CANADIAN EPICS IN RADIOCOMMUNICATION
ALUMNI WHO LIVED THE ADVENTURE OF RADIO
WIRELESS TELEGRAPHISTS - SPARKS - RADIO PIONEERS
RADIO OPERATORS - RADIO TECHNICIANS
RADIO TECHNOLOGISTS - RADIO ENGINEERS
RADIO INSPECTORS - SPECTRUM MANAGERS
ÉPOPÉES CANADIENNES EN RADIOCOMMUNICATION
LES ANCIENS QUI ONT VÉCU L'AVENTURE DE LA RADIO
TÉLÉGRAPHISTES SANS FIL - PIONNIERS DE LA RADIO
OPÉRATEURS RADIO - TECHNICIENS RADIO
TECHNOLOGUES RADIO - INGÉNIEURS RADIO
INSPECTEURS RADIO - GESTIONNAIRES DU SPECTRE
Ernie Hollands wrote his story about his adventures in Canada's eastern arctic and posted it on a Geocities website which no longer exists. I had saved the information and I am now posting it with the permission of his son. Ernie went "QRT" in 2003. I believe his stories should be known since they are part of the history of radio in Canada.
Laval Desbiens - December 2009
"A Sojourn in Canada's Eastern Arctic"
1942 - 1944
As recalled by Ernest G. Hollands (a.k.a. Ernie)
(With a Rambling Preamble)
* * *
I HAVE MY OWN philosophy regarding life, but so does everyone else, so I will refrain from boring you with mine. Sufficient to say, looking back at those bygone years with the wisdom of old age, I have come to the brilliant conclusion that life is what fare makes it, and you just go along for the ride. And I think that the beginning was just as important, and interesting, as the finale, which is why I am preceding the "Arctic Sojourn" with a few cherished recollections of my pre-Canadian years -- you see, I.was British born but am now proud to be a naturalized Canadian.
There is the dubious joke about the horse that was galloping backwards, and when asked why replied: "I don't care where I'm going, I want to see where I've been!" Well, that is fairly true of the ponderings of many of us folks who have reached the "Golden Years" as they are tenderly termed. Most of us "old-timers" have completed our gallivanting and are resigned to a more sedentary existence, and we tend to reminisce, recalling events of earlier days.
But some events are certain to stand out as turning points, as it were, and I would like to share some of mine with you if you would kindly indulge me. As I have stated, I am a naturalized Canadian, and perhaps you'd like to know how this came about. (hmm!) Well, it's "dealer's choice" so I'll do it. But it should be remembered that at that time we were all just "British Subjects", and naturalization was not required until a much later date.
* * *
IT WAS ON the dark and stormy night of October 7, 1911, that I first saw the light of day, in Southsea (Portsmouth) Hampshire, where my father was employed in the naval shipyards. However, I spent the years of my earliest recollections, 1913-1920, in Worthing, Sussex. It seems that my dad got the urge to migrate to Canada in search of "the better life"-- or maybe just as an adventure -- so when he did so in 1913 the rest of our family, my mother, two older sisters and myself, moved to Worthing to be nearer to my maternal grandparents.
I consider it a lucky turn of fate that led me to spend my childhood there, a nice quiet little town right on the English Channel with its village green, numerous well-landscaped parks and the rolling South Downs; the seashore and pier -- what more could a youngster ask for! (Want a list?). The roads were our playground -- yes, they were paved -- the perfect environment for playing with whip tops, or hoops, or scooters. I always heeded my mother's admonition to "look out for bicycles and horses". Automobiles were practically nonexistent, just a few taxicabs down at the station, and little double-decker buses on the main streets. Slowmoving steam engines were used to pull heavier loads such as moving vans, and galloping horses pulling the fire engine were a sight to see.
Another favourite pastime we kids had was to go up "Jacob's Ladder", an elevated crossover for pedestrians to circumvent the railway tracks. We would stand on the overpass and wait for a train to approach, then lean over until the last moment before the smoke from the funnel came puffing up and then jump back, enveloped in smoke from both sides for a few seconds. Hey, you'd have thought it great fun too when you were a kid! Trains ran about every half hour, so we never had long to wait. I revisited it a few years ago -- it's still there -- and climbed the steps. Everything the same but no smoke, electricity has taken over on Britrail.
Because it is the sunniest part of England, sheltered as it is by
the Sissex South Downs, a lot of elderly people come to Worthing to
retire, and my cousin used to quip they came here to die and then
forgot what they came for. 'Taint so!
