My Experience as a Military Media Embed: Deployment
The following post documents my experiences working as an embedded filmmaker and photographer with the Canadian Armed Forces during Operation NUNALIVUT 2017 in Nunavut. This was my second time working with the Canadian Military and I found this experience in particular to be incredibly humbling and very real. I want to thank the Joint Task Force North (JTFN) and the 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group (1CRPG) for treating us like your own and taking us under your wings. I've learnt a lot.
Chapter One: Deployment
The military is something you hear about all the time on the news, but in our Vancouver bubble, we hardly interact with the members of the Forces. Rather, there exists an almost parallel system between the civilian and military worlds. We don't even go to the same hospitals, as members of the Forces are unable to obtain civilian care cards while serving. When Major Bilodeau asked Nigel and I if we would like to become completely embedded within military life in the high arctic during Operation NUNALIVUT, Canada's annual winter sovereignty exercise, I immediately jumped at the opportunity. I did so not just because I thought the possibility to make great films was there (it is, but that's another story), but also because I wanted to personally be given a chance to observe and participate in the lives of active members of the Armed Forces and understand their lives, wishes, dreams, passions and all those very human characteristics we all share.
We arrived in Yellowknife, the largest Canadian city north of the 60th parallel, just after midnight. Little did we know, Yellowknife would be our warmest location for the next two weeks. A fox was running around the airport parking lot as Nigel and I waited for a taxi to take us into town for the evening. We had just flown in from Vancouver, taking a couple of stops in Calgary and Fort McMurray for refuelling, and the north hit us like a brick in the face. Immediately we found ourselves scrambling through our bags to add a couple extra layers of clothing. We did not get to our motel until around 2am and our scheduled departure was 5am for Resolute Bay. We unpacked everything in the hotel room that night to re-organize our packs as best as we could for the extreme cold. No more runners and casual sweaters, it was time to gear up.
At daybreak we received a call from Major Bilodeau over breakfast informing us the flight was delayed due to windy conditions in Hall Beach. A couple more hours of sleep was nothing to complain about and the Major told us to just keep our phones on and she would call once more information was available. We ended up spending that extra time wandering around Yellowknife looking for a decent cup of coffee (basement of the YK Centre) and just as we sat down the Major called: "The flight is on. I'll pick you up in three minutes. Be ready."
I took a sip and a deep breath before telling Nigel: "It's a go."
We briskly walked back to the motel, gathered up our packs as quickly as we could and Major Bilodeau was waiting for us just outside the lobby with a truck. After a couple of warm hugs we packed everything into the back of the truck and drove off to Yellowknife Airport to meet up with the 1CRPG officers also taking the service flight to Nunavut.
We added our packs to the pile of green camo bags, had a few handshakes with people who we would later learn would become some of our closest friends on the Op, met with the Air Force team operating the flight for a twenty second briefing and then spend the rest of the time waiting around with Major Bilodeau chatting over sandwiches and coffee she picked up for us.
A loud voice echoed through the departure hall informing all of the military folks it was time to walk over to the plane. With another round of hugs, we left the Major there and followed the officers out onto the tarmac towards the Hercules.
We soared over the arctic tundra of Canada's remote north to the small Inuit community of Resolute Bay, where we dropped off some supplies and passengers before continuing on to Hall Beach. During the flight, Nigel and I meandered around the plane, which was mostly packed with supplies for the Op and skidoos. The arctic is a challenging and unforgiving place, especially in the dead of winter. Seeing it from above was awe inspiring, the vastness of white snow and the jagged floe edge as far as the eyes can see.
We touched down in Hall Beach just after dark and I immediately realized how much colder -50 felt compared to -25. Naturally, in your mind, you know that -50 would be very cold, but you can't quite imagine what it feels like until you've experienced it. I've been to cold places in the winter before-- Siberia, Northeast China, the Yukon-- but this was something new for me. The weather read -58 with windchill and boy does that hit hard. Upon exiting the back of the Herk I found myself coughing a little as my body tried to acclimatize to inhaling the freezing air.
We followed the officers into the CP tent, which was a T-shaped double tent structure that would serve as the Operation's technical headquarters. As we were some of the first to arrive, there were no doors on the tents, only a corner flap that you had to pull up to enter and exit.
The engineers, whom had arrived a week or so earlier than us to set up camp, took us on a little tour so that we could familiarize ourselves with everything. Moving in a clockwise direction from the CP tent, there was the washroom tent, which consisted of a series of smaller tents inside a larger tent, each little tent containing a black plastic bucket where you put your shit bag into. Then next to the washroom tent there was the ablution tent for washing, teeth brushing and dumping bilge water. And finally next to that tent there was the mess tent, with gas stoves, water and pots in the front and boxes of IMPs (Individual Meal packs-- military rations) on the side, and tables in two rows down the length of the tent.
Directly across from the CP tent was the old airplane hanger. Built in the 1950s as part of the arctic monitoring and defence program during the beginning of the Cold War, it had been in disrepair before the military engineers fixed it up specifically to house all of the soldiers and officers during the Op.
They were still working through setting the massive space up and had cornered off a warmer section for us early arrivals. We were told to just pick a cot and set up our sleeping stuff. This was it, we were in it, with everyone else. And since the PAOs (Public Affairs Officers) had yet to arrive, the 1CRPG guys had essentially adopted us.
After taking down an IMP with Nigel in the mess tent, we more casually began to introduce ourselves to our bunkmates from 1CRPG Yellowknife.
As I said earlier, in just a few days time these would become the people we bonded with the most throughout the Op. It's hard to even think back to the time when we had just flown in and hardly knew each other.
Before bed I went over to the washroom tent and tried to shit into a bag, but my body was not having it. I think my intestines must have been intimidated by the bucket or something but it was not having it. It had been a wild thirty-six hours or so and we called it a night relatively early (lights out was at 10pm anyway). This was just day one of many.