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1964

Maurice Drew in Alert

 

Thanks to Maurice for this fine piece relating of a radio regulations infringement in the making  !  Of course, today, Alert is part of Nunavut .

More on Alert can be read on the net at  http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/Magazine/nd00/alert.asp

Laval, 2006-01-31.

 

 

ALERT, NWT c1964 – by Maurice Drew

At the northern tip of Elsmere Island, Northwest Territories (NWT), there was a weather station jointly operated by Canada and the United States. The station was part of a network of weather operations called Joint Atmospheric Weather Stations (JAWS). Just up the hill from the weather station there is a radio research station that used to be called Alert Wireless Station. In the late 1950’s to the mid 1960’s operations at the station were conducted mostly by civilians, including myself. In recent times the station has been run by the military as Canadian Forces Station Alert. Alert is about 437 nautical miles from the geographic North Pole.

 

In 1964 there was a Norwegian group, the Bjorn Styb Polar Expedition, who used the runway near Alert as a base for attempting a trek to the North Pole. The expedition was administered by General Curtis LeMay of the United States Air Force and was jointly funded by the National Geographic Society and the newspaper Aftenposten of Norway. The expedition had what was considered to be the best of equipment and supplies. There was no doubt in their mind that they would make the trek successfully. As can be imagined, the newspaper wanted coverage of the event and had reporters at the site. This bothered the radio research group because the kind of activities that went on at the time was highly classified. Having foreign newspaper reporters around made for potential security breaches. There was also a radio amateur station in Alert that operated under the call sign VE8TU (later VE8RCS) and this is the object of our attention.

 

The amateur station VE8TU was licensed by the Department of Transport, Radio Regulation Branch, on the understanding that there would be a licensed amateur on the base whenever the station was in operation. Although the base was in compliance with this requirement the licensed operator during events of 1964, Ron Hutchinson, was accused of passing commercial traffic on behalf of the Norwegian newspaper. This was considered a serious breach of the regulations and there was talk of the station being shut down. But there was a lot more to it than this.

 

The Norwegian polar expedition set out in sleds powered by husky dogs. The sleds were made of fiberglass. The sleds cracked and split and eventually the group had to return to Alert for repairs. A message requesting urgent replacement was transmitted to Norway through the amateur station. In time, repairs were made and the group set out once again. About sixty miles out the polar expedition ran into an ice ridge several feet high that could not be scaled. So the group broke into two parties in hopes of finding passage around the ridge. Somewhere during this operation the radio operator had a heart attack and died. The group returned to Alert and another message was transmitted from the amateur station to Norway with the sad news.

 

There was no place to keep the body except on an outdoor loading ramp at the radio base which attracted the huskies. The wife of the deceased made here way to Alert via the Strategic Air Command base in Thule, Greenland. All the while the Aftenposten newspaper was covering the story. As can be imagined, this kind of attention was not appreciated by the military high command because this was a most tense period of the cold war. The wife eventually made it to Alert but was outraged at the way her husband’s remains were kept. Another message was transmitted from the amateur station to the newspaper in Norway with the sordid details of how she recovered the body.

 

In the meantime, the manager of the monitoring station in Almonte, Ron Power, is alleged to have written a letter to the Minister of Defense warning him that the station would be shut down if commercial activity of the amateur station continued. Assuming the radio traffic was commercial in nature it would be interesting to know how the regulatory authorities could shut down the remote amateur station.

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