Across the vast expanse of the Arctic coast, on Great Slave Lake and in the Mackenzie Delta, boaters in distress look to members of the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary (CCGA) for assistance. In the Northwest Territories, the all-volunteer CCGA has units in Aklavik, Inuvik, Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Resolution, Fort Chipewyan and Fort McMurray. In Nunavut, the eastern Arctic, CCGA units are in Cambridge Bay, Rankin Inlet and Pangnirtung. Jack Kruger has been Director of the CCGA Arctic District since 1994, and he coordinates the activities and training of more than 100 volunteers.
"The rescue work covers a wide range of activity, from the Arctic Ocean to the big fresh water lakes further south," Kruger notes. The organization responds to everything from natural disasters to human crises. He gives an example from Hay River when, a few years ago, "two meteorological lows met in a perfect storm and put 15-foot waves on Great Slave Lake. A fisherman's rudder had broken while he was bringing a load of fish across, so we had to have him bail out of a 45 foot boat into our Zodiacs and abandon his boat." In contrast to that, the CCGA "recently responded to a stabbing incident in the Mackenzie Delta and gave first aid in the middle of the night when nobody else could find the place."
One of the newest CCGA groups in the eastern Arctic, Unit 523, serves the Pangnirtung and Cumberland Sound Area of Baffin Island. As leader Peter Kilabuk reports, the unit's four members operate two 27-foot aluminum welded vessels, both powered by twin outboard motors. It should be noted that some boats in the Coast Guard Auxiliary fleet belong to the RCMP, others are community-owned and still others are privately owned - all have the necessary equipment and communications gear and all are registered as search and rescue assets with the Coast Guard.
Kilabuk says Unit 523 carried out four taskings last summer. Twice, members towed disabled boats back to Pangnirtung and the most recent tasking was in November, when a boat called for assistance after losing the lower gear by hitting a rock about 70 kilometres northwest of Pangnirtung. "The vessel in distress was occupied by the owner, hunting partner and his 12 year old son. So our unit was called to attend to the vessel in distress during the night dark hours but safely returned them to Pangnirtung at late night."
Kilabuk and his team members formed the group because there is no other Marine Search and Rescue provider in the community. "We know that there is no other SAR provider we can fall back on to offer and handle these critical services. I do know that the local authorities depend on our unit as the only SAR service providers in the Pangnirtung and Cumberland Sound Area. People are becoming a lot more reliant on our unit." He says the unit has built a respected reputation by completing all of their taskings "with due diligence and care" for the people they work with.
In the western Arctic community of Aklavik, CCGA Unit leader Steve Johnson, an RCMP member, logged 11 marine searches last year, some of which lasted several hours and others several days. "Fortunately all the SARs resulted with in a positive outcome, locating the missing person or missing group in good health, but without the CCGA volunteers the outcome could have been fatal for some of these people," Johnson reveals.
The river systems of the Mackenzie Delta attracts bootleggers bringing alcohol into isolated communities, Johnson's police role has sometimes overlapped with general marine patrols of his fellow CCGA volunteers and led to the seizure of large amounts of alcohol being transported for illegal resale within the community.
Each community is different and Jack Kruger says the membership of the auxiliary units is representative of the communities they serve. "Pretty much all the members in the eastern Arctic are Inuit. In Pangnirtung and in Clyde River, where we are looking at opening a unit, that would be all Inuit. Cambridge Bay, is primarily Inuit. Kugluktuk where we hope to open a Unit is again primarily Inuit. Then, in the Northwest Territories, when we look at Aklavik, I am going to say it is 80 percent Inuvialuit, and Inuvik would be about fifty-fifty. As you come south, Yellowknife would be primarily non-aboriginal. The Hay River Unit is primarily non-aboriginal."
"It's the members of these communities that make the CCGA work" Johnson explains. "In these small Arctic communities everyone knows everyone, there is a cohesiveness - and they are the most eager set of volunteers that I have ever come across ready to do what is needed, drop what they are doing, leave their jobs, get up in the middle of the night and go at a moment's notice anytime of the day, without question."
Like other Coast Guard Auxiliary units in Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard formally recognizes and sanctions northern CCGA units. Like their colleagues in the south, they are reimbursed only for costs incurred when they are actually performing searches and rescue missions. The national program is officially "community supported." Only about a third of CCGA funding comes from government, under a Treasury Board Contribution Agreement, which specifically outlines what units can utilize the funding for. The Canadian Coast Guard administers these funds, which does not cover the purchase of SAR equipment but will pay for computers. CCG does not purchase equipment for the CCGA although they have transfered surplus assets to the CCGA, such as used Zodiacs. Many Units have to raise funds themselves (through hosting bingos and other events) for Personal Flotation Devices, GPSs, Radios, and other essential safety items.
The Yellowknife Unit, for example, managed to raise enough funds locally to purchase new outboard motors and sponsons for their Zodiac. Occasionally, CCGA units are successful in obtaining grant funding, such as from the International Polar Year Program which helped purchase GPS devices, SAT phones, and PFDs.
The CCGA provides members in northern communities with some marine and SAR training, and Johnson notes that often a local unit will pay to bring a trainer into the community or send a few CCGA volunteers out of the community to a central location for training that will benefit the home unit. While the CCGA does provide members with some equipment, many use their own money or undertake fundraising activities to buy marine radios, floater suits, GPS units, Personal Flotation Devices and other equipment. Some of that equipment is loaned out, along with the appropriate training, to travelers from local communities, and unit members teach hunters and trappers to make trip plans safer and travel with basic survival gear.
The CCGA takes certifications of its members very seriously. "The training is great for unit cohesion, and it really builds self confidence. It is also important for liability insurance. In fact, I would move that up to the top of the heap," Kruger says. When working with other SAR groups, communications skills are critical. "Everybody who signs up with us has a year to get the Transport Canada Restricted Radio Operator certification and that allows them to speak the same language and use the right words when a Hercules from Trenton or Winnipeg arrives on the scene and we are talking to a marine asset. Those are the things we put the emphasis on."
Throughout the year, in both the NWT and Nunavut, training programs provide members with training in vessel operation, navigation, SAR, Marine Radio Certification and First Aid.
Growing numbers of visitors to the Arctic mean more work for CCGA units. These days, adventurers in sailboats and even kayaks are becoming more prevalent. "The eastern Arctic seems to get more of them, but they are showing up in the west as well," says Kruger. "Some people seem to think that just because some scientists believe the Arctic ice is melting, that it is safe to take pleasure craft there. They say it is melting, so it attracts the European and Asian crowd that want to kayak through, but no, it's not quite that way."
Richard Bray is FrontLine's Senior Writer.
© FrontLine Security 2012