In this inhospitable location at the world’s edge, a huge effort goes into making an extreme life feel normal.
Morale is as crucial as water and fuel.
So is readiness. The best way to avert disaster in this vulnerable village is to be so well prepared that nothing comes as a surprise.
Day-to-day functions that are taken for granted elsewhere become extraordinary achievements at the most northerly permanently inhabited place in the world.
Canadian Forces Station Alert is many things to many people: a signals-intelligence listening post, a geolocation facility, a weather station and climate-change monitoring post, a search-and-rescue base, a cold-weather campus for Arctic researchers and explorers and an assertion of Canadian sovereignty at the polar limits of nationhood.
Alert’s motto is “Beyond the Inuit Land.” From its position at the northernmost tip of Ellesmere Island, the nearest Inuit settlement is Grise Fjord, more than 700 kilometres to the south.
The station is so close to the North Pole that it can’t connect with communication satellites because their orbit lies below the horizon.
For four months, Alert exists in total darkness. For another four months, there are 24 hours of daylight – and then you can glimpse Greenland, which also lies to the south. The annual polar-bear swim is held in August.
Before you go to Alert, you fill out a detailed medical form. Its questionnaire format challenges you to insist that you can tough out an otherwise harsh and remote environment – because if you’re prone to depression or seek consolation in alcohol or suddenly develop heart problems, things could go badly very quickly. And be warned: It will take between 18 and 36 hours to evacuate you out, even more when the weather turns bad.
Part 2An extreme commute
It’s a major logistical operation just to get to Alert. The C-17 Globemaster is a flying warehouse with a primeval, bestial look: Its stripped-down, belly-of-the-whale interior can fit helicopters and the occasional tank alongside camouflaged troops and their bulky gear. On this trip, the wide-open cabin of the RCAF transport is dominated by a massive all-terrain Sno-Cat and pallets of supplies that are the lifeline for Alert, the distant destination for a gathering of sleep-deprived passengers.
At 5 in the morning, the speedy Globemaster surges forward, leaving behind CFB Trenton and the sheltered bays of Lake Ontario.
For the next six hours, outdistancing daylight, we head north to the top of Canada.
On this occasion, Alert is also the destination of the Governor-General of Canada, David Johnston.
He will preside over a change of command at the station – military postings in this otherworldly location are limited to six months. In honour of the Governor-General and his entourage, the door on one of the two portable toilets prominently positioned at the front of the Globemaster’s seating area is quickly inscribed with the letters VIP.
Adjacent to the toilets is a reminder of an environment that’s indifferent to status: a secured pile of kitbags full of Arctic survival gear in case we suddenly have to confront the Far North’s reality check.
Supply transports carrying passengers and perishables arrive at Alert weekly, but during the spring and fall operations when most of the station’s bulk supplies and fuel are delivered, traffic at the tiny airfield on the edge of the Arctic Ocean is non-stop. Even routine trips turn risky in Alert’s idiosyncratic conditions. “Things can change just like that,” said Pte. Erica Thomson, a meteorological technician based in Gagetown, N.B. “It can be a nice, calm day here and then 10 minutes later a low cloud comes in and you can’t see the runway.”
The wings of the Globemaster are carrying an extra 50,000 litres of all-purpose fuel to sustain Alert’s precarious form of life. Because of the heavy load, the plane needs the full extent of the station’s 5,500-foot runway as it comes to a halt on the packed snow and ice with body-jarring deceleration. None of the regulars on the flight looks bothered. The well-travelled military passengers have likely seen worse in war zones. The civilian workers are used to it – their schedule at Alert is two months on, two months off, so the trip is like a commute.
But for a visitor from Down South, just stepping out into the midday darkness feels dangerous enough.
The numbing cold of the High Arctic (-48 with very believable wind chill) is both a shock and a thrill, breathing as extreme sport.
What comes next is more unexpected, because it seems so far away from the sci-fi gloom of the emptiness surrounding Alert’s regimented warren of metal-clad buildings.
