Hay River Canadian Rangers get Caribou Legs safely across lake

Arriving in Dettah on March 7 after a trek across Great Slave Lake are Canadian Ranger Quentin Steinwand, left, Canadian Ranger Linda Carter, Brad “Caribou Legs” Firth, Canadian Ranger Warren Gibb, Canadian Ranger Sheila Warren and Canadian Ranger Master Cpl. Robert Wilkins.

Canadian Rangers from Hay River have successfully escorted famed long-distance runner Caribou Legs on a trek across Great Slave Lake.

Caribou Legs – whose real name is Brad Firth – said the trip across the lake from March 4 to 7 would have been next to impossible without the help he received from the Rangers.

“They had my back,” he told Northern News Services in Yellowknife, adding they stayed a few kilometres ahead of him at all times so the sound of their snowmobiles wouldn’t distract him. “They kept me warm and fed and when I called for hot soup or water, they came with big hugs and smiles.”

Caribou Legs, who was wearing a caribou coat and caribou boots, had hoped to run across the lake in the tracks of the Rangers’ snowmobiles on a mission to bring tokens for handgames from the Hay River Reserve to a tournament in Behchoko.

However, he had to switch to snowshoes very quickly, according to the Rangers.

“We were probably less than a kilometre outside of Hay River and he found that the snow conditions were very arduous for running and he switched to a pair of snowshoes, which we provided for him,” said Ranger Master Corporal Robert Wilkins, who was one of five Hay River Rangers to complete the trek on snowmobiles.

“It was arguably the most challenging run I’ve ever faced,” said Caribou Legs. “It was extremely grueling with snowshoes, running in deep snow. There were a lot of cracks in the ice. Running across the lake can be so defeating. I had to come up with my best willingness to finish it, my best stuff.”

Six Canadian Rangers departed Hay River with Caribou Legs on March 4, but one had to turn back because of problems with a toboggan hitch on his snowmobile.

“He was closer to Hay River than he was to Yellowknife, and he made that decision to head back,” said Wilkins.

“It was definitely more challenging with fewer people,” he noted. “We still have the same workload to accomplish.”

The weather was also challenging.

“The weather on the lake was very, very cold,” said Wilkins, noting that March 6 was particularly cold with winds up to 50 kilometres an hour causing whiteout conditions.

“We didn’t move too far on that day,” he said. “Mr. Firth was able to run a little ways, but navigation was very difficult and conditions just weren’t safe.”

Overall, the 47-year-old Caribou Legs averaged 50 to 60 kilometres a day during the trek.

Wilkins described Caribou Legs as a very inspiring and capable individual.

“His athleticism is something to be admired and his mental ability to continue on through very, very challenging conditions and continue doing what he’s doing was inspirational and something to see,” said the Ranger.

Caribou Legs, who is originally from Inuvik but now lives in Vancouver, is best known for a cross-Canada run the ended in November to raise awareness about missing and murdered indigenous women.

Capt. Steve Watton, the public affairs officer with the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, was in Dettah when Caribou Legs and the five Rangers completed the crossing of Great Slave Lake at about 5:30 p.m. on March 7.

“It was an excellent opportunity to put some of the training to practical application,” said Watton. “We were able to survey ice conditions and conduct navigation along the entire route. So it was a very, very good training opportunity.”

The captain explained the Canadian Rangers normally had one or two people travelling with Caribou Legs as he was moving along and they always had a few people up front scouting and checking out the ice conditions.

“It was definitely a unique opportunity for our Canadian Rangers to have the privilege to escort Caribou Legs across Great Slave Lake,” he said.

Everyone was in good health at the end of the trek, Watton added. “Everybody was great. Everybody was healthy and happy, and had a good time.”

-Paul Bickford with files from John McFadden