(scroll down for photo gallery + videos)
When the military invites the media for a tour, it’s safe to assume there’s nothing really worth seeing–at least not journalistically.
So when my colleague at Nunatsiaq News told me there was a seat available on a military-chartered helicopter to York Sound, about 175km outside Iqaluit, to visit an encampment set up as part of Operation Nanook–an annual military exercise–I didn’t really jump at the chance.
But I ended up going and it was worth the trip, even though it was excessive, pampered and, from a news perspective, sterile.
The Views, The Pilot
At an altitude of 3,000 feet, the bay sparkled beneath, every wave reflecting a shard of sunlight.
“Those waves are as tall as houses down there, don’t fool yourself,” the civilian pilot said over the headset.
Oblong isles of rock and the odd ice floe drifted by beneath.
Back in Iqaluit, before takeoff, the pilot had given us a stark and graphic safety briefing.
“If something horrible like a crash happens, please don’t leave me in the helicopter. Rescue me. Even if my legs are gone, I’m on fire or unconscious—whatever, please save me. I wouldn’t leave you in there. Nobody should be left in the helicopter if we crash, OK?”
He told us where to stand, and where not to stand when the chopper blades were turning, and what the consequences were if we erred.
“I’ve never heard of an injury. You die, that’s all.”
He was like a character out of an adventure novel: confident, outgoing, friendly, aggressive and a little lewd.
“They don’t send me places where there’s no mosquitoes, with lots of booze and hookers,” he said of his employers on the way up to York Sound. “They only send me places where there’s lotsa bugs, no booze and no hookers.”
He was due for some time off, he told us. “I’m going to abuse my liver, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The Camp: bacon and cigarettes
Groups of soldiers loitered throughout the camp, most in groups, huddled together, talking, smoking cigarettes. Three rows of tent–dark green, white and bright orange–extended from where the helicopter landed. Backpacks were piled high in a few spots.
ATVs buzzed around the camp, and there was an almost constant coming-and-going of helicopters and twin otters.
I was surprised to smell bacon.
“They’re our rations,” a search and rescue technician wearing a neon orange jumper told me. “I had a sausage breakfast this morning,”
The day before he had parachuted from a helicopter.
I was bored by the interviews and footage the other media personnel were obliged to record for their outlets. I didn’t have the same obligations, so I looked around.
On either side of the cluster of tents, standing 15-20 meters away, were a few booth-like structures, similar in material as the tents.
They looked like port-o-potties, and that’s exactly what they turned out to be. Beside the tent latrines were bright blue, plastic barrels. The latrines use a bag system. You go in a bag, and then put the bag in the barrel.
Rangers: polar bear, caribou, whales
Of the 32 rangers helping out at York Sound, around 30 are Inuit from the Baffin region, one ranger estimated.
Their main job is to carry out predator patrol along the perimeter.
They’ve seen a few polar bears so far, another ranger told me, including a mother and cub. The bears may have been attracted by the caribou the ranger shot and killed.
“We spread the meat out on the ground, covered it with a tarp so the ravens wouldn’t get it, and it’s still fresh,” he said. “I’ve fed all the rangers with the caribou,” he laughed. A few more caribou have been shot since, which has raised some questions considering there are apparently not that many left on the island.
The rangers drove us down to the beachside on their ATVs, where a tent and small encampment was set up as the command centre for the grounded cruise ship in Op Nanook’s mock emergency scenario, about a kilometer offshore.
The military rep told us that, if we were lucky, we’d see some of the 50 actors hired to feign injury brought back to shore from the cruise ship and up to the triage tents in the main camp. Some of them would even be transported back to the hospital in Iqaluit, she said.
But we weren’t lucky. It was quiet down on the seashore, a handful of participants in Op Nanook—including a man with a “coroners” armband—mulling around a tent. After a few minutes we rode back up to the camp and piled into the chopper.
If only the media had been invited out to York Sound the previous day, when Stephen Harper visited the camp. We could’ve saved on jet fuel, maybe even asked the PM a question or two.