I CAN'T RESIST a little plug here. Any of you folks contemplating a vacation to the south of England would do well to take a side trip to Worthing; just 40 miles, one hour by train, from London. It has everything from theatres to golf courses, and a four-mile "Marine Parade"-- and penny slots machines on the pier for those who like to gamble a bit. The Town Hall that I remembered has been replaced by a more modern complex, including a posh beer and cocktail lounge (a step above a "pub"), and also a great supermarket. And Montague Street near the sea front is now a traffic-free mall for leisurely shopping, including the ever-popular Marks & Spencers -- and great fish and chips spots!.
And as an added incentive it's only a short inexpensive bus ride to so many interesting places:: Portsmouth to see Nelson's flagship "Victory", then a nice ride by ferry or the more exciting hovercraft to the Isle of Wight to visit Queen Victoria's marvellous "Osborne House"; to the "Royal Pavilion at Brighton; or to the ever-popular seaside town of Eastbourne and a boat ride around "Beachy Head Light"; or to Littlehampton, Bognor Regis, historic Chichester Cathedral . . . and the list goes on. All within forty miles and a less than $20.00 one-day bus pass from Worthing.
Just one more -- hey, maybe you'd better take an extra week -- it's just ten miles by a local bus to ARUNDEL CASTLE, the ancient seat of the Dukes of Norfolk, another "must". It was originally built in the 10th century but destroyed in the Civil War, and was beautifully rebuilt in the 18th century. There is a marvellous view of the South Downs from 'way up on the original old "keep" built in the 10th century, rather crumbly but still safe. By the way, my mother and two generations before her were born in Arundel, and her parents worked as housemaid and gardener in the Castle until they moved to Worthing.
In the castle grounds there is also the "Fitzallen Chapel", the place of interment for many of the early Dukes of Norfolk, laid to rest with elaborately carved effigies over their tombs. In the dim light it is a combination of the fascinating and the eerie. Incidentally, this branch of the royal family is the only one still of the Roman Catholic persuasion.
Arundel is situated on the River Arun. The town's main street is one
of the steepest I've ever seen. If you can walk up it the whole way
without a rest you're in good shape It's a short walk as the English
would say (over a mile) to the "Black Rabbit", a favourite pub for a
pint by the river, famous for well over a hundred years.
BUT I DIGRESS (yes, we noticed!). Back to my Dad. He had just nicely got settled in Canada when WWI broke out in 1914, and he enlisted in the Canadian army. He was wounded overseas by a sniper, luckily just in the leg, and was hospitalized at Hastings, not far from Worthing and also on the Channel, to convalesce, and I remember him in his royal blue army trousers, symbolic of a wound received on active service.
After the war Canadian veterans were permitted to bring their families to Canada, expenses paid, and soon my Mom and all her brood embarked for the new world too. Our ship was the Scandinavian, and I remember being disappointed that it had only one funnel! The crossing took ten days but as a boy I found it a great adventure. We landed in Quebec City, and a train ride brought us to Toronto where Dad had obtained employment. And that, folks, is how I came to be a Canadian citizen. (Fascinating!)
And now we will proceed to what it's all been leading up to, my "Sojourn in the Eastern Arctic", in case you've forgotten. But please keep in mind that I have only jotted down random recollections of that period, mainly for my own gratification . . . and for something to do! There are no really breathtaking adventures, although at the time I did find the novel conditions quite exhilarating for a "city slicker". So here goes . . .
* * *
SOJOURN ("a brief stay or visit"). Yes, that most aptly describes my few years in Canada's Eastern Arctic. (It was my firm intention to return to my trade as a journeyman printer (compositor) after the hostilities of WWII were over.) It all resulted from my sincere wish to be able to make some small patriotic gesture during those war years, having been rejected by the army due to a physical disability (at ten years of age I had broken my arm quite severely), and by the airforce for 20/70 vision -- 20/20 with specs, but they were very selective in their recruiting early on.
Let it here be noted that any credit (or blame!) for this endeavour should go to my son, Roy, who suggested that, as I often talked about those days, I move my (okay!) derriere and jot down anything of passing interest I may recall during that interlude. This I have done to the best of my literary abilities (that explains it!), but as it all occurred some fifty-five years ago I won't be able to remember every specific detail; but be assured that the gist of it is truly as I now perceive it. So let the story begin, and devil take the hindermost! (That don't make sense!)
IN 1941, AN ADVERTISEMENT in a Toronto newspaper caught my eye. The Radio College of Canada offered a short four-month course which would greatly assist their graduates' acceptance by the RCAF -- wouldn't hurt to try again! Seemed to be just what I wanted. Also, I had fiddled with radio as a lad and had built small radio sets from magazine articles, very prevalent in the early 1920's, and just the idea of learning the theory of radio appealed to me -- also to be a college graduate! -- so I forthwith enrolled. However, after the four months I decided to complete the full Commercial Radio Operator's course, which took well over a year to complete.