An honour guard presents a crisp salute as you walk up to the main hall, which has all the outward charm of a pre-fab Prairie curling rink.
You stagger up the stairs lugging your survival bag, open the door, and suddenly you’re on centre stage:
The entire complement of the station is arrayed around you, applauding your progress into the light.
A few hours later, Alert’s compulsive sense of camaraderie is placed in its historical context.
The headlights from one of the station’s busses illuminate a row of crosses and a stone marker near the end of the airfield’s gravel runway – tributes to nine people killed on a 1950 supply run and five who died on a 1991 mission.
The Governor-General, Canada’s Commander-in-Chief, crunches his way forward along the packed snow, bends a knee and lays wreaths at each memorial. Except for the constant wind, the silence is all-encompassing. And then, standing apart in the darkness and defying the numbing cold, bagpiper Sergeant Josh McFarlane begins to play the military’s slow and sorrowful lament, Flowers of the Forest.
It is a haunting sound that humanizes this inhospitable place for a few brief, beautiful minutes.
Part 3‘You never know when we might have a superhero night’
In the heyday of Cold War snooping, upwards of 300 personnel staffed the Arctic’s front-line listening post. But the numbers dropped considerably as it became possible to gather and send electronic information remotely, and now there are fewer than 80 people here in Alert’s surprisingly lively version of the dead of winter.
Since a 2008 cost-cutting, half the number consist of civilian support staff who look after the power plant, the water supply, on-station transport, the cramped and very basic college-dorm-style accommodations, and a kitchen kept busy defying the notion that Alert is a hardship post.
Made-to-order omelettes in the Igloo Gardens dining hall draw breakfast lineups and the frequent special-occasion feasts such as the change-of-command dinner might include wapiti in mushroom sauce, a roulade of Arctic char, and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, followed by tiramisu, all served on Alert’s own special china and washed down with Merlot.
For a few hours, it’s easy to believe that you’re not on the very edge of nowhere.
The difficult side of Alert’s wintry isolation is so disproportionately obvious to its residents – separated from families, friends, faithful pets, reassuring routines, comforting surroundings – that they go out of their way to erase all traces of loneliness.
The “mess committee,” as the station’s social convenors are called, organizes nightly games of euchre, cribbage, darts, pool and bingo. On Friday, it’s TGIF comedy night (or DMCV for francophones). There’s a movie club, a video-game group, a tanning bed where you can get your Vitamin D ration, board games of all kinds, a sewing club, a wood-hobby shop, off-road biking in the summer along with hiking to the local ice caves, geocaching and a little fishing, a gym and weight room, too many sports competitions to count, and even a coffee society occupying a fragrant niche in the newly renovated library – you can buy one of their souvenir mugs at the well-stocked Alert Trading Post.
There’s even the beginning of a museum, as the artifacts and souvenirs that have been collected over Alert’s 65 years of operations accumulate into a vivid if sometimes eccentric history of Arctic daring. The disparate collection includes the Vancouver 2010 Olympic torch that was carried to Alert, relics from the 1991 and 1950 plane crashes, a stratified piece of Siberian spruce that found its way to Ellesmere Island, an old pack of Arctic candles (“May be chewed, similar to chewing gum, to promote sustenance in the event of an emergency”), Lucky Strike cigarettes from an American Cold War ration kit, a tin of hardtack, dated c. 1900, with an annotation from the explorer who found it: “One of the tins was sound and the hardtack was no more inedible than 50 years ago,” and a collection of dinner plates from the original HMS Alert, the ship that wintered in a nearby bay in 1875-76 and gave its name to the station.
No one who deliberately chooses such an out-of-the-way existence, from the HMS Alert’s explorers onwards, could ever be described as dull or easily contented.
This deliberate denial of boredom goes into overdrive during Alert’s 12 Days of Christmas celebrations. The non-stop festivities included an ugly-sweater competition, a masquerade ball, a murder mystery guessing-game, volleyball, ball-hockey, dodgeball and capture-the-flag tournaments, a shorts-and-T-shirt roll in the snow, tricycle races through the station halls, and a parade of homemade Christmas floats (first prize went to the Star Trek-themed float – the level of technical expertise at Alert makes it a showcase for Trekkie talents).
