivut 2016 is headquartered in Resolute, Canada's second most northern civilian community after Grise Fiord. Members of Canada's Navy are conducting Arctic dives even further north, near CFS Alert, the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world. (Google Maps)

"Long range patrolling, Arctic survival in general. Those are the benefits that everybody gets, not just the land force, but also the supporting elements."

While establishing camps in difficult conditions is a central part of the operation, there are on-site goals as well. The Canadian Army is conducting snowmobile patrols and testing prototype vehicles on Little Cornwallis Island, 80 kilometres north of Resolute, while Navy representatives conduct Arctic dives and service underwater equipment even further north, at CFS Alert. 

A group of Canadian Rangers from hamlets across Nunavut is also taking part in the operation, patrolling the area for polar bears and other predators.

'We're the only team in the world that does this'

A Canadian Forces member patrols at a camp on the tundra. Members from the U.S. Air Force are taking part in Op Nunalivut, teaching Canadians how to build a skiway, or ski runway, that can safely land a Hercules. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

Canadian forces aren't the only participants in the operation. A team from the United States Air Force is also taking part, teaching the Canadians how to land a massive C-130 Hercules on a makeshift runway of ice and snow.

"We're the only team in the world that does this," said Maj. Matthew Sala, with the United States' 109th Airlift Wing. 

"Our aircraft is the only C-130 unit in the entire world that has skis on it, that can land in the Arctic and Antarctic.

The U.S. team is instructing Canada's air force on how to build a skiway, or ski landing area — preparing an open snow area for the landing of large aircraft. Later this week, the 109th's Hercules will land at the camp with equipment and supplies.

To prepare, the group first surveys the area, measuring ice thickness, snow depth, and water depth, and then marks and smoothes out the skiway. It's a process that, weather depending, can take anywhere from a day to two weeks.

Maj. Matthew Sala warms up in a tent on Little Cornwallis Island. Maj. Sala's squad is at Operation Nunalivut, teaching Canadian troops how to prepare a skiway, or snow runway, that will allow a Hercules aircraft to land on the tundra. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

"In this case, the snow is nice and soft, and we've had four days of wind, so we've been battling that," said Maj. Sala.

"It's just mother nature."

Capt. Vanessa Morin-Nappert, who is with the Royal Canadian Air Force, says the Canadians are grateful for the knowledge — and for the bond-building that comes with such operations.

"We're just looking at what the Americans are doing because for them, they've done it more than we have done it, so we're just looking at maybe better techniques... or how to improve our techniques," she said.

"It's mainly for the sustainment of the operations up North. They have some capabilities, we have some capabilities, and together, we make sure that we can support any operation up in the North."

To reciprocate, the Canadian contingent is teaching the Americans tactics and the proper gear for Arctic survival, creating an exchange that is welcome for Maj. Sala, who is from New York.

"They don't know how to build a skiway, so we're teaching them that, and the Canadians live in the cold more than we do. So they're teaching us some techniques as far as that goes."


Garrett Hinchey

Managing Editor, CBC North

Garrett Hinchey is a Métis journalist based in his hometown of Yellowknife, where has worked since 2014. He has worked at CBC North as a social media presenter, copy editor, multimedia reporter, and senior assignment producer. He has been CBC North's managing editor since June 2021.


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