Squamish veteran leads intelligence exercise through local backcountry trails | Squamish Chief

Squamish veteran leads intelligence exercise through local backcountry trails

Russell Robertson crafts drills for Canadian Armed Forces officers

At the end of a forest service road, yells are partially muffled by the woods, but draw the attention of passing hikers. Maybe the hikers saw the signs reading "Military exercise in progress, please proceed with caution," because the men posing as terrorists later said the hikers had calmly asked what the three men were doing.

Two of the men posing as terrorists were dressed all in black. One had a gun and the other had a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. The third man was in his army greens, but bound and on his knees, his face in a shallow puddle.

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This was part of the fifth annual Exercise End Trails training event, drawing active members from the Canadian Armed Forces for some on-the-ground experience. 

Otherwise, it's a quiet Saturday morning on the trails in Squamish. Among the usual runners, mountain bikers and dog walkers are the 28 officers with a special mission.

Throughout the 18-kilometre course, they navigate as they collect intelligence data from volunteers of the Squamish Royal Canadian Legion. The ‘terrorist group' is a plot twist, making the members escape and evade on top of their mission. Many of the officers are unfamiliar with the terrain: while some come from Vancouver, the rest are based in Edmonton or Winnipeg. Their cell phones taken away, all they have is a compass — or two, if they're prepared — and a printed out map. 

The lesson of this particular mission is complacency, organizer Russell Robertson says. A fictional terrorist group, the Independent Syndicate of Upper Squampton, appears to be the focus point. But it's a ruse: Robertson said he's giving them tunnel vision. The larger picture will reveal a fictional southern country that is colluding with the group.

So how long will this mission take them?

"If they're fast? Between four and five hours, but the average would probably be toward six and seven," Robertson, the mastermind behind the course, says after sending the last team off.

Born and raised in Squamish, he has thorough knowledge of the expansive trail system. He retired in May after more than 28 years in the military. That same month, he registered his business, Canetic North, to continue to offer training.

"It's basically based off all my different experiences in the military," he told The Chief. "I take the components of a traditional exercise for intelligence, but I put them in the field. I give the intelligence people an actual experience in what it's like to be in the field, instead of sitting in their office."

In 2000, Robertson switched to intelligence from reconnaissance, and began working as a supporter for Special Forces. At that unit, he wrote training exercises. He'd already completed similar training courses in Germany and Bavaria, and was itching to do something creative. 

Since 2014, Robertson has trained more than 100 members on Squamish trails, which he calls a maze. Without their cell phones, members are forced to read maps.

"We're doing it old school. I think that also helps people understand where they're at, because once you get a reliance on technology, it's almost like you lose skills," he said. "This makes you more aware of your surroundings." (One group became lost before even stepping foot on the trail.)

At the end of the mission, no matter the result, "it's a place where they can do an exercise, learn from it and fail," Robertson said. "You're learning from the failure."

Just another day on Squamish's trails.

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