But eventually we wrote the government exams, and I was pleased when I was informed that out of our class of about forty I was one of the two students who had passed the first time, the other being a lady classmate. (Applause!)
On being notified of my success, I was informed by an official of the College that the Canadian Department of Transport (DOT) required qualified radio operators, and wished to contact available prospects. As the Canadian government was recruiting, I considered it must be for important wartime work, so I contacted the Toronto office, with the result that I shortly became an employee of "RADTRANS OTTAWA", the radio division of DOT, with no idea of what the position would entail.
THOUGH IT'S CERTAINLY not meant to be, I found one of the perks of working for the Government to be a bit of free travelling and sightseeing. My first posting was to Churchill, Manitoba on the shore of Hudson Bay, which I found exciting but naturally faced with some trepidation -- it seemed an awfully long way from Toronto! -- but soon I was aboard the train heading for "those far away places".
The route was from Toronto to Winnipeg, then to La Pas, Manitoba, and lastly to Port Churchill via a 24-hour trip on the "Muskeg Express", a railway line the laying of which had been an incredible engineering feat over miles of swampy tundra, normally considered a most unsuitable terrain for such a project.. It was wartime, and all available rolling stock was being put into service. One of the coaches in which we rode had hanging lamps and wicker seats. In another we were seated at the rear of the car, and sat in two rows facing each other. These one-time elegant coaches must have been repossessed from a railway museum. The only passengers on the muskeg express were myself and another radio operator, Al Heavenor, enroute to Chesterfield Inlet via the Hudson's Bay Company supply ship Nascopie. We were in an old coach at the end of nearly a mile of freight cars. In order to get rolling, the engine first had to back up to take up the slack between the cars, then go forward literally pulling each car in turn. At our end we could see the engine moving long before our coach got going. It was an interesting twenty-four hour ride, though the scenery was only marshy tundra, countless little lakes and stunted evergreens -- we were nearing the so-called "tree line".
THE ARRIVAL OF THE TRAIN, once a week, was a big event for the citizens of Churchill, and most of them came to the station to see it steam in. Looking out of the train window, we thought that they were there to see who got off, but we found out it wasn't "who" but "what". Although there is the town's Hudson's Bay Co. General Store, most shopping is done by a type of mail order, so the majority of the folks came to pick up their purchases, especially if it was of a "spiritual" nature -- I was amazed to find out that bottled beer came in a barrel, packed in straw! The only thing I ever ordered was a 40-oz. bottle of rye, for which I paid $7.00 -- but then, prices were much higher up there.
The government radio station, VAP, was about a ten-minute walk from the depot. The living quarters, in a white-painted bungalow, were a pleasant surprise, roomy and well-furnished. Each operator had a separate room, to me a very important feature to ensure a little privacy. The OIC (Operator In Charge), Bill Agnew, was not married, so there was a local lady who came in daily as cook and housekeeper, with other help for the laundry and heavier chores At most stations the OIC's wife is the housekeeper and receives a remuneration.
The radio shack was also spacious, with windows overlooking the bay, but the equipment was very out-dated, even by 1942 standards. The transmitter was about 8 feet long, and behind a wire fence for protection. One big radio tube was about three feet high and two feet in diameter; I didn't get to see the internal components but no doubt they were equally massive. Nevertheless, this aging monster was as powerful and efficient as any modern rig could have been. The power was supplied by a gasoline engine-driven generator, so that transmitting would not be affected by possible power failures.
IT BEING MY FIRST assignment as a "radio op" and not knowing what to expect so far north, I liked what I saw and would have been content in this environment and to stay ai VAP had it not been for, to me, one bogey -- the fact that traffic (messages) was received by radio, but then forwarded to Winnipeg via the telegraphic "landline". This required learning a somewhat different code, and the audible signals were the metallic clicks of a "sounder", instead of the clear dots and dashes of radio signals which, as I was a greenhorn, were the only ones with which I was familiar. In the short time I was there I did master it enough to send some weather reports, which during wartime were coded into five-figure groups, via landline, but did no receiving. No doubt I would have eventually mastered it, but fate was to make it unnecessary.
For the first few watches I found it hard to realize that I was actually now a professional radio operator, when only a month ago I had been setting type, quite a change of venue! Sending by key was the easy part; but any nervousness when answering calls soon wore off, and I enjoyed the radio communications with the more northern coast stations. I soon got on to their abbreviations --"tu" for "thank you", "su" for "see you again", etc. And all the international "Q" signals; three-letter groups always starting with "Q". There is a whole book of them to facilitate communications between nations, and they translate the same in any language; e.g.: QTC4 = "We have 4 messages for you"; QTE? = "What is my ship's position?"; QSA? = "How strong is my signal? (1 to 5)"; QRN = "There is static interference"; etc. Used with the question mark it's a request, without it's an answer or a statement. It was all new and awesome -- as the younguns would say today..
