Ice to Meet You!
Soldiers of the 1-69th train with Canadian allies in winter warfare exercise
GOGOMA, Ontario -- Hundreds of miles from civilization, New York Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Wiwczar stood on a frozen lake gazing at the hole cut into the two-foot thick ice. Snow, four to five feet of it, surrounded him on all sides, and the temperature of the winter air hovered well below freezing.
As he jumped in, Wiwczar could only think: This is going to be cold.
Wiwczar emerged from underwater. His wetsuit, buoyant and snug, brought him up to the surface, where he bobbed up and down, up and down; until he could catch hold of the icy ledge and pull himself out. With his instructor’s approval, he left the icy water to join his fellow Soldiers.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Wiwczar recalled.
Practicing getting out of icy water was just one of the many training exercises Wiwczar and eight other New York Army National Guard Soldiers from the 1st Battalion 69th Infantry learned in the ice and snow of Canada.
The New Yorkers were part of Operation Wolf Pack Endeavour 2011, a winter warfare training exercise run by the 33rd Canadian Brigade Group of the Canadian Army Reserve from March 7 to March 21. More than 450 members of the Canadian Forces, the Canadian Rangers-composed mainly of Inuit Soldiers-and cadets from the Royal Military College of Canada took part in the exercise.
“Their whole theory is that you have to survive in the climate before you can fight,” said Wiwczar, a senior military instructor with the New York Army National Guard, eager for knowledge to bring back to his troops.
Giving Soldiers a chance to train with another Army is always a good thing, said Capt. Jeffrey Csoka, the operations officer for the 1-69th.
“The bottom line is that Soldiers, at some point in the future, could be deployed, and there’s a good chance they’ll be deployed with Canadians,” Csoka said. “Anytime you can expose Soldiers to other armies, it’s a valuable thing.
The nine Soldiers flew north to Ottawa, Canada’s capital, where they met their Canadian instructors and peers, became acquainted with the Canadian way of doing things, and learned about their upcoming exercise.
The Americans were split into teams and placed within an element from Cameron Highlanders of Ottowa, a Canadian Army Reserve battalion.
After four days in the classroom, the Soldiers packed their bags for their trip a 600 miles north into the Canadian wilderness, to a little town out in the middle of nowhere named Gogama.
In Gogama the soldiers moved in to Arctic tents. The tents, roughly 14-feet in diameter, hold 10 troops inside.
For Spc. Marcin Pawezka, an infantryman with Company B of the 1-69th, working in teams to set up the large, pentagonal tent was something entirely new -- as were drills on tearing down and packing the tents small enough to fit on top of a toboggan.
And wherever they went in Gogama, their toboggans went too.
Like a dog sled with Soldiers replacing dogs, the sleds were pulled by two Soldiers on snowshoes: one pulling in front, and one Soldier guiding ahead.
In the toboggan was everything the Soldiers couldn’t fit in their packs: the tent, spikes, and various tools: axes, an ice-saw, two small sledgehammers, and the stove, lamp, fuel and water cans.
“At the beginning, we didn’t carry too much,” said Pawezka. “Just the assault pack to the campsite.”
“But when we moved out, we had to bring everything. Your rucksack, your assault pack, your vest, Kevlar, weapon. And you move to another spot, and you set it up again,” he added.
Of all the challenges Pawezka faced up north, the constant moving ranked among the toughest, he recalled.
The terrain around Gogama is a mix of forest and hills covered with snow.
“You’re talking about four, five feet of snow, and you’re snowshoeing with 60, 80 pounds on your back, and the weight collapses the snow -- it’s pretty tough.”
In addition to sore thighs and burdened backs, another source of discomfort emerged: sweat.
Underneath each Soldier’s clothes, under each Soldier’s silk weight underwear, long johns, mukluks and fleece jacket, a war of hot and cold raged.
“It was cold, but you feel sweaty, but not too much,” Pawezka said.
Everyone had to drink water, even in the cold, due to all the sweat lost during marching, he recalled.
While temperatures at times dipped to double-digit negatives, at times the weather was more temperature, sometimes even rainy, and the Soldiers had to adapt.
“Part of the issue is when you’re exerting, you have to dress down, you have to take off a couple layers,” said Wiwczar. “And then, you have to dry out before it gets cold, or you’ll get chilled to the bone.”
The guts of the winter survival training came from members of the Canadian Rangers, a volunteer force formed in 1947 to keep an eye on the Canadian Arctic. Made up mainly of Inuit and Native Canadians, the rangers are experts on surviving in the north.
The Rangers conducted training on how to use and maintain a chainsaw;how to make fire without using matches or lighters; how to use smoke signals; how to build an improvised shelter; how to snowmobile; and how to get out of a frozen lake.
The Soldiers even learned how to cook and catch food in the winter environment.
One Soldier, Pfc. Joey Delancey, even caught a rabbit during snare training. That rabbit became dinner that night: a respite from the daily Army rations. But Wiwczar said any food is good after a day in the cold -- even moose, served one night by the Rangers.
“We had to get it fast though, because stuff would get cold in no time,” Wiwczar said.
For the last part of the training, food came on the go, as Soldiers participated in a two-day tactical training exercise. Across the Canadian wilderness, hundreds of Soldiers woke up, got their orders, and for the next 14 or so hours, participated in a winter raid.
“I had never trained with foreign forces before, but I was struck with the similarities between the ways that we operate, more than the differences. We operate very, very similarly,” said Wiwczar. “They went over backwards in order to make us feel at home.”
The Soldiers also said the training will help them not only on the hills of Gogama, but also on deployments in the future.
“In the mountains of Afghanistan, northeast, near the Pakistan border, you have a lot of snow, even in summer time,” said Pawezka, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2008-2009.
“You get stuck up there, at least, with this training, you’d know how to survive.
“I’d recommend it for anybody,” he said.