Flying the flag and hunting for seals with the Canadian Rangers
CANADA’S RAGTAG ARCTIC FORCES
Flying the flag and hunting for seals with the Canadian Rangers
Robert Dialla’s sweat-
pants are stained and dirty and the insulation from his jacket threatens to spill out from a rip along the front. For four days, he’s been living out of his 20-ft. aluminum fishing boat and camping on the rocky tundra. His uniform, a red hooded sweatshirt with a crossed rifle and axe emblem across the front, just covers his 240-lb. frame. (He used to weigh more and laments quitting sports when he had the first of his six children.) His Second World War-era .303 Lee Enfield rifle looks more like a museum piece than a killing machine, but Dialla knows how to use it—a freshly killed seal hanging off the side of his boat and missing the top half of its head is testament to his skill as a marksman.
This is the unlikely face of Canada’s military in the high Arctic.
They are called the Canadian Rangers—a ragtag militia of Inuit men (and in recent years women too) who patrol the icy waters and tundra of Canada’s northern reaches. On this trip, Dialla and 15 of his compatriots have been slowly picking their way through remote fjords and open seas, headed southeast from their home town of Pangnirtung, on Baffin Island, toward the Davis Strait. Since the beginning of the Cold War, patrols like this one have been on guard in the Arctic, looking out for interloping submarines and invading Russians. Their mission here: to fly the Canadian flag and assert sovereignty over remote inlets and ice-choked seas. Along the way they perform a few military drills, camp, and pick off the occasional seal for dinner.
The threat of invading armies seems farfetched today, but lurking polar bears remain a very real concern. At night, Dialla’s rifle lies loaded and ready next to him in his sturdy homemade canvas tent, heated by an alwaysburning Coleman stove. Earlier in the day, three bears were wandering around the Rangers’ campsite in this remote fjord near the Arctic Circle. “They are the last thing you want to see,” says Dialla, who in his soft, even voice describes near-fatal brushes with bears
and four-day snowstorms. Two small dogs have been brought along to act as a polar bear warning system. “Good thing I brought my dog to protect the Rangers from polar bears,” says the owner of one of the canines, Hezekiah Oshutapik. For others, a .303 seems preferable. “All your dog was doing was farting all night from the rations,” replies Simeonie Keenainak, the rotund, 57-year-old sergeant of the patrol, as the group sets off across the water.
THE RANGERS TRAVEL IN RICKETY OLD FISHING BOATS, AND THEIR WEAPONS ARE WWII-ERA RIFLES
FROM A DISTANCE, the flotilla of Ranger boats looks almost formidable as it exits the Pangnirtung fjord, breaking through ocean swells and setting up tiny explosions of icy water. Up close, the boats are less imposing. The Rangers are the only arm of the military asked to use their own equipment—in this case, seven small wooden or aluminum fishing boats and one motorized canoe that looks particularly tippy in ocean waters.
Two days into the patrol, the Rangers hit a patch of heavy fog. Mathewsie Maniapik guides his old wooden 20-ft. Lake Winnipeg fishing boat into the Cumberland Sound and
vanishes into the mist. One after the other, the Rangers follow, disappearing from sight. Fog is a constant challengelike the chilly Arctic winds. A day earlier, the patrol had been forced off course by fierce winds just hours into its annual sovereignty patrol. Rather than risk the rising ocean swells, the Rangers made for the shelter of Kekerton Island, a windswept, abandoned 19th-century whaling camp now littered with graves and human bones. (Given the rocky surface, bodies were placed on the land in wooden barrels that have since rotted away.) “The old people always say, wait for the weather,” says Keenainak the following morning as he steers his boat in Maniapik’s wake. “And they’re right.”
While Keenainak’s boat is the largest and
most seaworthy of the bunch (with a small enclosed cockpit and radar), Maniapik’s relic is the designated scout boat. The fact that Maniapik, a 56-year-old fisherman, has no GPS or radar on board might seem cause for concern (even without the fog, the northern landscape is an intimidating combination of rock, ice and open water). For the Rangers, it’s comic relief. After hours cruising blindly through the fog, a crackle comes over the radio, as one of the Rangers quizzes, “Do you know where we’re going?” Speaking in Inuk-
titut, another jokes, “I think we’re almost near Greenland.” Moments later, as if by some miracle of navigation, the boats break free from the fog in the same tidy line they left in, right on course and in sight of land. Asked how he guided the boats, Maniapik, a slight, aging man in oversized rubber boots, says by translator, “I use the direction of the waves and the sun.”
Riding shotgun with Keenainak is Sgt. Stephen Ambrose, who oversees the Rangers on their five-day mission. The 35-year-old soldier has served in places like Bosnia, Afghanistan and Cyprus, and for the past
two years he has travelled the North, training the Rangers in the ways of the southern military. Unlike the Rangers, in their mismatched ensembles of jeans, rubber boots or sneakers, Ambrose cuts an imposing figure in his army fatigues. A toothpick constantly circles around his mouth, just below a thick moustache. On the first day of the patrol, Ambrose quickly quashes a Ranger’s plans to bring his young son along. “He’s not serious, is he?” he asks. Yet Ambrose maintains a fragile authority over the Rangers, who
show a loosely veiled indifference to the rigid ways of the military. On the final day of patrol, two Ranger boats drop from view in one of the fjords, likely distracted by a seal or bear. Ambrose orders Keenainak to hold up and wait for the others—a command the old Ranger shrugs off. “You guys worry too much. You’re like my grandma,” he says. On their previous patrol, another sergeant told Keenainak he would fire him if he swerved his boat off course one more time to search for seal. “I turned one more time. He didn’t fire me,” says Keenainak, who has a curious habit of shouting “Hallelujah!” in awkward moments of silence (“no more hallelujahs till we’re out of this fog,” the sergeant says on one occasion). Ambrose takes a patient approach. “Look, if something happens to them, I’ll hang. And I don’t want to hang,” he pleads. Keenainak relents and slows.