People who know Alert only from its absurd position on the map have trouble comprehending the heightened reality of a place where everyone is devoted to keeping everyone else’s spirits up. When MCpl. Rivest-Muir was asked by incoming ops-team colleagues for advice on High Arctic necessities, he answered:
Cpl. Graeme Fotheringham was one of the Trekkies on the Christmas float. As a radar technician, he normally deals with airfield communications but at Alert he branched out into managing audiovisual equipment. On the station’s awards night, he was called forward from his AV booth to receive a commemorative coin for outstanding contributions to morale – an old-fashioned military term that permeates Alert’s family values.
Morale is perhaps the most-emphasized word on station.
Among Cpl. Fotheringham’s many contributions: He expanded the station television system, finally making it possible for Alert’s eight or nine Coronation Street devotees to get their weekly TV fix.
Morale-boosting takes many forms. MCpl. Rivest-Muir subbed as station barber, brought the PA system to fire-alarm readiness and increased bandwidth to give his colleagues more Skype time with their families.
Alert is child-free by necessity, and the effect of this absence can eat away at parents doing their jobs and serving their country. So just before Christmas, MCpl. Rivest-Muir created the Santa Connect telephone line. “All the kids called up and left a prerecorded message with Santa, which the parents and aunts and uncles up here could listen to. We got on Skype, and Santa replied back to the messages, and there was Mummy or Daddy with Santa. And I was dressed up as Santa – the great thing for me was connecting with other people’s families.”
Part 4‘A lot of stuff affects us very quickly’
With such a small population on such a complex post, almost everyone takes on a multiplicity of tasks.
Warrant Officer Hollie Butticci personifies this Alert style of versatility. She’s shouting out commands to the honour guard when the Governor-General arrives. A little later, she’s working the desk at the Trading Post which also serves as the station post office and Interac cash point.
The next day, she briefs the Governor-General on Alert’s medical facilities, which she supervises as a physician assistant (in her spare time, she’s studying for her Master’s degree from the University of Nebraska). The station is equipped to handle everything from dental emergencies, respiratory infections and too-frequent sports injuries to advanced-trauma life support – if necessary, but only when transport becomes available, she can ship patients to a small hospital at the American base in Thule, Greenland, 700 km to the south.
A visitor who asks about drinking at the station – where you’re not allowed to bring in alcohol or consume it in personal quarters – gets a clipped and protective response. “Yes, we do have a bar here, and yes, it is open every night, but there’s rather few issues. We don’t have an alcohol problem.”
But there’s more to her impatience than intrusive questioning.
Thirty minutes later, she’s back in her honour-guard uniform and leading the salute at the change-of-command ceremony.
A few minutes into the event, she receives the Wing Commander’s commendation for her cool handling of a cardiac emergency – over 18 hours, she stabilized and looked after the patient while arranging evacuation. The patient survived.
The human frailties that must be monitored in this environment have their counterpart in all the station’s operations. Hypervigilance is a way of life. Every potential emergency is foreseen and back-up plans proliferate – there’s even an extra pen at the ready should the main one fail during the change-of-command handover. Redundancy is built into a system that has to be self-sufficient to outwit Arctic isolation.
This devotion to preparation was put to the test on the morning of the change of command. In the world’s most northerly dining hall, the long lineup for made-to-order omelettes was inching forward with a buzz of anticipation. And then shortly after 7 a.m. the fire alarms went off.
The well-drilled team of soldiers and civilians responded in seconds. The leaders of the omelette queue abandoned their quest, in sync with the disappearing cooks. Breakfasters in the dining-hall rose quietly and moved to their appointed stations.
The aura of practiced calm doesn’t extend to a scattering of worried visitors. We’re instructed to grab the bags of survival gear that have been issued for just this possibility, and get ready to make a quick exit.