A FEW FACTS ABOUT CHURCHILL. Originally, it was the second choice for a railway terminal and seaport on Hudson Bay, but the first site selected further south at Port Severn was found to be plagued with heavy silting in the river, requiring constant dredging, so that site was eventually abandoned, and Port Churchill was founded at the mouth of the Churchill River. The reason for developing a shipping route through Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait was that it would be a shorter and faster rail and sea route to Europe for the wheat and grain of the prairie provinces, rather than the greater distance by rail and/or ship via the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence River and thence to the Atlantic ocean. (The St. Lawrence Seaway was not in existence at that time.) Sadly, its potential was never fully realized, no doubt mainly due to the short shipping season and the unpredictability of ice conditions in Hudson Strait. The records show that there were only twelve ships' arrivals and departures in 1942; this did jump to thirty-five in 1943. Ah, but Churchill's importance was considerably enhanced by WWII!
IT THEREFORE naturally follows that the most important structures in the town were the wharves, grain elevators and storage sheds. Next in uncertain order of importance were the Hudson's Bay Co. General Store (Geordie Anderson, manager, 1942); the railway depot, and the radio station. After 1939, however, there was considerable activity on the outskirts of town with the U.S. Army and Airforce building their base and laying runways, all of course being classified top secret,.and so there was soon another very welcome addition, the army's own store, the "PX" (army "Post Exchange"), with custom-free goods for the army personnel. But they graciously allowed the town folks to buy certain items there too, mainly cigarettes and tobacco.
The rest of the town consisted mainly of small houses, many of which, during the warmer months, had ten or more sled dogs staked out on their premises. There were no fences, so that the first few times I walked down the narrow path between two rows of rather large dogs I felt a bit apprehensive. However, although they were all barking their tails were wagging, and as there was no visible evidence of previous mayhem, I concluded that others had safely "run the gauntlet", so the odds were with me. Also, the fact that as a boy in England, while playing on the village green, I had been nipped on the b.t.m. by what the nice lady called her friendly dog, I considered I was already vaccinated.
The only one of these little houses that I entered was to obtain the services of a gentleman who cut hair on the side -- the price was twenty-five cents, not a salon job but cheaper than violin lessons. While talking to the barber, I found that the radio station was not too popular with the citizens, the reason being that every time VAP went on the air with traffic to or from the northern posts, the signal was so strong that it blotted out all other frequencies. Imagine in those days listening to "Amos 'n' Andy" or "The Jack Benny Show", and then having good old VAP come booming in! It's to be hoped that today their television reception is not affected, as TV signals, which being FM, are not normally affected by AM radio waves. Apart from that they thought us nice enough chaps.
Churchill is noted for being a good place to view polar bears at first hand -- viewer discretion is advised. In the autumn a considerable number congregate on the side of the river opposite to the town, waiting for freezeup so that they can go after the seals. I heard that single bears have been known to invade the town, but this is rare and not considered a danger. Some hunting may be allowed by the game authorities but I have no confirmation of this fact -- polar bears are an endangered species. (Aren't we all!)
I AM PLEASED to be able to humbly state (aw shucks!) that on one occasion I personally had the opportunity to be of service to the U.S. military forces. The army/navy had a small vessel with which they intended to patrol the waters of the river and Hudson Bay adjacent to Churchill, and they had recently installed a British made "Marconi LTT4" transmitter. They contacted our radio station and inquired if there were any authorized personnel who knew the procedure for "tuning" this transmitter to their desired frequency. It so happened that this was the very one on which I had received instructions in "college", so I promptly volunteered to act as liason between the U.S. Army and the Canadian DOT; in other words, I tuned their transmitter for them. Ah yes, one was gratified to be able to do one's bit without thought of reward -- it is not true that I received the Purple Heart and the DSO.
THERE WAS A RATHER humorous bit, at least to us radio operators. A ship moored at the dock had supposedly painted the "V for Victory" symbol, in Morse code, on the stern just below the deck railing. This symbol should have appeared as dot-dot-dot-dash ". . . ---", but obviously the painter had leaned over the rail to paint it, going from left to right, so that when viewed from the dock it appeared as dash-dot-dot-dot "--- . . .", the "B" symbol. But they meant well, bless their hearts, and as they say, it's the thought that counts.
There is quite a tide in the Bay and the Churchill River, though I am not sure of its full extent, but we found out about it the hard way, in a manner of speaking. One day a little ship came in and moored at the dock, and we heard that the radio op had been a student at our old Alma Mater, the Radio College at Toronto. So two of us went down to pay our respects, and on being invited aboard we simply stepped from the dock to the ship's deck. We had a nice chat with "Sparks", and when at last it came time to leave we came out onto the deck and had a bit of a surprise -- we found that we had to climb up about ten feet of rope ladder to the dock, you know, the kind that looks like rope squares. It ain't as easy as it sounds, try it sometime!