Midway through the patrol, once camp has been established, the Rangers are granted a
“traditional day” to hunt. All military pretense evaporates as they break off to scour nearby fjords for seal, walrus and whale. That night, Oshutapik, a 50-year-old fisherman, plumber and resident mechanic on this patrol, slides his knife down the belly of a small ring seal, brought back by the hunters. He begins peeling the skin away from the animal’s thick layer of fat. When he cuts off the flippers the seal looks like a big, white blubbery football. The hide he’ll sell later, back in Pangnirtung, about 100 km away. Then Oshutapik pulls the seal’s chest cavity wide open and removes the intestines and innards. He slices down the rib cage until he has created a neat series of what look like baby-back ribs. Around him, his fellow Rangers gather on the rocky shore of their campsite and begin cutting off morsels of bloody meat with their knives. Careful not to spill blood on their red uniform sweatshirts, they devour the meat until there’s nothing left but a carcass of bone and fat. Military rations are left sitting in the Rangers’ boats, mostly untouched. Ambrose also takes a few healthy bites. A career military man, he’s developed a strong aversion to soupy military rations. Leopa Akpalialuk, one of the elder Rangers on this patrol, grins and wipes sweat from his brow. “This makes you real strong,” he says in broken English.
ACCORDING TO Ranger lore, some time ago a Ranger spotted a foreign submarine. When the Ranger called Ottawa to report the sighting, the military demurred at the notion and asked whether he wasn’t just confusing a whale for a submarine. “Bullets don’t bounce off whales,” the Ranger replied. The story might seem apocryphal, but foreign vessels have been known to travel these waters without consent, and these northern channels could soon be seeing a lot more traffic. The earth’s atmosphere is warming, the ice is thinner and breaking up earlier, and the water is warmer, says Peter Kilabuk, who when not patrolling with the Rangers is the Speaker of Nunavut’s legislature. This kind of global warming is expected to open the Arctic’s Northwest Passage, a potentially invaluable new shipping route. The trouble is, many countries, including the United States, don’t recognize Canada’s sovereignty over these waters.
To reinforce its fragile claims, the Conservative government has promised to build
three armed icebreakers, a deep-water port, and a military training centre in the Arctic. Large elaborate military drills have also been staged, including one this week dubbed Operation Lancaster. Still, Canada’s strongest claims to sovereignty rest on the Rangers, who have been patrolling the Arctic since the late 1940s. “We go all around here,” explains Keenainak. “Even if it’s not on patrol, we’re hunting or fishing, and that’s sovereignty too.” Last month, Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor travelled to the Arctic and promised, among other things, more Ranger patrols. There are now over 50 patrols in communities across the Arctic, each capped at 30 members, with waiting lists of Inuit hoping to join.
That is part of the reason why Ambrose is here—not just to inspect the Rangers but to “familiarize” them with the more modern weaponry of the Canadian Forces. For an afternoon, the Kumlien fjord, the site of the Rangers’ temporary base camp, is alive with the crackling of gunfire. On a makeshift firing range, the Rangers lie on their stomachs and fire their .303s at paper targets of a scowling enemy soldier. (While the ancient .303 has been labelled inadequate by many military observers, it is beloved by the Rangers. It doesn’t jam in the cold, and is powerful enough to drop a polar bear with one shot. ) Ambrose concludes the day with a brief lesson in how to fire the army’s C-7 automatic weapons. He barks commands, ordering the Rangers not to fire all 30 rounds at once. “Short bursts,” he yells, as the Rangers eagerly line up with magazines to take their turn unloading one of the two C-7s, bullet casings flying and landing on the cold tundra.
For a fleeting few hours, Ambrose has the Rangers armed to the teeth and looking almost like a fighting force. For many of the Rangers, it’s the highlight of the trip. “It might be some of the best shooting I’ve ever seen on a Ranger patrol,” says Ambrose. “But that might be because it’s not -30.” Everyone seems less inclined to take such drills seriously in frostbite-inducing cold, he explains. Up here in the August sun, it’s relatively balmy. The temperature hovers around five degrees. The sun sets for only a few short hours each night.
On their final evening, after a feast of seal and char, the Rangers stand on the rocky shore smoking and laughing, sharing stories. A lone gull swoops down and hovers in a gust of wind over their boats. Akpalialuk picks up his .303, takes aim and fires, sending a thunderous crack echoing down the fjord. He fires a second shot, and the bird hesitates, before pumping its wings against the Arctic wind. Finally a third blast. The Rangers holler and whoop at this display. Leopa grins. If that were a seal, he would not have missed. M
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