October 8, 2015

Summer 2015 was one to remember for students from the East of Scotland Universities Air Squadron (ESUAS) and Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde Air Squadron (UGSAS) who crossed the Atlantic for Ex Tartan Orca, a sea kayak expedition off Vancouver Island, Canada.

Officer Cadet Jon Hardie of ESUAS was there and takes up the story.

He wrote: From Port McNeill marina our lucky team of ten were transported by water taxi to Owl Island in the Broughton Archipelago, an area where we would spend the next six days. We unloaded our equipment and set up camp before being briefed on the local tides and currents.

With individual and group aims set for the expedition, a rota was produced to allow a pair of students to lead each day’s activities. The leaders were responsible for route planning, risk assessments and had to manage all resources to ensure goals for that day were achieved. Ex Tartan Orca utilised key elements of the 6 FTS UAS Ground Training Syllabus relating to leadership/followership, problem solving and risk management, along with various aspects of the RAF’s Core Values attributed to team spirit and robustness.

Each day followed a different route (varying in distance from 16-22km) and we were carrying all the equipment, food and fresh water required to sustain us for the duration of the expedition. This provided the additional challenge of breaking and establishing camp each morning and evening once a suitable landing point was identified.

The expedition provided real time issues for the leaders to overcome. Group members regularly appraised the decision-making processes and how resources had been utilised during these leads. A perfect example of this arose when a kayak began to let in a significant amount of water mid-way through our planned route. The day’s leaders used the available manpower to repair the boat whilst starting concurrent activities (preparing lunch and hot drinks) to engage all team members and maintain morale. This willingness to allocate tasks effectively while utilising an individual’s skill set was repeatedly highlighted during reviews emphasising the effectiveness of leadership and team performance.

In addition to the ongoing personal development aspect of this expedition, the Broughton Archipelago possesses a vast array of cultural and wilderness environments. We reached a small island which had been inhabited by Canada’s First Nation population dating back to 1,000BC. Arriving at a First Nation midden, we found evidence of and discussed the various sustainable methods of harvesting food and materials. We then headed further into the archipelago to reach Village Island and visit a First Nation settlement. Following a short hike through the dense woods we found the remnants of a Mamalilikulla village.

Effective time management was essential throughout the trip as tidal flows could significantly help or hinder progress. With a comprehensive route planned to take us from Black-Fish Sound through Weynton Passage, and good progress being made we stopped for lunch on a small island, where these bodies of water meet, to await the change in tidal flow. Although there had already been numerous sightings of spectacular wildlife (including Humpback whales, Steller Sea Lions and Bald Eagles) it was here that a highlight of the trip took place. A Humpback whale breached 30 metres away as we launched from our lunch spot. The experience was only eclipsed by close encounters with pods of Orcas who swam within feet of the kayaks later that day.

Before making the final crossing to Vancouver Island we took a short hike up to an area with cultural reminders of the First Nation people. This included an enormous cedar tree that had been harvested for sections of bark and wood over many generations (referred to as ‘culturally modified’). This sustainable use of resources allowed these trees to reach colossal sizes and provide a substantial quantity of raw materials. On re-taking to the water we crossed the Johnston Straight and followed the coast north for 9km to reach Telegraph Cove and the end of the expedition.

This was undoubtedly an extremely valuable training opportunity, with everyone learning a great deal about themselves, their peers and the surroundings. Throughout the trip the students took part in discussions aimed at evaluating their performance and personal qualities which are transferable and play a key role in enhancing the individual’s skill set in preparation for future careers in the Royal Air Force.

Our thanks goes to Highland Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Association for its financial support, without which the expedition would not have been possible.

All pictures: © Sarah Hauser – Kingfisher Wildlife Adventures CA