IN SEPTEMBER OF 1942 we received a QTC (message) from "RADTRANS" (DOT's Radio Headquarters) that an ailing operator would be picked up from Nottingham Island, N.W.T., by the Canadian icebreaker and supply ship N.B.McLean, which would then proceed to Churchill to refuel, etc., and I was to be the replacement for the sick man. (Coo!) I would embark on the ship and be dropped off at Nottingham Island, which was situated at just about the junction of Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait, designated the Canadian Coast Station VCB. As this would be real isolation once the winter closed in, I really felt that at last I was truly giving my all for God and country! (fanfare!).
Now, every man being posted to isolation in the arctic receives an issue of winter clothing -- flannel shirts, heavy underwear, a parka, gloves, pants, felt boots, and woollen blankets from which the Eskimo women would make a native-style parka and liners for the sealskin "mukluks" (knee-high boots, more or less waterproof). For this they received compensation from the DOT. Being government issue, these items were far from top line. However, as I was an emergency replacement with no time to receive the regulation issue, I was taken to the HB store in Churchill by the OIC to select these items. His selections were all top line merchandise. Especially great were the non-itchable (fleece-lined) longjohns, the beaver mitts, and the "four-point" HB blankets, their top line. (Hudson's Bay Co. blankets were known as the best in the world, and were graded one-point to four-point, identified by markings woven into the blanket.).
THE N.B.MCLEAN ARRIVED at Churchill on October 5, 1942. In the government's annual summary of navigation in the Arctic, it states in the captain's log that she "took on 1000 tons of fuel" and other supplies, and left Churchill on October 10 -- with me on board. A few pertinent facts regarding this ship: As her home port was Quebec City, the crew was predoininently French Canadian. Her main duties were as an icebreaker, and supply ship for the coast stations on the route from Quebec City, up the Labrador coast, through the Hudson Strait and down Hudson Bay to the port of Churchill, Manitoba. On the way she also lit and serviced marker buoys for marine safety. But then, during the war years, she also proudly became an armed merchantman! Mounted on the main deck at the stern was a gun of considerable caliber, making her capable of opposing any enemy submarine should one chance to be encountered in Canadian waters. Up to the time I went aboard it had never been fired, so the Bay was deemed a good place to fire a test round. There was much jesting among the crew as to whether it would explode or fly off its mount, but these concerns proved to be unfounded.
The radio shack was one deck up and the door gave a clear view of the gun, so I had a first class seat for the momentous event. The shot was fired, and the only adverse effect was that anything loose in the shack went flying; we also got the full effect of the concussion on our ears, such a lovely big bang! But it had passed the test with flying colours, and it was considered that henceforth the ship and her stalwart crew were ready to do battle with the enemy at an instant's notice. (Cheers!!)
THE MCLEAN"S FIRST STOP after leaving Churchill was Coral Harbour, Southampton Island, staying there from Oct. 12 to 16, unloading cargo and servicing buoys in that area. The next stop should have been to unload me at Nottingham Island, but tightly packed ice had drifted in making a landing impossible, so she proceeded to Eric Cove, anchoring Oct. 19 to await a change in ice conditions. An attempt was made on the 21st but the ice was still a problem.
While on the McLean I took my turn on the watches. It should be noted that the McLean, being primarily an icebreaker, had a rounded bottom, and even in calm weather had a tendency to roll from side to side. I was on the midnight watch of Oct. 22 and 23, when a full gale blew up, rated at "Force 9", and the ship rolled constantly. Me and my chair slid from side to side, and the only way I could stay put was to sit with my legs up and brace myself between the transmitter and the wall. At the most ominous times the ship rolled "about as far as she could go". She would roll onto her side and hesitate for several seconds before lurching back -- I can still remember muttering "Come on, come on!". In the morning the crew -- and they were old-timers -- were all talking excitedly, saying that we had come within one degree of capsizing, and I can well believe it. I honestly think that it was the 1000 tons of fuel the ship had taken on at Churchill, adding to the ballast, that prevented us from foundering.
One little fact I found quite interesting. I was a landlubber, unused to life at sea, and was surprised at how well I was standing the horrendous rolling. However, I finally began to feel a bit queasy, and wondered how long I could hold out, when the bridge called down for me to get a QTE (code for directional bearing) from VAP, VBZ and VCB -- a "fix" from three stations gives a triangular plot for more accuracy. That had me working for about ten minutes, and after I had finished I was amazed to realize that I no longer felt ill. Which proves something, I'm not sure what. (then why bring it up?) One good thing resulting from the force of the gale was that it had moved the ice a bit, so once more we headed for Nottingham Island.
