Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Arctic mission most challenging... a message to the world

Arctic mission 'most challenging' yet
Military seeks to assert sovereignty by snowmobile

National Post March 13, 2007

Canada's military is leaving on its most arduous Arctic trek yet to claim sovereignty over the desolate northern archipelago, forging through a "final frontier" of ice, bitter cold and wind likely not traversed since the golden age of Arctic exploration.

"We will be going through some of the most challenging terrain in the North and perhaps in the world," said Brigadier-General Christine Whitecross, the Canadian Forces commander of Canada's northern area.

"This is the most challenging patrol we have ever done. It is quite a dangerous, I'd say challenging, route. The people going on the patrol have been handpicked for their ability to survive," Brig.-Gen. Whitecross told the National Post in a private mission briefing.

Three patrols of soldiers, including members of the Canadian Rangers -- a unit largely composed of Inuit living in remote northern communities -- will leave from Resolute Bay on March 23 for a 21-day, $1-million flag-waving trek by snowmobile that will end at two points on the coast of Ellesmere Island, across a narrow channel from Greenland, a self-governing territory under the Danish crown.

One of the patrols will cut north along the west coast of Ellesmere, which the military does not believe has been traversed since Robert E. Peary, an American explorer, used the area in 1906 in a failed push for the North Pole.

Major Chris Bergeron, who will lead that patrol, the most difficult one of the mission, returned on the weekend from a low-flying air reconnaissance of the area to help plan the route he and seven comrades will take.

"Beautiful, beautiful scenery but harsh. It's quite a challenge," Maj. Bergeron said.

"It's never been done by us before. It's never been done on snowmobiles before. I am expecting to be working at -40 at all times -- that's without the wind [chill] and we will have wind. We have nothing on our left to block the winds. Only ice and open water. I want to see if it is feasible.

"At the end of the game, the goal is to start with all of your guys and to come home with all of your guys," he said.

His patrol group will meet a second patrol, which will cut through the centre of Ellesmere, at Canadian Forces Station Alert, the world's most northerly inhabited community. A third patrol will head from Eureka, a weather station, to Alexandria Fiord, on Ellesmere's east coast, where there is an abandoned RCMP outpost.

That third patrol will include an RCMP member and possibly a federal wildlife officer; both will be looking for signs that natives from Greenland have travelled into Canadian territory to hunt polar bear.

The addition of the RCMP -- a first for a military sovereignty operation -- shows Canada's resolve to "police the north" as well as conduct military patrols through an area where islands and waterways long claimed by Canada are facing increasing ownership challenges from foreign governments, said Maj. Bergeron.

Lying midway between Alert and Alexandria Fiord is Hans Island, a tiny, barren rock claimed by both Canada and Denmark, one of several international disputes Canada faces in the north.

"Canadian sovereignty is the big issue on these missions but we also really want to test ourselves and our capabilities," said Brig.-Gen. Whitecross. "This will take them a little bit out of their comfort zone to test their capabilities. It will test their traditional skill set and their military skill set," she said.

Maj. Bergeron's patrol will stop on Ward Hunt Isle, one of Canada's most northerly points, to hammer a metal box documenting the patrol into a stone cairn.

"The sovereignty monument on Ward Hunt Isle will let people know 100 years from now that we were there," said Brig.-Gen. Whitecross.

The patrol will try to locate a simpler cairn left in the area 101 years ago by the expedition of Mr. Peary and Matthew Henson.

Maj. Bergeron said thin ice conditions and open water near Ward Hunt will force the patrol inland on Ellesmere before emerging onto the island.

The patrol to Alexandria Fiord will stay there for three days and focus on a simpler geo-political issue: poaching.

"People from Greenland cross over to hunt polar bears. The mission is to reaffirm the sovereignty but also to patrol the coast to see if there are any tracks coming from another country into Canada," said Maj. Bergeron.

In May, during reconnaissance flights of the area, Maj. Bergeron said soldiers saw tracks in the snow suggesting a hunting party had travelled west from the native communities on the eastern coast of Greenland.

"We saw some tracks coming across but we could not be sure it was from Greenland or someone from Grise Fiord," he said of a community on the southern coast of Ellesmere.

The military has been on a multi-year mission to send snowmobile patrols over most of the Arctic archipelago, a plan to fly the flag and put Canadian footprints in the snow to boost its claim to the territory.

After this operation, the sovereignty patrols will have covered almost all of the upper Arctic.

"It is quite an achievement," said Maj. Bergeron.

But it will not mean the end of the military's sovereignty mandate.

"My prime mission here is the sovereignty and security of the north," said Brig.-Gen. Whitecross.

A member of Maj. Bergeron's patrol has suggested that instead of the metal and stone cairn as a sovereignty marker, the patrols should erect a red stop sign instead as a message to the world.