I was asked to write a short essay on a winter survival course that I attended. Let me know what you think.
January 29th-31st, 2010.
Winter Survival Course with the Canadian Rangers.
“This is a dead tree, it will burn nicely for you… this is a green tree, you will get lots of smoke from it, build your fire on top of the snow with this”. “You can light a fire from a battery and some steel wool”. “Use your space blanket as a liner inside your lean-to”. I was trying to remember all the pointers that the Rangers gave us that morning. We were about to find ourselves building a shelter in the middle of the forest, and I didn’t want to be suffering from the first stages of hypothermia all night.
A small group of B Sqn. SALH, were in the middle of a winter survival exercise in northern Alberta. “Group three, this is your area.” Looking around we saw a frozen marsh surrounded by a few hills covered in forest. “You can choose your site anywhere between here and the top of that hill.” We immediately scouted a suitable site further up the hill to build the shelter on.
By dividing the work between the four of us we would try to complete our camp before nightfall. Cpl Dixon started the fire once we had gathered enough wood. We kept adding to the woodpile throughout the day, it was -15C and it would be very uncomfortable without a warm fire to light up our camp. Also, a rumour was going around that if it was only -10C we would have our sleeping bags taken from us.
Once the fire was going, the next item on the priority list was shelter. It was surprisingly difficult to find all the spruce bows needed to make our shelter as thick as the Rangers instructed us to make it. Once it started taking shape, I complemented Cpl Fahy on his meticulous method of weaving the roof together. Later that night, when we had some snow fall, I had no worries of how effective our shelter would be.
Usually in the Army, we aren’t allowed to build fires and chop down trees. We have tents and stoves to use instead. Having a fully equipped G-Wagon most of the time was a luxury we all took for granted. I must admit though, it was fun building a camp from scratch. Everyone in the group had a sense of accomplishment when after several hours of digging, chopping, dragging and assembling, we had a comfortable place to live for the night.
Between foraging for spruce bows and gathering wood, we made sure the billy cans had snow melting in them. Hanging from the tripod constructed from snare wire and sticks, they were collecting the water we needed to replace from working all day. “Conserve your energy” the Rangers would say, “If you were stranded here for several nights, you will need to work smarter to survive”. To regain some energy, we boiled up a squirrel that we were given after the skinning lecture. Once it was ready we passed it around and picked the meat off of the tiny animal. I was either not impressed with it or just wasn’t that hungry to have a second piece, but Tpr Vojacek seemed to love it and finished the rest. We teased him saying he will be setting up squirrel snares in his backyard when he gets home.
Night came quickly, and the temperature dropped a little. Because we were not moving as much we started feeling the cold. Fortunately, the pile of wood we collected was more than sufficient in keeping the fire burning all night. The fire we had was only a few feet from the shelter. We could reach out of our sleeping bags and roll more wood onto it and keep the heat up in the shelter. The space blanket trick worked like a charm, reflecting the heat back down. We had to let the fire burn down a little to prevent it from getting too warm.
The next morning we awoke and tore down the camp, we would be marching back to the base camp on snowshoes for a couple more lectures and a debriefing. Most of us wanted to stay out longer, the skills that we gained from listening to the Rangers, made the time out there more than bearable. It was good to see years of experience being passed down to other Reserve units. The Patrol that taught us were made up of men who take time from there personal lives to come out and show us how to survive in a climate that can show no mercy.
It was a good time to see how people react to different stressful situations. Fortunately for me, this group was relaxed and focussed. We joked around while working and didn’t need a lot of direction once the tasks were assigned. As the MCpl for the group, I reminded people to stay hydrated and to not overheat and sweat, making their clothes cold and not as effective. I wondered how we would react in a real situation, without any idea of how and when we would be rescued. I remember thinking it would be up to the leader of the group to keep them focussed and motivated, preventing panic and chaos. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be stranded by yourself. I can only hope I would remember the training given on this exercise and make it out alive.
MCpl James DW
SALH “B” Sqn.