ON THE MORNING of October 24, the lookout sighted a small gap in the ice just big enough to enable the motor launch to get in for a landing. So I got the call to grab my bags and get topside. The launch was waiting beside the ship and a rope ladder with wooden steps hung over the side. I climbed over the rail, and saw the launch going up and down about eight steps distance. I went down to where I calculated the launch would peak in its ascent, and the next time it came up I stepped aboard and was thankfully grabbed by four strong arms. I expected to get the feeling of dropping down, instead I was surprised to see the ladder shoot up! It is a peculiar phenomenon, the idea you have that one object is moving when actually it is vice versa -- have you ever had the car next to you in a parking lot back up, and you jam on your brakes? The act of transferring from one rolling boat to another can actually be quite dangerous, as correct timing is essential.
As Captain Balcom wrote in his report, "a landing was made with great difficulty". We rode over rough seas for about a mile to the narrow gap in the ice just wide enough for the launch to squeeze in, and I scrambled ashore, where a radio operator, Bob Ferguson, and two Eskimos were waiting. I called "goodbye" to Pete and he called back "So long, 'ollands" (French Canadian, no H's), and off I went with my escort over about two miles of rather rough and snowy ground to the radio station -- I had by now got used to the absence of trees.
WE HAD APPARENTLY been going a bit uphill, starting from sea level, as at the end of our trek there was a sudden verticle drop, a cliff of 40 or so feet, down to the station level. To assist in this descent there was a rope, anchored at the top and dangling down, to hang on to while sliding down from the clifftop to the station; it also assisted in ascending when necessary, for instance to service the anemometer and wind vane mounted atop the cliff.
The station complex was situated on a small cove. There were the main buildings, consisting of the living quarters, the radio shack, the chicken coop, and a spare building which held a small emergency transmitter and a ping pong table, used mostly in the warmer months. This group of buildings was back about 900 feet from the cove, near the cliff I had descended on arrival, which gave some protection from windy weather. Nearer the cove were the native helps' quarters and storage sheds for coal, gasoline, etc. I found the view from the station over the cove and surrounding landscape quite spectacular -- it looked like a nice spot to spend the winter.
I made the acquaintance of the OIC George Lowe, the other operator Marshall Lawson and the cook big Bob Weyrich, and was soon settled in my own room. So, with the operator already introduced, Bob Ferguson, and myself, we were five white men and about ten adult Inuit, making the total population of Nottingham Island roughly fifteen adults - I couldn't count all the kids!
(Note: The above were the staff in 1942-43. In my second year, 1943-44, it consisted of OIC Bill Lawson, Doug King, Dave Clarkson, me, and luckily for us for a second term, Bob Weyrich, the "chef".)
I must mention here that Bob Weyrich, a native of Luxembourg, was truly a first class chef and could have had a top position in any prestigious hotel, but he said his desire to see more of the world before settling down came first. So we dined like kings on the gourmet meals he produced from the station's supplies, supplemented periodically with bear steaks, seal meat and liver, whale skin (mattaq), arctic char, and other seasonal delicacies such as ptarmigan, a small fowl of unsurpassed flavour. And we especially delighted in his freshly baked bread, his pies, cakes and other confections.
We were lucky indeed to have had Bob in our kitchen. He was also a talented artist and sculptor. One of his works while there was the head of the boxer Joe Louis, sculpted from a block of ice, a perfect resemblance.
AS I STATED EARLIER, the Eskimos at the station numbered about ten -- hard to say how many kids were running around. They were employed by the DOT as general help, the women doing the housework and laundry, and the men the harder chores like moving coal, gasoline, etc., and were a great, happy bunch. There were: first, Mammy and Pappy, the patriarchs (I never did learn their names), whereby hangs a tale. Then their sons: Tommy and wife Maggie, and Jimmy and wife Lisapie; Tommy's kids Johnassie, Lucassie and Adamie, probably named after biblical characters; and others whose names I fail to recall. There were two little girls, Annie about eight and Suzie about three. I was told they were sisters and had both had white daddies; I did not learn the details, but I understood that Mammy and Pappy were their grandparents.
All Eskimos seem to be naturally talented, even when concerning things not natural to their environment. They love to tinker with mechanical objects such as the gasoline engines, and they will use any wood available, such as old packing cases (any wood was precious!) to construct things like parts for komatiks, spear handles, etc. They made the OIC a small but perfectly servicable desk. I'm sure just about everyone has heard of their carvings in soapstone and walrus ivory, truly works of art.
Furthermore, I hereby challenge any white man to beat them at the game of checkers, or draughs (the closest I ever saw was a draw). While the Kabloona pores over the board before each move, the Inuit makes his move instantaneously, always followed by a chuckle. It was really a treat just to watch them play.
