IQALUIT, Nunavut (Reuters) - Leetia Siakuluk had a valuable lesson on Wednesday for Canadian soldiers carrying out military exercises in the Arctic, near the end of the Road to Nowhere. Don’t eat the mushrooms.
The Road to Nowhere is the name of a dirt road that leads out of Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut territory, and into the treeless hills that surround the town on Baffin Island. Near where it stops is a temporary camp of Canadian Armed Forces soldiers and paramilitary Canadian Rangers.
“Don’t eat it. It will give you a stomach ache,” Siakuluk, who was born and raised in Nunavut, says with a knowing smile when asked if a mushroom pushing out of rocky soil is edible. The tiny berries growing near it could be safely eaten.
The Rangers are made up of residents of Canada’s Far North and their knowledge of how to survive off the land can be valuable to regular soldiers participating in the annual Nanook training exercise.
The exercise involving a range of military forces is part of Ottawa’s increasingly high-profile push to assert Canada’s sovereignty in the vast but sparsely populated region that includes the fabled Northwest Passage waterway.
Some of Canada’s claims to the Northwest Passage have been challenged by other countries, including the United States, and interest over the Arctic’s natural resources has increased with the prospect that global warming and disappearing sea ice will make them easier to get.
Ottawa insists the Northwest Passage sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific through Canada’s Arctic archipelago is sovereign Canadian territory, while others, including Washington, argue it’s an international waterway.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the naval component of the military exercise on Wednesday, touring a submarine as it dove below the waves and briefly handling the controls of a helicopter.
Far from Harper and the television cameras recording his cross-country tour of the North were a group of Rangers and soldiers trading lessons about the rugged landscape and their different cultures.
Soldiers at the camp said one way the groups get to know each other is through a shared interest in weapons. The Rangers usually carry older rifles, which are more suitable for hunting and protecting the camp from polar bears.
The Rangers, a program established in 1947, is primarily used by the military as its “eyes and ears” in the Far North, with its members, many of whom already live off the land, able to report any unusual activity.
Canada’s sovereignty claims in the Far North are based in part on the fact that the Rangers live and patrol in the region year-round.
Ranger Greg Spenner, a former hunting guide from Whitehorse, Yukon, is very diplomatic when asked how much the soldiers know about living off the land.
“I’d hate to say they don’t know much. But, then again, I’d be the same way going to Toronto,” he said.
Spenner admits he is also having to get used to the terrain of Nunavut’s Baffin Island, which is far different from the forested mountains of Western Canada where he lives.
Army Major Mike Clarry said the Rangers and soldiers routinely train together, but this year’s exercise was also designed to help teach the Rangers more about how the regular military operates.
“That’s quite a change for them. They have to get used to things like waiting. It’s something that’s not part of their training or culture. It’s probably a little frustrating,” Clarry said.
With material from media pool on HMCS Toronto;; Editing by Rob Wilson