Life in the Arctic

August 29, 2014
Stephanie Harrington
Commanding Officer Rick Dunning

Disaster is never far away in the Arctic.

As commanding officer of Canadian Forces Station Alert for six months, Major Rick Dunning knows this from experience. The Master of Arts in Disaster and Emergency Management alumnus recently returned from a deployment at the most northerly and permanently inhabited place in the world. And he has some stories to tell.

When we speak to him, Dunning is barbecuing in his sunny backyard. The distance from CFB Trenton, where Dunning is based, to the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, is some 4,200 kilometres. But it’s clear Dunning is still enamoured with the North.

“It’s such a unique part of our country but so few Canadians have much of an appreciation of what a phenomenal part of the world it is,” he says.

“Every Canadian, given the chance, should go to our Arctic.”

For his master’s major research project, Dunning evaluated disaster and emergency management preparedness at the Alert station. The project, he says, helped him earn the commanding officer role, which started in late January.

“For example, what would we do if we lost our power? That’s a life threatening situation up there. If you broke a leg in Alert, you would have to be evacuated,” Dunning says. “Factor in 36 hours before a Hercules (airplane) showed up and 10 hours for a flight to Trenton, and it would be two days before you got help.”

Dunning’s research found emergency preparedness at the Canadian Forces Station was “not perfect but doing well.” There were plenty of occasions for him to put his disaster emergency management skills to the test over six months. The most challenging incident was when two of three water pumps, which continuously supply water from a lake two kilometres away to the station, failed in February. A dive team had to free a stuck pump in the middle of an Arctic winter.

“We would have been in serious trouble if the third pump failed,” Dunning says.

“There were always emergencies. What’s a problem here can be utterly magnified up there.”

As commanding officer, Dunning oversaw the primary mission of the Canadian Forces Station – signals intelligence. The station also hosts numerous scientists and Arctic researchers, and as Dunning says, Alert plays a key role in maintaining Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic.

Dunning documented his deployment with frequent letters and photographs, giving insight into military life 817 kilometres from the North Pole. The letters include stories about encounters with polar bears, wolves and Arctic hares, the Canadian Rangers, life in 24-hour darkness, and, most unusually, becoming licensed to marry a couple at Alert. Dunning called the latter Operation Northern Hitch.

After 33 years with the Canadian Forces, Dunning says Alert was one of his favourite deployments.

“It makes you appreciate what we’ve got here. I tried to emphasize to Canadians coming up, this is our territory. It doesn’t look like Canada but it has its own majestic beauty.”