Gimme shelter: Mounties learn outdoor skills

It’s 4:45 p.m. and as the sun is rapidly declining, 12 men and women are working in the middle of the woods on building shelters for the night.

It’s 4:45 p.m. and as the sun is rapidly declining, 12 men and women are working in the middle of the woods on building shelters for the night.

Temperatures are expected to drop to -25C.

The scene isn’t from an American reality show but rather takes place around the Whitehorse cadet training facility on March 2.

Ten Yukon RCMP officers, a conservation officer and an Alberta RCMP officer are in their final days of their wilderness operations and outdoor skills training course.

Over the course of the past week they’ve learned from experts the skills they need to function outdoors in the North in all seasons, from axe safety to using compasses and satellite phones, crossing rivers and building shelters.

Now it’s time to put those skills in practice.

Cpl. Cam Long, who is organizing the course, has already completed a nice roomy shelter.

Using wood and plastic, he built a structure he then covered with snow, leaving a small opening for an entrance.

Some officers are using tree branches, snow, tarps and reflectors for their shelters. The ones relying on a fire to keep them warm during the night have built shelters with a large open side.

This year the course had a special guest, Manitoba professor Gordon Giesbrecht.

Better known as “Dr. Popsicle” for his experiments dunking people in ice-filled bathtubs, Giesbrecht has been studying the effects of cold and extreme environment on the human body for the past 25 years.

He has demonstrated many times how to survive falling through a frozen lake by taking the plunge himself.

The most important thing is not to panic, he said.

“You have one minute to get your breathing under control, 10 minutes of meaningful movement and one hour until you become unconscious because of hypothermia,” he said.

RCMP officers working in the North could face situations such as boats capsizing in the summer or going through the ice when snowmobiling on frozen lakes, he said.

In the weeklong course, RCMP officers are taught to survive and adapt to even the most dramatic situations.

In one case participants were told to put their packs aside and light a fire, using only what they had in their pockets.

Another day they had to light a fire with only one hand to simulate an injury.

It’s all about the skills, Giesbrecht said.

“You can give some people a blow torch and they (still) won’t be able to light a fire,” he said.

The goal in the shelter exercise is not simply to survive, he said.

“Your goal should be not to live through the night but to be happy and healthy in the morning so you’re in shape so you could do it again tomorrow night,” he said.

“If you just survive the first night, you might not make it through the second night.”

For Const. John Gillis, on his way to completing a cozy shelter for the night, the course showed him there is a difference between knowing skills and putting them in practice.

“We get called to remote locations all the time,” he said. “Even if you’re working in downtown Whitehorse you still cover a big area.”

Contact Pierre Chauvin at pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com

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