Army Engineer Reservists hone bridge-building skills on Haida Gwaii

Members of 39 Combat Engineer Regiment deployed to Haida Gwaii on Exercise Haida Sapper to build two bridges for Canadian Forces Detachment Masset. Photo by Private Daniel Pereira, 39 CBG Public Affairs

Members of 39 Combat Engineer Regiment deployed to Haida Gwaii on Exercise Haida Sapper to build two bridges for Canadian Forces Detachment Masset. Photo by Private Daniel Pereira, 39 CBG Public Affairs

Lt(N) Robert Fines
HMCS Discovery

In late September, members of 39 Combat Engineer Regiment (39 CER) found themselves in the northern part of Haida Gwaii in support of Canadian Forces Detachment (CFD) Masset, a remote communication site that supports Canadian Forces Station Leitrim in Ottawa.

A team of 88 members from 39 CER consisting of reservists from units all over B.C., were tasked with replacing an old bridge and making other infrastructure upgrades.

Exercise Haida Sapper was led by Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Julien, and took place from Sept. 23 to 28.

Along for the journey were a number of military units from across Western Canada, including 12 Field Ambulance, 39 Service Battalion and HMCS Discovery.

About CFD Masset

The arrival of the Sappers and other support trades to Masset was a bit of a throwback to when there was a much larger military presence on what were formally known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Established initially as a naval radio station in 1942, there were nearly 300 serving members located at CFD Masset as recently as 1997. Now there are only a handful of Canadian Armed Forces members serving in the local area. Nevertheless, the detachment is a strategically important base that provides signal intelligence to both the Canadian Forces Intelligence Branch and the Communications Security Establishment.

It is important to keep CFD Masset strategically viable and maintain the infrastructure in the area.

Given the geographical location of Masset, and the reduced military personnel on the island, it can be difficult to readily address infrastructure concerns. With the dire need to replace a bridge on one of the main service roads of the detachment, and the necessity of a boardwalk in another site, the request was made for outside support.

Enter the Combat Engineers

Building bridges is one of the core skills of a Sapper, and this bridge replacement provided an opportunity for Combat Engineers to practise and enhance their skills.

Due to the pandemic, stringent safety guards were in place, along with adherence to provincial, federal, and military COVID19 guidelines.

Replacement of an old timber bridge was unquestionably the main effort of the exercise, but building this bridge was not without its challenges.

“This was not a usual build,” said Master Corporal Richard Grasby, Bridge Commander. “[It had] lots of complications and restrictions, including a narrow and complicated approach, limited personnel, and a different model than the normal Acrow we are trained on. It went really well – we accomplished our goal within the time line and maintained safety.”

A key part of this exercise was the construction and demolition of a bypass bridge at the new bridge site. This bypass bridge gave the Sappers a sense of the realism of an operational setting, as such a bridge is vital in support of the main objective.

“It was an interesting task as a timber bypass bridge had to be constructed prior to construction of the Acrow to allow for forward mobility of troops and supplies over the crossing,” said Site Commander, Captain Henry Helmer-Smith.

In addition to the bridge building, a second troop was assigned the task of building a cedar boardwalk. This was a much-needed addition to CFD Masset, as it will give members of the detachment better access to important service areas.

With the bridge build nearing completion, the call was put out for all available soldiers, sailors, and aviators to assist in building as many sections of the new boardwalk as possible before the conclusion of the exercise.

This included new and untrained privates, all the way to the seasoned veterans such 39 CER Commanding Officer, LCol Julien, and Regimental Sergeant Major, Chief Warrant Officer Charles Rochlow.

In the end, more than 710 metres of new boardwalk were constructed, much to the delight of the command team.

“The complexities and challenges of the ground, weather, and two task sites working simultaneously, while sharing one access road to both have made for excellent training at all levels,” said LCol Julien. “It was a hard push to the finish with the whole team pulling together in challenging conditions. I am extremely proud of my team and the members from other units. They are highly motivated and have excelled in all the tasks assigned.”

Final thoughts

The exercise was logistics heavy from pre-deployment to post-deployment. The different movements included a barge, flights, equipment, and heavy duty vehicles, as well as set up and tear down of camp. Support came from units outside of 39 CER to pull this together. Without all the support staff on the ground and behind the scenes, this exercise would not have been as successful as it was.

The team set up a self-sufficient camp at CFD Masset with a mobile kitchen trailer and cooks to ease the hardship on the community and minimize engagement due to health and safety protocols.

This exercise also gave participants an opportunity to learn more about the Haida people, and give a little back to the communities by visiting local shops and the Gwaii Haanas culture centre. Having come together from across B.C. (most notably from North Vancouver, Chilliwack and Trail, the respective homes of 6, 54 and 44 Engineer Squadrons), the experiences gained in Haida Gwaii will not be easily forgotten.

With files from Lt(N) Samantha Beckett, HMCS Discovery


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