Floating on a chunk of ice in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, United States Navy (USN) and Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel learned that Mother Nature doesn’t always accommodate military schedules.
From the waterborne “Camp Nautilus”, about 100 kilometres north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, groups of USN and CAF personnel monitored submarine manoeuvering, surfacing, and logistics exercises from Mar. 17-27 during Submarine Laboratory Ice Exercise 2014 (ICEX14).
“It was a very surreal experience working out on a huge piece of ice,” says Lt(N) Kristina Gray of Canadian Submarine Force Sustainment, an organization dealing with logistics and long-term planning for Canada’s submarine force, with a headquarters based at CFB Esquimalt. “When I got there all you could see was ice in every direction and a camp made out of plastic and plywood. It was strange.”
During her time at Camp Nautilus, Lt(N) Gray worked as a Range Safety Officer, monitoring submarine movement beneath the arctic ice of their camp. Using a hydrophone suspended from the flow through holes in the 9-foot-thick ice, sensors tracked movement by USN submarines USS New Mexico and USS Hampton as they manoeuvred in the arctic waters.
“The subs are moving together and conducting surfacing exercises so part of that is making sure their separation space is sufficient and everything is moving like it’s supposed to,” she says. “For things to go smoothly we had to make sure everyone was directed to the appropriate waterspace at all times. Without that information, things could get really bad.”
While doing their work with ICEX14, Lt(N) Gray and her Assistant Range Safety Officer MS Gregory Fillmore of CFB Halifax lived in the plywood “hooch” village – habitats resembling wooden shipping containers with bunks, and furnaces for heating.
“It would get so warm inside the hooches with just the furnace on, but if anything liquid was on the floor it would freeze solid. It was tough to balance it sometimes,” says Lt(N) Gray. “We ended up drilling a bunch of holes in the ceiling for ventilation, and carved a big window out. It was hot and cold at the weirdest times. It really drove home the strangeness of where we were living.”
The troubles of living on something as temperamental as ice were prevalent during the exercise, with the camp’s real estate shrinking by the day.
“The day we arrived we had to help fix a crack that formed in a runway. It just got worse from there,” Lt(N) Gray says. “The temperature would change so drastically that the ice would melt and shift in places, causing cracks to form all over the place. A crack went from six feet across to over a hundred feet across. One of the submarines surfaced through the crack.”
“With an environment as volatile as an ice flow it’s hard to plan for everything,” says Lt(N) Gray. “We did all the work we could to the best of our ability for as long as we could, but the environment was working against us.”
Back at Maritime Forces Pacific Headquarters, with her arctic adventure behind her, Lt(N) Gray says she’s richer for the opportunity to operate in such a unique environment.
“I wouldn’t say no to another trip up there; it was definitely a surreal experience,” she says. “It’s not a part of the world people get to see very often and it’s something I’ll keep with me for a long, long time.”
Shawn O’Hara, Staff Writer
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