Rangers build traditional komatiks to aid patrols

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Eight years ago when Allen Pogotak, a Canadian Ranger leader in Ulukhaktok, headed out in the middle of winter to rescue an injured hunter, it was essential that he and the team of rescuers traveled with a komatik.

“One of the guys, they were out hunting muskox and he broke his leg in two places, so we had to go out at 2:00 in the morning to pick him up. He was about 120 miles from Ulukhaktok,” Pogotak shared. The team found him after traveling all night, loaded him onto the komatik and brought him back to town for transport to hospital in Yellowknife.

Pogotak was one of a 12-man team that assembled last week in Yellowknife to build komatiks for distribution among Canadian Ranger patrols in the North.

The Rangers, four each from Taloyoak, Kugluktuk and Ulukhaktok, were chosen for their experience in making the traditional sleds.

“We’ve been doing it for 30 or 40 years, building komatiks and traveling up North, hauling all our Ranger gear, gas, supplies and camping gear,” Pogotak said.

The komatik has a history of use by indigenous Arctic peoples that goes back further than written records. Today they are made with similar designs and materials, with two lumber runners attached to a wooden box, built and fastened entirely using wood and rope.

Warrant Officer Mark St. Pierre, organizer of the komatik building exercise, said using the simplest materials means repair jobs are possible out on the ice or in the barrens.

“Imagine if you snap the anchor points off of your plastic sled, you are done, your sled is done. These guys, they break a rope or something, they can just retie it,” he said.

Wood is ideal because, while certain metals can withstand the 40-below temperatures Rangers are often faced with, their weight is not ideal for staying above the snow.

Canadian Forces personnel often utilize traditionally-made equipment, such as the komatik, because of the difference in quality when compared to their factory-grade equivalents.

“You can go to Canadian Tire and you can buy a sled, but we find that this is a totally superior product,” he said.

While the Canadian Rangers have been tasked with building other supplies for themselves in the past, such as ice chisels and scoops, komatik-building is the largest project they have taken on thus far.

“It’s a pretty specialized piece of equipment,” St. Pierre said. “There’s not a lot to it, but there is definitely a lot of skill involved to building a good one.”

Over the 10-day exercise, the team hopes to build 40 new komatiks, averaging four a day. Two experienced builders can assemble one sled in a few hours.

The komatiks built this year will be divided up between Alert, Resolute Bay and Yellowknife.

The Canadian Rangers are a part-time division of the Canadian Forces responsible for missions in sparsely settled and isolated areas of Canada that are difficult for the military to access.

Approximately 5,000 Canadian Rangers patrol 200 communities in Canada, many of whom are Aboriginal Northerners.

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