Before we get into this next part, it’s going to be necessary to give some background information about the Rangers. I’ve had the privilege of serving with these amazing men and women on a couple of our longer ‘Winter Warfare’ exercises, and encountered them by chance on a couple of other occasions during my career. I’m no expert by any stretch of the imagination, so this post is more of a general overview than an in-depth analysis. For any active duty CAF members who read this; If you ever get the chance to work with the Rangers, do it. It’s an experience.
The main thing that needs to be understood is that a huge part of Canada is actual wilderness. As in there are still places that have probably never seen human habitation and when you get far up north, you are often dealing with a climate that can straight out kill you. The Rangers are basically an auxiliary force in the Canadian Armed Forces made up mostly of Indigenous people from the local communities. People who grew up ‘in the bush.’
They are NOT a fighting force, and the bulk of their duties involve ground based search and rescue, and what’s known as Sov-Ops or Sovereignty Operations (literally going to remote locations in the north to establish the Government of Canada’s sovereignty there).
As an example of this, they just recently upgraded their primary weapons from the Lee-Enfield .303 bolt action rifle to the C-19, a variation on the Tika III bolt action rifle chambered for 7.62x51mm.
Their main skill set is that they can survive in bush under conditions that would kill your average city-born soldier. Even if you live out in small towns or ‘the boonies’ you don’t necessarily know the kind of environment that these folks live with. You may have survival training, but that just means you might be alive at the end of it all, while the Rangers will live and thrive. The main purpose of their organization is to go to those places where the Canadian Government would otherwise have no presence at all, and on those occasions where more conventional CF troops need to head up north, to provide support, advice and training throughout.
There are approximately 5,000 Rangers in service today, divided up into 20-30 member ‘Patrols’ that are organized into five ‘Patrol Groups’ covering much of Canada.
These companies and regions are administered by conventional CAF personnel (both Reserve Force and Regulars) who are (oddly enough) known as ‘Ranger Instructors.’ While they do provide some instruction with regards to drill, communications and general army administration, most of the Ranger Instructors that I’ve met have made it very clear that they don’t have much to teach their troops. The learning usually goes the other way around.
The main job of the Ranger Instructors is to coordinate the activities of the Ranger Patrols, and arrange training events and other activities. They’re the main point of contact for the army chain of command in emergencies requiring ground based search and rescue, and they handle the overall administration within their respective Patrol Groups.
A thing that’s not always understood by those of us who live ‘South of 60’ is that the north is a genuinely harsh environment that can stop military operations cold. If you go back and read about wars in the colonial era (from Samuel de Champlain’s war against the Iroquois Confederacy all the way up to the North West Rebellion and the Yukon expedition) you’ll quickly see a common theme where most of the ‘war’ consists of armies hacking their way through the wilderness for weeks or months at a time, just to fight a battle that might last two or three hours. The aftermath of the battle would consist of struggling to find a way back to civilization, and often the non-combat casualties would outnumber the ones resulting from enemy action.
And every once in a while, you’ll read about the early onset of winter forcing entire nations to give up fighting for the year, go into winter quarters and hunker down until the spring.
These days, with paved roads, mechanization and air power, it’s easy to forget how absolutely the weather can stop an army in its tracks, but if you go up north you’ll be reminded of that fact pretty quickly. There are literally hundreds of communities in Canada that can only be reached by aircraft.
In case you’re wondering, yes, those red hoodies are part of the actual Ranger uniform and when they actually travel out into the bush they usually wear a patchwork of CAF-issued gear and their own civilian clothes. One character I remember meeting rocked one of the old olive drab CAF issued parkas over top of a hand-knitted wool sweater and comercial overalls. On his head he wore one of the newly issued CAF muskrat-fur Yukon hats (which is technically only for DEUs).
As a conventional CAF Sergeant, his mis-matched turnout made me twitch. But I gotta admit, he looked warm.
One last point I want to bring up is that, within their skill set one of the most impressive (and possibly most counter-intuitive) is that a lot of them are amazingly good at fixing engines. This isn’t just the opinion of the Ranger Instructors I’ve known, a lot of people who’v worked up north (including my father, back when he was working for the government) speak in wonder at the ability of even young teenagers having remarkable skills at repairing cars, trucks, ATVs and skidoos.
I’m mentioning this since, in the upcoming sections there’s going to be a lot of talk about ‘living off the land’ and ‘seeing spooks’ (which only gets mentioned once but still reeks of nature spirit bullshit), but no mention of how life in the north these days is heavily dependent on keeping your vehicle up and running. A later scene in the novel has a group of NPA fighters ditching their vehicles and literally hiking out into the bush to live off the land, and I’m literally thinking WTF? How do you plan to actually live and fight off of the kit just on your back?
Meanwhile, one of the more harrowing stories I’ve ever heard from a Ranger Instructor involves a snowmobile breakdown during a Sov-Ops patrol. The temperature at the time was dropping towards -40 Celsius with a high wind and night was falling. Even as the Ranger Instructor was getting ready to panic (the breakdown meant there weren’t enough skidoos for everyone in the patrol) one of the Rangers, a hulking middle aged Ojibwe man with bad knees and Type II diabetes took over. Lumbering over to the disabled skidoo, he proceeded to pull off his arctic mitts so he could work on the engine with his bare hands. Within seconds he had found the problem (a broken fan belt) and minutes after that he’d hauled out and installed a replacement, allowing the patrol to continue to its destination.
It doesn’t sound like much, and the Ranger Instructor (a PPCLI Sgt) who told me this story acknowledged as much. But to this he added that he had served both in Afghanistan and Iraq, and had survived an IED attack that had smashed his LAV. Despite this, he insisted, he had never been as afraid for his life as he’d felt that evening, with the sun setting and the temperature dropping.
I was thinking for a while as to how I should work this next point in, and there’s no organic way so I’m just going to say it. In the lead up to the First World War, more than a few military theorists who were studying the nature of trench warfare from previous conflicts, speculated that there would come a time when a soldier would be every bit as dependent upon his shovel and pic axe for survival as he would upon his rifle. In the far north, the same principle applies, except replace ‘shovel and pic axe’ with ‘arctic tent + coleman stove & lantern.’
There’s a tendency in Uprising to view the Rangers as some kind of northern forest ninja who can vanish into the tree line without a trace only to re-emerge somehow days later and hundreds of kilometres away. The reality is a lot less flashy but (once you understand the environment) far more awesome. The reality is that living in the north is the longest of long games, and it’s won by a bunch of unassuming native men and women who might occasionally pull on a red hoody when they need to look military.
 Fun fact: Recently, the CAF was looking to replace the standard snowmobiles used by the Rangers. It actually turned into a much more complicated process than one might initially think, because the Rangers insisted on NOT having the newest models, since these were harder to repair in the bush. Among other things, they insisted on skidoos that used carburetors instead of fuel injection, because carburetors can be fixed by hand if necessary. As a result, the army actually had to look for ‘less advanced’ equipment in order to meet the Rangers’ requirements.
 I’m not adding these details to disparage this Ranger (whom I met briefly). Based on everything I saw and heard, he was as tough as they come but he had his share of wear and tear, and certainly wouldn’t have been chosen for a recruiting poster.