And then begins a nervous, helpless wait.
The PA system announces, “This is not a drill. Repeat, this is not a drill.”
Water here is as essential as fuel, not just for drinking and cooking and cleaning, but to cool the easily overheated signals-intelligence equipment which is, after all, the purpose of the place: To miss an intelligence warning because of poor plumbing would be worse than embarrassing. The station has to keep its two 85,000-litre tanks topped up with water from a nearby lake in case of fire – a prospect so dreaded and foreseeable in Alert’s combustible environment that there are five fulltime firefighters on the station and up to 10 volunteers who undergo weekly training.
“A lot of stuff affects us very quickly,” said Alert commanding officer Major Marshall.
Eventually the stand-down was given – there is no disaster this time. But for a few long minutes, the Alert way of life looked highly precarious.
Later in the day, feeling safe and secure again, we visited one of the out-buildings where supplies and equipment are stored. High shelves have everything needed to sustain life at Alert. There were enough emergency rations and bottled water to support the station for a few days if things went badly. When the fire alarm went off, and evacuation plans were being considered, this was where we would have sought refuge.
But that was just stage one of a more elaborate scenario. “We have the sleds there,” said Major Marshall, pointing up at the Arctic’s most basic mode of transport. “So we’d take the emergency tents, and those would go out if they had to.”
It’s comforting to know they’re always preparing for the worst at Alert. And just a little bit terrifying.
Part 5‘I hate to leave this family’
All the arrivals on the huge Globemaster – those newbies with their just-in-case Hawaiian shirts – have their polar opposites standing in the Alert version of a Departures lounge.
A jokey bus-stop sign hangs by the exit door where these freshly seasoned veterans of sovereignty-assertion, intelligence-gathering and omelette-making get ready to trade worlds.
When he delivered his farewell address, Major Marshall, a 6-foot-6 aerospace-surveillance expert who has logged 363 combat hours and deployed with the U.S. operation in Afghanistan, started to talk about his time at Alert and suddenly broke into tears. “Excuse me,” he said, while everyone waited silently, “I thought I’d be able to handle this a bit better. But obviously not.”
There’s not much room for religious formality at this demanding Arctic outpost. But for a few minutes at the change-of-command ceremony, Rabbi Bowley called on Alert’s God – a very ops-oriented kind of deity, it seems – to give incoming C.O. Brian Tang “the strength and wisdom to balance the needs of the mission with the needs of the people to get the job done.”
Of course the essence of a station like Alert is that the job never quite gets done – in a place of eternal vigilance, there’s always more, and the migratory workforce exists in a state of constant flux.
For eight weeks you’re fixated on keeping the de-icing trucks’ engines running under some of the world’s worst conditions, and then, for Ray Hogan, it’s eight weeks of peace to play golf, visit with the grandkids and give them the gifts made over the long Arctic nights in Alert’s wood-hobby shop.
Having worked so hard to keep Canada’s signals-intelligence messages flowing, Nickolas Rivest-Muir doesn’t demand a lot from the breaks that restore him to his home near Ottawa.
“I look forward to sleeping in my own bed with the correct humidity,” he says. “And being able to shave on a regular basis – it’s so dry up here, it kills the skin.” It’s true: Beards are common on the station’s men, to the point where they start to resemble their bushy 19th-century precursors in team-building who dined off fine china and munched hardtack along this same desolate coastline.
“And being home with my family, especially during holidays, “ MCpl Rivest-Muir adds, and then adds again, “But I hate to leave this family.”
The pull-push is powerful, and when it’s time to hop on the bus to the Globemaster, Alert’s entire population gathers to supply a raucous farewell. One by one the names are recited. The applause resounds through the warm pre-fab hallways, and the rare people who’ve experienced everyday life at the edge of the world leave the light for the darkness.
To prepare for life in the most northerly inhabited place on Earth, you’ll need to pass physical and mental screening, pack for -50C in the winter, and be ready to adopt a whole new family…