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Civil Air Patrol: Cadets learn winter survival

Tom Steiner of Bemidji, in middle, offers instructions to a small group of Civil Air Patrol cadets before sending them out on a simulated rescue mission. Steiner serves as the emergency services training officer for the CAP Northland Composite Squadron Pioneer Photo/Bethany Wesley

Members of the Minnesota Wing Civil Air Patrol were beginning to set up camp just as most Minnesotans went indoors to escape the cold nighttime temperatures.

It's the third time in four years that the Northland Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol hosted the winter survival weekend, said Capt. Robin Helgager. This year's training was done on a parcel of land in rural Bemidji near Hennepin Lake.

CAP cadets began convening Friday evening. They hiked into the woods, carrying all of their own supplies and food for the weekend.

Cadets constructed their shelters in the dark. They used branches and tarps, covering the shelters with layers of snow to insulate their sleeping quarters.

"It teaches them teamwork," Helgager said. "They're using the skills they learned in the classroom out here in the field."

The temperatures Friday night, Helgager said, dipped below 20 degrees below zero.

Usually, cadets can stay in their shelters alone or with others, if they would prefer, but the cold temperatures led the CAP to decide that everyone had to have a shelter buddy.

Saturday morning, as cadets shared their varying degrees of coldness with one another, they learned from each other what worked well and what didn't. Their shelters were appropriately improved before Saturday night's campout.

It's all part of the learning experience, Helgager noted.

"They will pay much better attention to a shelter-building class (Saturday) if they failed (Friday) night," Helgager said.

The purpose of the winter survival, Helgager explained, is to offer real-life simulation of a rescue mission.

The CAP, the civilian auxiliary to the U.S. Air Force, is called to assist in real-life emergency situations, such as when a plane crashes.

Twelve CAP squadrons - more than 50 cadets - from throughout Minnesota took part in the training.

On Saturday, the cadets took part in ground searches as they sought to find three "victims" (stuffed dummies) and a plane "wreckage" (an oversized model airplane).

In small groups, they practiced their different search methods through a one square mile area.

Also coordinating a search with the teams were CAP pilots. The airplanes flew in Saturday morning from Duluth and Grand Rapids.

Also on site was a 24-hour mission base, referred to as Hennepin Mission Base, where administrative and communications personnel ran the mission and kept in constant contact with all the cadets and adults involved.

Throughout the weekend, Helgager noted, cadets learn to use multiple skill sets, including those in support of emergency services, leadership and problem-solving.

"That's why this is such a successful event," Helgager said. "They're so many facets to it."

Depending on the weather, cadets were looking forward to some night operations. And, later, if the clouds stayed away, Bemidji Dr. Ray Majkzrak planned to teach them how to navigate by the stars. Majkzrak serves as the aerospace education officer for the Northland Composite Squadron.

"We're teaching cadets, step by step by step, in measurable steps, so they can grow and become leaders," Helgager said. "

Personnel helping to organize and administer the weekend's training included Lt. Col. Chet Wilberg of Hutchinson, Minn, who was the mission incident commander. He was in charge of the total mission and coordinating the aircraft and ground teams.

Don Helgager, the Northland squadron's emergency services officer, and Tom Steiner, the squadron's emergency training officer, also played key roles in planning and hosting the event.

Also appearing Saturday was Lt. Col. Keith Bischoff of Duluth, the Group 1 commander for squadrons from Bemidji, Thief River Falls, Walker, Grand Rapids and Duluth.

"I couldn't lead this program unless we had these people," Helgager said, "people with integrity and with a willingness to be a part of this."