09/07/2013 05:16 EDT | Updated 11/07/2013 05:12 EST

Canadian Rangers: the thin red line patrolling our harshest terrain

Imagine maintaining a military presence over roughly four million square kilometres of exceedingly harsh terrain using the residents of just one small town — a place like Smithers, B.C., for instance, which boasts a little more than 5,000 people.

That's the tricky thing about keeping "boots on the ground" in Canada's Arctic, where the Canadian Rangers have, since 1947, been patrolling the front lines.

The Rangers enjoyed a rare moment in the spotlight recently when Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a stop on his tour across the North — to spend a night on the tundra and shoot targets with a few of the largely aboriginal part-time reservists who, in his words, "defend our territory from potential threats and emergencies."

Shooting at these threats is not a very big part of the job, mind you. The Rangers mainly watch over the North. The 5,000-plus members conduct surveillance and report any "unusual sightings or activities" according to the Canadian Armed Forces website.

They are the military's "eyes and ears," it adds.

Or — as one Ranger recently put it to author Whitney Lackenbauer — its "eyeglasses, hearing aids, and walking stick."

The Rangers are perhaps most respected for their intimate knowledge of their home territory and its unforgiving climate, says Lackenbauer, a historian at the University of Waterloo whose book The Canadian Rangers: A Living History came out earlier this summer.

"The Rangers ensure that the military's footprint doesn't crush communities," he says. "They’re not trained for combat, so they're not like any other element of the Canadian regular forces or the primary reserve."

"But that should not detract from their value," Lackenbauer adds. "They are absolutely essential when it comes to being guides … and bearers of traditional knowledge."

Antique rifles

Rangers get up to 12 days of pay per year, plus extra for any additional duty or wear and tear on their personal equipment. They are issued a bright red sweatshirt and cap, and equipment including a rifle and ammunition.

The rifles are very old, 1950s-era Lee Enfields which are updated Second World War- versions of guns first introduced to the British Army in 1895.

The rifles are still in service partly because they, like the Rangers themselves, can operate reliably even under harsh Arctic conditions.

"Just because something's not ultra-modern doesn't mean it's not appropriate or relevant," says Lackenbauer.

He says many of the Rangers that he has met are motivated by a mix of patriotism, community service and a love of being on the land.

One Ranger in B.C. described the job as "being paid to go camping," he recalls.

The Rangers began as the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers (PCMR) in 1942, at the height of the Second World War. They were volunteers who watched the coastlines of British Columbia and Yukon against the threat of a Japanese invasion.

At their peak they numbered 15,000 volunteers in 138 communities.

The PCMR disbanded in 1945. The Canadian Rangers took over on May 23, 1947, charged with Northern and Arctic surveillance, most often by means of "sovereignty patrols."

Their motto "Vigilans" is often interpreted as "The Watchers."

Rangers also conduct search and rescue operations and assist during other crises — for example, lending support during the drinking water crisis in Kashechewan, Ont. and in the aftermath of the 1999 avalanche at Kangiqsualujjuaq in northern Québec.

They also often come up whenever there is talk of protecting Canada's Arctic sovereignty, though that issue has cooled quite a bit since its heyday a few years ago.

Senior military officials are agreed the country faces no short- or medium-term threats in the Arctic, "but at the same time they always have to be prepared," says Lackenbauer. "That’s just the responsibility of any self-respecting nation state."