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European divers plunge into Great Slave Lake for specialized training as part of Operation NANOOK-NUNALIVUT

The frigid waters of Great Slave Lake were home to an exotic species throughout the first half of March: divers from Europe, the United States, and several regions of Southern Canada.

The divers were in town from March 1-17 as part of the Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) Operation NANOOK-NUNALIVUT. The majority came from Belgium and France, but there was one in town from Germany.

“We set up two dive locations: one was by the former Con Mine dock, and one was just north of Mosher Island,” said Major J.L. MacDonald, an operations manager for Joint Task Force North and one of the facilitators of the operations in Yellowknife. “We were learning different lessons, learning (about) different pieces of equipment for the different nationalities, training everyone about under-ice diving, training them with surface-supplied equipment.”

The initial portions of the training occurred at the Ruth Inch Memorial Pool, but when that was done, MacDonald and his colleagues “cut a couple holes in the ice and got them to practice the stuff that they did in the pools.”

“It’s an opportunity for some of these nations to get some serious under ice diving where they might not have the same level of ice that we have up here,” said MacDonald. “Cutting through a metre and a half of ice to get to the water was a new experience for a lot of them.

“A lot of them, this was their first time North, it was their first time ice diving, it was their first time diving under cold conditions, or sub-zero conditions, but everyone was all smiles. There was good camaraderie. It was a great time and excellent, excellent training to get everyone under the ice like we did.”

While the Europeans and Southern Canadians were in Yellowknife for serious training, that did not preclude them from enjoying some leisure time.

MacDonald said many of them did “pretty much everything that’s on the Northern tourism checklist” from aurora watching, to dog-sledding, to snowmobiling, to ice-fishing — though they didn’t have much luck with the latter.

“We didn’t catch a thing,” MacDonald said, laughing. “We were totally skunked on that, but hey, that’s part of fishing in Great Slave Lake. Sometimes you don’t get anything.”

The cold didn’t seem to deter the visitors, either. A few of them even partook in a polar plunge.

“A bunch of them were stripping down to their shorts to jump in,” the major said.

MacDonald has been living in the North for 14 years, and considers Yellowknife his home, even if he wasn’t born here.

He said he always enjoys showing visitors around, but drew particular satisfaction from this experience.

“I absolutely love bringing people up here and just letting them experience the North and participate in the activities that we can have up here,” he said. “I did have a personal level of pride and satisfaction in being able to have them come and experience what we sometimes take for granted in Northern life.

“Just watching them get excited, seeing it through their eyes that they’re doing this stuff for the first time and they’re excited and they’re happy about it, that was a good reward for me,” he added. “Everyone was thrilled to be here. The Belgians, the German, and the French, they all definitely want to come back again.”

Operation NANOOK-NUNALIVUT “serves to strengthen the CAF’s presence in the Arctic while also enhancing our familiarity with the region,” according to the Government of Canada’s website. “Through the relationships built and maintained during Op NANOOK, the CAF helps to improve the military readiness of partners. This includes the delivery of training, as well as practicing techniques to ensure the CAF remains coordinated with our Allies and partners.”

Resolute, Nunavut also hosted divers during the operation.