It’s early on the morning of July 16 and the sun struggles to peak through dark storm clouds as rain spits over Bear Rock near Tulita.
A cold wind whips through the air as a CC-138 Twin Otter from 440 Transport Squadron touches down on the local runway, unloading supplies and Tim Hortons donuts for a troop of young military men and Canadian Rangers camped nearby.
For several days, they’ve stationed themselves in the now-soggy backyard of two long-time local Rangers, making what looks like a small tent village metres away from a larger military tent filled with maps, cooking gear and an array of equipment.
The military, with Rangers from Deline and Tulita, have been trekking around the Sahtu as part of Operation NUNAKPUT, clearing an overgrown landing strip near Great Bear River and patrolling the waterway between the two communities.
The military operation, which ran from June 26 to July 20, is held annually to develop coordination between the navy, army, RCMP, Rangers and government departments in the event of a problem such as an environmental issue or search and rescue emergency.
But the Rangers are the glue that holds the operation together – the “eyes and ears” of the North who not only provide fuel, the occasional meal and places for the operation’s personnel to set up camp, but knowledge of the local surroundings that is integral to navigating the North.
“Some of them have never been out to paddle before,” says Benny Doctor, a Tulita ranger of 20 years.
He’s speaking about military personnel from the 2nd Battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment – an infantry unit from Quebec who took part in a leg of the operation in his community.
“The Deline team said they had to show them how to paddle on the lake,” Doctor says, dressed in his red ranger sweater and camouflage pants. “Towards the end, the ranger guide told me that they were getting used to it.”
Doctor is from Tulita and learned from his father how to read the water.
He taught those lessons to his grandson, 24-year-old Sgt. Archie Erigaktuk of the Tulita patrol of the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group (1 CRPG), and now they’re sharing that knowledge with others in this year’s operation.
As a Ranger, Doctor says he knows how to survive on the land, hunt and travel by sleigh and snowmobile in the winter. In the summer, he knows how to make fire and understands which parts of the river are shallow, deep, safe or not safe to travel on.
Building a relationship between the Rangers and military is important, says Erigaktuk.
“They give us the resources to be trained for certain situations,” he said, whether that’s for search and rescue, a wildfire or other “potential hazards.”
And the training isn’t for show.
Shortly after the Rangers and infantry unit pulled their boats onto Tulita’s shore following a day-long search and rescue exercise on July 16, a real emergency unfolded.
Leaders from the operation quickly halted post-training discussions as local RCMP received a distress call about a small Cessna aircraft experiencing engine failure outside the community.
The military hopped in a truck and drove to the local airport where the plane was attempting to glide in.
Erigaktuk doled out instructions to his Rangers on the beach: pack the boats with fuel, rations and prepare for a search in the bush in the even the plane does not land safely.
The local Rangers are familiar with the land. At the time of the emergency, they were already mapping out a possible rescue location and resources they could use to help.
“Especially on the land, you have to be knowledgeable and be quick in your response or things can go wrong really fast,” Erigaktuk says the following day after the plane landed safely in Tulita. “That’s why it’s important for us to do our job and them respecting our job as much as we respect their job.”
Operating in the North is particularly challenging, says Lt.-Col. Luis Carvallo, commanding officer of 1 CRPG and task force commander of this year’s operation.
“To be able to get sailors, airmen, army personnel, Rangers, boats, equipment – to get everything there requires a lot of logistics,” he said. “And in the North, nothing is simple.”
There’s the vastness of the land, the remoteness of communities and their limited resources that those in the operation must take into account.
They also need to ensure the operation isn’t overwhelming communities by bringing in more personnel than they can accommodate.
But Carvallo is a fan of “hiccups” in the operation. They’re an important learning experience, he says.
On July 18, the Royal Canadian Navy arrived slightly behind schedule in Tulita on three 32-foot-long jet boats while making their way back up the Mackenzie River.
The water had been extremely high during their trip from Yellowknife to Tuktoyaktuk, said Lieut. Jeff Horne, which led to problems.
“We were essentially sucking debris up into the boats and it caused deterioration on two of the impellers,” he said.
The boats still worked, but the problem wasn’t getting better.
So the navy stopped in Inuvik to fix the boats, leading to the operation’s delay.
“That again is a great opportunity, because when we as a military and navy go somewhere, we need to be able to sustain ourselves,” Horne says. “We need to be able to identify that we need to be able to take a boat out of water for a part in order to conduct a repair. We need to work with people in the community, talk to the Rangers, who can pull a boat this size out of the water in Inuvik.”
The Rangers from 1 CRPG helped connect the navy from one community to the next throughout Operation NUNAKPUT.
They met the jet boats on the river when they approached the communities and arranged overnight camps at each stop as the navy traversed 4,100 kilometres of water along Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River, according to Joint Task Force North.
“Communities play a large role for any military operating anywhere around the world,” says Carvallo. “You can’t just barge in and assume that you can do anything you want.”
Whether stopped for a brief fuel-up or an overnight stay, Carvallo makes a point to meet Rangers and locals in communities throughout the operation.
Under the glow of the near-midnight sun at a campsite in Fort Simpson on July 18, Carvallo sits at a picnic table with Capt. Steve Nicoll.
The commanding officer of 2860 Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corp, Nicoll outlines succession issues the group is facing.
Carvallo is working with Nicoll to determine whether a junior ranger group could be established in the community and help solve the problem.
“You have to engage with communities,” Carvallo says. “They’re part of the solution to anything you’re doing.”
Brig.-Gen. Mike Nixon, commander of JTFN, says each of the 140 personnel who took part in this year’s operation have their own strengths.
“We all have different capabilities that complement each other, but we don’t necessarily have the existing or standing operating procedures to quickly be able to operate together,” Nixon says. “So that’s one of the main reasons why we conduct an operation like NUNAKPUT.”
Back in Tulita, before the navy heads out to finish the operation on the Mackenzie River, Carvallo pulls everyone aside.
He gives a short speech before presenting a special coin to Doctor and his wife for their hospitality in the operation – offering up space for a camp at their home, cooking a feast of moose stew, goose and more during the military’s stay, and providing their expertise on the local surroundings.
Another goes to Erigaktuk for leadership.
“It’s good to create those relationships and be a part of something,” Erigaktuk tells News/North, speaking about the operation. “Part of something big, for us to feel good for ourselves and feel accomplished to go through search and rescues and things like that.”