Members of the Canadian Armed Forces stationed in the Yukon for a military training exercise this week were unexpectedly called out on a real search-and-rescue mission Tuesday morning.
Three paddlers from Packer Expeditions in Skagway, Alaska became stranded on Monday afternoon on the Wheaton River south of Whitehorse and ended up spending the night outdoors.
Major Luc Vermette, flight commander with the Edmonton-based 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, said the three people, who were paddling inflatable kayaks, got turned around in the river channels and eventually realized they’d paddled too far.
They had tents with them and set up a small camp and a fire on the high ground, he said.
RCMP began searching for the paddlers on Monday afternoon, when they were reported missing. At around 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, the RCMP asked the military for assistance, as they knew Canadian Forces had additional helicopters available. About 850 military members and civilians are participating in Operation Nanook in Whitehorse and Haines Junction this week, to train for emergency responses in the North.
Vermette and his team took off in two CH-146 Griffon helicopters, and were able to locate the paddlers from their fire and a bright orange tarp they were using. The RCMP also had a helicopter in the area and had a ground search going.
When Vermette flew over the camp, he could see the paddlers jumping and waving from the ground. But people will often do that even when they’re not in trouble, so he decided to pass the trio a message “rather unconventionally” to make sure they were the right people.
From the helicopter, they dropped down a “water bottle in a Ziploc bag with a note” telling the people to lie down if they needed to be rescued, Vermette said.
They did, and the rescuers then landed about 300 metres away.
Vermette said he’s not sure how much longer the paddlers could have stayed out there without assistance.
“I think they’d run out of food,” he said. “I think they were ecstatic initially and then relieved” to see the helicopters, he added.
He said they seemed a bit surprised to be rescued by the Royal Canadian Air Force.
“I think they got more than they bargained for,” he said.
He said the paddlers’ feet were starting to turn blue, as they were only wearing sandals, but they were otherwise unharmed. They refused medical attention when they landed back in Whitehorse.
The whole episode was over within two and a half hours.
Vermette said this is only the second real rescue his unit has been involved with.
“It’s not really a primary role for us,” he said. “It’s a secondary role that we provide to the Canadian Forces.”
Lt.-Col. Martin Pesant, air task force commander for Operation Nanook, said it was just a coincidence that the military happened to be on-hand to help with the rescue.
“For us, it’s part of the job,” he said. “That’s what we do. It’s what we’re here for.”
A representative of Packer Expeditions told the News Tuesday afternoon that the owner of the company was driving to Whitehorse to pick up the three paddlers.
The majority of Operation Nanook’s exercises are taking place Haines Junction this week, where members of the military are responding to a simulated earthquake.
The operation will wrap up Friday.
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