TRURO - Stepping off the plane and feeling the sting of Arctic air on his skin, Master Cpl. Bradley McInnis immediately began to have second thoughts.
Canadian soldier Master Cpl. Bradley McInnis was all smiles after shooting a 150 pound seal during a recent survival training course in the high Arctic. McInnis was the only one of the 40-member military group who was successful in bagging a seal, which was used for food by the Inuit people of a small Nunavut village.
"When I first got to Yellowknife, the first day, the cold was like minus 25 (Celsius). And that would be a pretty cold day down here, people would rush to get into their cars," the former Truro resident said, of his recent military exercise in Canada's far north.
"The cold hit my face and I wondered if I was going to be able to hack the rest of my trip. So that was a Monday. That Friday we were lining up and jumping in a frozen lake and getting out and changing our clothes there on the lake," he said.
"The idea was to fall through the ice and then when you made it back to the surface, before you could get out, you had to yell out your name, rank and service number, which for us we've been doing that since day one, basic training, the nine-year veteran from the 4 Engineer Support Regiment in Gagetown, N.B. said. "So it's built into us."
After bobbing back to the surface, McInnis, 31, said the shocking cold water instantly turned his hands and feet numb and left him breathless and nearly mindless.
"I tried to say my name, rank, service number. I said my name and I completey blanked out and then I yelled out and said: ‘what's my name?'" he recalled. "I couldn't've remembered my phone number in that water."
And that wasn't even the coldest part of his journey, said McInnis, which saw him and 39 other soliders from across the country participating in an Arctic Operations Advisor course, co-ordinated through the Canadian Army Advanced Warfare Centre out of Trenton, Ont.
Between Feb. 2 and March 20, the contingent travelled more than 13,000 kms by plane and snowmobile while conducting survival and search and rescue training exercises in Yellowknife and across extremely remote and barren areas of the high Arctic.
Travelling hundreds of kilometres on snowmobiles they fought to keep gasoline engines running amidst the intense cold. They spent time liasing with and living among the Inuit of Nunavut; they slept in snow caves and trenches and in canvas, floorless tents on the ice atop the Arctic Ocean. They battled blizzard conditions, hunted seals and observed the actions of polar bears, all the while learning to survive under frigid, wind-chill conditions that reached below -75C before their instruments froze.
"I came in with I what I guess I thought was a little bit of knowledge, but it was a shock to the system for sure. Just being that cold and how to deal with it," McInnis said. "We would do patrols. Like, we did a lot of ground search and rescue techniques, training. So a lot of days and nights, just non stop out (in the elements)."
From Yellowknife, the soldiers flew to Resolute, which served as a staging area. At that point, they broke off into four groups of 10 soldiers, with each of those sections assigned to liaise with different Nunavut communities.
For McInnis and the other nine members of his section, that meant flying into Taloyoak, a small community with a population of just more than 800, located on the Boothia Peninsula, 1,224 km (761 miles) northeast of Yellowknife.
"We landed and there's absolutely nothing, it looked like," he said. "There's no trees, just high hills that are covered in snow. It looked like clouds."
After spending a couple of days in the community, McInnis's group headed out by snowmobile for a 400-km round-trip across frozen lakes and tundra to participate in a seal-hunting expedition on the Arctic Ocean, led by four elderly Inuit guides, or rangers, as they are known through their connection to the Canadian Army.
At one point, he and his group were tasked with building an igloo, a considerable task, he said, given that none of his comrades had any experience with the techniques involved.
"It was the hardest thing I ever built," McInnis said. "You would build a block, try and set it in place and it wouldn't stick, it wouldn't fit."
Eventually, the group completed the task, and while McInnis may not consider it his finest bit of work, the igloo did provide adequate shelter, despite the fact only two small candles were used for heat.
"We survived the night in it. If we would've had to spend another night there it would have had to have been some improvements to it," he said, with a chuckle. "But it was minus 50 outside and inside we were in our T-shirts."
Overall, McInnis described the experience as "unforgettable" and said he is "very fortunate to have done that."
And despite the extreme cold and dangerous conditions the soliders faced while surviving amidst the elements and roaming polar bears, McInnis said the most memorable part of the adventure for him was during the seal-hunting trip with the guides.
"The best part was being out on the land with the rangers, living the way they lived and being welcomed to come back," he said.
"It amazes me that there is a place where you have to think about what you are doing outside your doorstep. Every second," he said.
"Being that cold at times is painful. You have to get used to taking care of yourself. You couldn't try to muscle through anything, if you needed to take a minute, if you needed a hand - ‘my hands are too cold right now. I need you to undo my bag or something because I physically can't.'- It's really hard to get over your pride in that situation," he said.
But even being one who admittedly has never been fond of cold conditions, McInnis said he wouldn't hestiate to relive the experience.
"I'd jump at the chance to go to the coldest place I can find."