With law enforcement teams coming in from all over North America, including the FBI and ERT (Emergency Response Team, essentially Canada’s answer to SWAT), it’s easy to wonder what the winter preparedness camp on the shores of Great Slave Lake has to offer.
“It’s very ordinary, but that’s the thing that will get you killed quicker than not,” Jack Kruger, search and rescue co-ordinator for the RCMP’s G Division in the NWT, told The Hub.
Kruger said he has seen experienced bushmen get stuck within sight of town lights and succumb to the cold, hunger, and most dangerously, panic.
“The first thing that’s going to kill you is up here,” he said, tapping his temple.
Kruger has been running the training camp for the past 15 years in it’s current incarnation. The five-day course consists of a day spent learning or reviewing proper snowmobile use, one day of hands-on learning at Hay River’s Coast Guard base, and two-and-a half days spent at the winter camp, miles out of town on the shores of Great Slave Lake.
In the last few weeks, Kruger has taken six groups of RCMP officers from across the territory, including the odd ERT unit and member of the Canadian Armed Forces, into the bush to show them how to survive and function in the cold.
“The example I use, is if you’re a detachment commander and an airplane crashed and you had to go secure the scene, what would you do?” he said. “The main things are to know what to take, how to set up a tent, and how to boil water.”
These may seem like simple concepts, but Kruger saw a need for further instruction in many of the officers coming North through transfers from other jurisdictions or those who were new to the force entirely.
Participants learn how to operate a snowmobile, but they are also exposed to the realities of having to cut wood to make fires for cooking and keeping warm, as well as for signalling their position.
“If they dump you on the side of a mountain in Norman Wells, you have to be ready,” said Kruger. “You have to have your kit ready to go. If you have to survive, you weren’t prepared in the first place.”
After every exercise, from cutting firewood to building a quinzhee snow shelter, everyone heads to the kitchen tent for hot drink and to warm up. The camp itself is a semi-permanent structure with a few prospectors tents set up to shelter participants and instructors. The kitchen tent, with its furnace running constantly to melt ice cut out in blocks from the lake for water, doubles as a dining room and meeting space.
“You can imagine if we were asking them to be outside all the time, they wouldn’t learn very much,” said instructor Const. Phil Unger. “They’d just be thinking about when they could get warm when they could head back to town and not paying much attention.”
In the afternoon, anticipation rises for the arrival of a Twin Otter from the Joint Task Force North 440 Squadron. Kruger said he works in partnership with the Canadian military’s training squadron to add to the reality of the situation for both the RCMP officers at the camp, and the pilots operating the plane.
“This is really the only time they get to practice communicating air to ground like this,” he said. “Some of the younger pilots have never seen the flares we use before too and it all adds to making the situation as real as possible.”
While there are certainly other survival courses offered by a variety of organizations, RCMP say Kruger’s camp on Great Slave Lake makes for a unique draw.
“Jack Kruger is the reason this course is what it is,” said instructor Const. Trent Hayward. “Its been going for more then a decade and it just keeps growing.”
As impressive as the training is on its own, it also pays dividends in the real world. Kruger recounted how a participant in a previous year had never really been in the bush, but took to it quickly. When he was posted to Fort McPherson, he adopted the lifestyle and spent many off-hours on a snowmobile. His skills and experience served him in good stead when he tracked a missing person through the snow for two days before finding them and bringing them home safely.
“If you’re going to live up here, participate, and know what you’re doing,” said Kruger. “What I want them to take away from this course is the confidence that they could do this and function out there.”