THEY . . . AND WE . . . enjoyed a party, and at Christmas we held one in the spare building, heated and decorated for the occasion. They loved to dance and put everything into it, with much stomping. The little ones were as energetic as their elderx, bringing their knees up to their chins in a kind of tap dance. Mammy and Pappy just sat and beamed at the fun all were having. Bob, the cook, supplied the treats, and tea, their favourite beveridge. Yes, the kids loved to dance, and quite often some of them would come up to the house or the radio shack and perform for a few jelly beans . . . while the supply lasted.
Regarding Mammy and Pappy, the tale I heard was that years
previously, when they were quite young, Pappy had been instrumental
in saving a kabloona's life, and as a reward was given the position
of handyman at the Nottingham Island station. However, the family
has grown so large -- a baby was born the year I was there -- and
with such limited accommodation, it was feared that they would be
replaced by a new couple in the near future. One deplores the idea
that they may have had to return to the native way of life after
years of service to the country, but rapport with government
officials is almost nonexistent, they go by the book. (and play
SORRY, FOLKS, BUT here comes another back-patter, but aftere all, credit where credit's due, right? Right!
Prologue: While I was at VAP Churchill there had been a mystery regarding traffic coming from VCB Nottingham. During the longer skeds with them, about every fifteen minutes or so their signal would suddenly cease, even in the middle of a word or sentence. Then after a delay of four or five minutes they would come back on and resume transmission. This was annoying, time-consuming, and unexplainable. Once again I happened to be, as they say, "the right guy at the right time" and was able to correct this enigma. (Oh, good show!)
On taking my first watch at VCB, I was informed that about every fifteen minutes the engine driving the generator ran out of gasoline. Normally, the fuel should have been fed to the engine by means of a "vacuum tank", a gadget that drew fuel from a 45-gal.drum (kept outside the building for safety reasons) and fed it to the engine. But it wasn't doing its job which necessitated filling the vacuum tank manually -- and a quart of gas doesn't last very long! This was the cause in the breaks during transmitting. For the uninformed, let us explain how a vacuum tank should work (Well, Madam, some people might like to know!)
A VACUUM TANK is a quart-sized cylinder mounted vertically on the engine, and has two ports at the top with elbow fittings, and one straight one at the bottom. One elbow at the top is connected by a line to the engine's manifold which, when running, causes a suction, I don't know why. This draws air from the tank producing a vacuum which sucks gasoline from the 45-gal. drum, which is connected by a line to the other top elbow, thus filling the tank The fuel can then flow by gravity feed from the bottom port to the engine, and all is right with the world -- or should be.
The OIC had informed me that "Radtrans" had given specific orders that the engines were not to be touched by the operators, so no one had as yet investigated the situation. However, after about a month of constantly filling by hand, I figured there must be a remedy. (Note: I had once owned a beautiful old '23 Durant Touring which had used the vacuum tank system, fuel pumps not yet being perfected, and thus was somewhat knowledgeable of this gadget.)
Soooo -- my first test was to disconnect the line from the top elbow, but with it still connected to the manifold. I put my finger on the end of the line -- yes, there was suction! Next I removed the elbow fitting from the tank, reattached it to the manifold line and again put my finger over the opening and, voila -- no suction! The problem was solved!
The !!*?? engineers at Ottawa had put in the wrong elbows, ones with just pinholes instead of full openings. I hopefully looked in our parts box, found two elbows of the right type (one for each engine) and hooked them up. There'd be no more hand filling and broken transmissions. Proving a little knowledge does go a long way. This time I did not get the Order of Canada, but I did get grateful handshakes from my fellow operators. Never did hear if there were any adverse comments from Ottawa -- boy, I'd have given them what for!
JUST A BIT, it won't take long (you can skip it if you prefer) regarding our working routine. As VCB was on twenty-four hour watch during the war years, the shifts were worked in this order: First the evening watch from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.; next the afternoon watch from noon to 6 p.m.; then, only seven hours later, the midnight watch from 1 a.m. to 8 a.m. So, from coming off watch at 8 a.m. to going on again the next day at 6 p.m. you were off for 34 hours, although actually you worked one watch each day. Look: Mon. 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., Tues. noon to 6 p.m., Wed. 1 a.m. to 8 a.m -- off for 34 hours -- then Thurs. 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., ad infinitum. I knew you'd get it! Oh yes, the OIC took the cushy 8 a.m. to noon watch.
The busiest and most interesting was the evening watch, as at 7 p.m. we went on shortwave, and using a microphone and "calling all stations" who had traffic for us, or vice versa. They answered in code with their little transmitters. These stations were Hudson's Bay Co. posts -- we worked ten of them. They handled traffic for the RCMP and the missions as well as their own. These might be fur reports; business messages; or "deadheads", 50-word "personal letters" not charged for -- most isolated personnel were allowed one each month including us. Surprising what you can squeeze into fifty words. We could also receive the same.
