I have always had a penchant for recognizing symbolism. A recent article published by Downhome Magazine regarding the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont Hamel is the source of my inspiration for this particular text. The story you are about to read is one of coincidence, challenge, and renewal, set against the backdrop of the Labrador hinterland, March 2007. Featured prominently are several Newfoundland and Labrador soldiers and one airman and, in the spirit of the Newfoundland Regiment, the themes of ruggedness and sacrifice.The account begins with my annual pilgrimage to Labrador, in the vicinity of Labrador City and Churchill Falls. I was born in this land of ore-dust, ptarmigan, and tamarack, one cold November night in 1973, and my connection to the land has held constant since that time. As a young(er) man I joined the Canadian Forces (College Millitaire Royal de St- Jean, and later Royal Military College) and have invested my adult-life across this great country, interspersed with plenty of months on foreign soil. A constant truth, however, is that the harsh Northern landscape has always served as a bearing point for me. I can only imagine that similar sentiments held true for the two brothers-in-arms who fate placed in our way, just North of the Churchill River, one March morning.
I was accompanied that year by Royal Military College alumnus Captain (Retd) Hayward Keats, (Class of ‘97) a seasoned Canadian Forces Search and Rescue pilot. [Yes… I mitigate my risks when I go afield!] Upon offloading the skidoos and entering the first trail, our attention was immediately arrested by several oncoming snowmobiles. To our surprise, bouncing on the rack of one skidoo was an Arid-Region Canadian Forces small-pack … and we instantly knew that we had to flag these guys down. As is courtesy in the north woods, these chaps responded to my outstretched hand and stopped for a ‘yarn.’ At the very least we would exchange information about what they may have seen further inland. Our immediate curiosity was satiated upon learning that Sergeant Bryon Sheppard (York Harbor, Bay of Islands, NL) and Corporal Brian Granter (originally of Churchill Falls, then Bishops Falls, NL) had returned from Afghanistan the month prior. To our astonishment, they were jointly successful in convincing their wives that an excursion to the ‘country’ would be eminently good for their souls…or words to that effect.
What most readers may not immediately recognize is that these two men were part of the 1st Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment (1 RCR) Battle Group which took a harrowing number of fatalities and casualties during the Fall campaign of 2006… some of whom were Sgt Shepherds’ own boys, and certainly friends to both lads. Consequently, my respect for what they had seen, overcome, and led-through was instant and palpable.
Given that I had the most cumulative experience on that particular Labrador map-page, and encouraged by the immediate bonds of the ‘Service’, we made a pact to team-up for the remaining few days. The objective was to share the burden of the search (and sometimes gasoline and tea bags), and to multiply our chances of locating the herd.
The going was unusually tough. By mid-morning of our second day, we had bush-bashed, trail-broken, and snow shoed into an inner sanctuary of deep tamarack, the suspected staging area of a thousand animals. Yet not a hair was seen amid a cratered surface of caribou tracks and bedding holes. Puzzled, we retired for a quick snack, and to rethink our strategy. Upon selecting a course of action we remounted our sleds and headed south into a wooded plateau whose southernmost boundaries are carved by the ages-old force of the Churchill River.
Only minutes into our search, a small group of animals were spotted and I waved the boys ahead in a measured and strained act of courtesy, for this was their first Caribou experience. Within moments they were successful. As we consolidated at the site emotions were electric…more so than normally. High fives all-around, cheers of elation, and total satisfaction. Amid the jubilation I quietly understood that these men, weary from the year’s trials, were spontaneously discharging a torrent of emotional energy that only a soldier can understand. Perhaps Major-General (Retd) Lewis MacKenzie best captures this sentiment by writing that, “there are few occasions that can generate the euphoric high that every infanteer experiences with his or her fellow soldiers, when the event that generated the pain in the first place is blessedly over.” Hayward and I stood back and observed with great reverence. Accordingly, I believe a measure of burden was shed on the snow-covered barrens that day.
Although I cannot carry a tune in a 5-gallon pail, I do on occasion write when I am moved by a particular event…this was one such occasion. In humble tribute to our Labrador experience, the bonds of comrades-at-arms, and the ruggedness of this landscape, the enclosed verses were born. It is simply entitled, “Our Labrador,” and has since been set to music by my brother Shane Flight, presently residing in the Halifax area.
Major Nathan Flight
Task Force 3-08
20141 (Class of ’96)
P.S. There is an interesting endnote to this tale. Shortly upon our return to Ottawa, my friend Hayward Keats had a chance encounter with General Hillier at a CANOSCOM mess dinner [he was still the Chief of the Defence Staff at that time]. During the post-dinner socializing the subject of the caribou trip came into play, and the General charmed his way into receiving a roast of caribou from my eager companion. Although he doesn’t know so until now, the General’s feed of ‘bou,’ came from the venture described in this narrative. Appropriate don’t you think? Nod/Wink!