With dozens of soldiers, Inuit reservists, snowmobiles and pallet loads of supplies starting the long journey to the High Arctic this week, the military is beginning another epic patrol of the sea ice and rugged coastline of Canada's remotest border.
And after repeated previous operations to enforce Canadian sovereignty over the increasingly disputed Arctic, the army says it's finally starting to feel more at home on the ice.
"We're getting some glimpses," said Brig.-Gen. Chris Whitecross, commander of the military in the Arctic.
"We're getting some people that are more comfortable with it. As we develop a larger critical mass of regular force personnel that are [projecting] further North, we're getting a larger capability to project force up there.
"It's difficult to sustain yourself in the North and logistics are very complex. We're getting a lot better at it. That's the biggest thing we've learned. There's still a lot to learn."
This year's Operation Nunalivut — Inuktitut for "The Land Is Ours" — will send three patrols between the Eureka weather station about midway up the west coast of Ellesmere Island and CFB Alert on its upper tip, the most northerly habitation in the world. The patrols set off later this week and are scheduled to rendezvous back in Eureka on April 13.
All but a handful of the patrollers will be Canadian Rangers, a largely aboriginal reserve force skilled in the ways of the land that guides the regular forces through the treacherous sea ice and ever-shifting weather.
"For us Rangers, we have to take care of the army, teach them our traditional ways — hunting skills, the weather," said Ranger Samson Ejanqiaq, who will join the patrol heading south from Alert.
It's the eighth such High Arctic patrol since the military began reasserting itself in the North in 2002. Not all have gone according to plan — some equipment has proved inadequate to the task, some terrain has been impassable and the ferocious Arctic weather sometimes has its own ideas about what's possible.
Still, said Whitecross, seven years of snow boots on the ground are slowly revealing what's up there.
"Back in the Second World War or just after, they built all these airfields," she said.
"Environment Canada had infrastructure put up in North, too, and there's this whole slew of stuff up there that we didn't know what condition it was in, where it was specifically on the ground.
"One of the benefits of going up to the uninhabited Arctic is the ability to know, should something happen, what I have at my fingertips should I need it."
Military planners have long warned that some kind of accident in the Arctic — a downed passenger plane, a sinking tanker or cruise vessel — is sooner or later inevitable. The Canadian military will be the first responders.
Early Sunday morning, a helicopter from Alert was dispatched to pluck a woman off the ice after she was injured during an attempt to reach the North Pole.
This year's patrol, which has a budget of about $1 million, will also have a scientific component. Rangers on each patrol will take measurements of ice extent and thickness along the way to help give researchers a clearer idea of what's happening with ice shelves and their associated ecosystems.
Whitecross said the military will continue to rely on the knowledge and skills of the Rangers.
And other nations, she said, are starting to notice the program. Arctic countries at a recent conference in Norway were full of questions about how the program works. "They were intrigued by the Ranger program. I was surprised that we were the only nation in the world that did this. There was a lot of interest in the group."
But for Ejanqiaq, discussions of Canadian sovereignty take a back seat for the chance to spend days on the land, hunting and exploring through new terrain in a way his ancestors would have recognized. As they ride along Ellesmere's rugged northern coast, national goals and Inuit culture will share the same snowmobile.
"It's our tradition," he said. "From our ancestors it's been like that, passed on to the grandchildren for us."