It was a clear, cold January night on Great Slave Lake. Three canvas wall tents stood in the meagrely sheltered bay, snowmobiles scattered around, smoke puttering out of three stovepipes. Then two.
I’d only been asleep for maybe an hour, and when the cold hit my toes and woke me up, I was the only one awake. I looked past the end of my sleeping bag to the woodstove and saw just a pale flow through the hole for the draft. I tried not to think too much so I could easily get back to sleep: Put wood in fire. If I’d been paying more attention, I’d have noticed the ice underneath the woodstove had melted to a pit and one of the stove’s four legs was three inches off the ground.
I shot up on my cot, undid my bag, slipped on my boots and some rough leather work-gloves and ambled off my cot. The wind blew a slow howl outside and five out of seven other people inside the tent snored and murmured in their sleep. I went to take the plate off the top of the stove and at my touch the whole set up rocked back, the stovepipe popped out and smoke rapidly filled the tent. I was awake now. I grabbed the stove with one hand, righted it, put cut logs under its feet and popped the stovepipe back in. It took seconds. I looked at my companions, still snoring—coughing?—in the haze and I went back to sleep for another hour before I was shaken awake.
It was time to go. I put all my gear on and met with our team leader as our group assembled. Our orders were to perform a sound-sweep across a one-kilometre island—it looked small on the map—about five minutes away from camp by snow machine. We spaced out far enough away from each other that we could hear each others’ whistles blow. We had radios to communicate and every 80 metres, judging every second stride as one metre, we would stop, blow our whistles in unison, and then listen for a reply from some soul in peril, stranded somewhere among the trees.
There was no one out there, though, and we knew that. We were out there for training, to be search and rescue team leaders. We’d been warned it would be an intense two days with little or no opportunity to sleep, so I felt fortunate for my two-hours of shut-eye, despite my ruined work-gloves.
An hour into our march through knee-deep snow in snowshoes, under fallen trees at four in the morning, I was lost in the imaginary scene. Concern for the welfare of this imaginary victim propelled me forward. I was on the far left side of the line and sometimes my course would take me off the island and onto the ice. The lights of Yellowknife were there, way off in the distance, and the Northern lights hung in the sky like curtains. It was a beautiful night, at least.
Our lines began to converge as we scrambled up a small, icy hill, each of us on all fours, gaining traction and then slipping down, till we made it to the top.
We had some snacks, drank some water and kept going. The whole sweep was supposed to take 90 minutes, and we returned at 5 a.m. after three hours.
I went to the exercise co-ordinator’s tent. To accommodate eight cots, our canvas shell had been expanded so much to that there was a half-foot of space between the walls and the ground on one side. His was draped over a small frame as if it were a blanket fort. Inside, an oil-fired heater kept the place toasty, an electric lamp cast a warm tone on the walls, and our ex-military co-ordinator regarded my entrance dispassionately and sipped his tea.
“Why were you late?”
“There weren’t any issues. It just took longer than expected. Sir.”
“Send in the next team and prepare to head back out in three hours.”
And I did, pitying the next poor suckers, though my pity was misplaced. Doing the same exercise while following our trails, they were done in the allotted 90 minutes.