The next busiest watch was the noon to 6 p.m. At 1 p.m. weekdays we had a sked at one o'clock on shortwave using the key, not a mike, with VAA "Radtrans Ottawa" for government or RCMP traffic; also for "deadheads" from or to the six Coast Stations in the Bay and Straits area --VAP Churchill, VAL Port Harrison, VBZ Chesterfield Inlet, VAW Resolution Island, VAY Cape Hopes Advance, and ourselves VCB Nottingham Island. The RCMP traffic was handled from VAA but relayed through the closest Hudson's Bay Company post. There, I hope that was worth the time. (and it didn't take long, didn't it!!)
REGARDING RADIO CONTACT with the HB posts: The power for their transmitters was supplied by storage batteries. These were kept charged by the current produced from wind generators (for the uninformed, a windmill that turns a generator, vot else!) Now, the arctic is generally thought of as a snowy, windy spot, and so it is. But there are periods of absolute calm that can last for over a week, and during that time their batteries get no booster shots from the wind generators. On our 7 o'clock skeds, after a calm of five or six days the calls from the posts would become weaker and fewer as their batteries died, and finally there was practically no response to our calls. Then the wind would come up again and it was bedlam with them all calling at once -- and we were kept busy with all of their accumulated traffic.
One more thing weatherwise. The temperature at our station, and
we were below the Arctic Circle, averaged 25 degrees below zero
fahrenheit from December to March, and went as low as 53 degrees
below zero. The extreme cold resulted in snow of a very fine
texture, unlike the big flakes further south, and so it was not so
awfully deep, except where it drifted. In most places it was very
solidly packed, assisted by the pressure of the wind, and could be
cut into blocks for the building of igloos. The Eskimos could whip
one up in a very short time, even if only for overnight use. (Don't
believe anything you hear about "ice" houses.)
ON EACH WATCH we had the job of "reading" the four meteorological thermometers, the present, maximum, minimum and dew point temperatures; also recording the wind speed and direction and barometric pressure; estimating the cloud height and type; and noting any precipitation. During the war these had to be coded before transmission. For this work we were paid an extra thirty-five dollars a month by the Meteorological Bureau, as we were not considered a "weather station".
We also received an additional fifty dollars monthly as "isolation pay"-- but they took off thirty-five a month for board, which after all was quite reasonable. As we worked one watch each day as previously so clearly explained, we received a yearly leave of twenty-eight days -- which, although quite welcome, I considered a bit frugal, as surely the radio operators deserved the equivalent of one day a week or 52 days; other government employees got every weekend off plus two weeks vacation yearly. (Get out the soapbox!)
On the graveyard shift we also had one other little chore, checking the fires in the storage building and the chicken coop. This I always found a bit eerie, walking around outside in the darkness with just a flashlight, and imagining the possibility of confronting a polar bear -- I know, just play dead! I'm not sure when they sleep, but at VAY the operator found bear footprints on the window ledge outside the radio shack, where one had apparently been watching him as he worked.
Re the chicken coop, there were about eight hens and a rooster, tended to by the cook, which produced one egg every two days or so. Bob kept a chart on the kitchen wall to keep track of whose turn it was to get the egg for breakfast. But sadly they were later dispensed with as not being worth the trouble of shipping in feed, burning expensive coal, etc., but we sure looked forward to our turn while it lasted.
RECREATION was never a problem, though at an isolated post like ours they were naturally limited to what could be done in and around the station -- one could always find something to do. Skiing or snowshoeing, or just going for a tramp in the snow, breathing that crisp, clean, exhilarating air, were our main outdoor activities during the shorter winter days. Playing two-handed card games like cribbage, checkers, and reading were our main evening pastimes. Things like trying your hand at small woodworking projects and ivory carving, and even doing jigsaw puzzles, were also pleasant "things to do".
I had my own hobby, developimg and printing snaps I had taken with my folding Kodak 616 camera, f6.3 lens, speed 1/100 sec., eight shots to a roll. I now kinda wish I'd had 35mm colour film which would have better shown the beauty of the terrain and all the flowers, but then I wouldn't have had my hobby. Probably the other chaps had hobbies of their own, but at least time never hung heavily on our hands.
Once we even gave a ouija board a try, and found it quite intriguing,.The queer part we found was that at first you could hardly force the little shuttle to move, but later it would skim over the board as if on ice, seemingly on its own. It never really did answer our questions -- its closest prediction was that the war would end in two years, which was close enough.
There were plenty of other things to do when time was short, even if just taking a walk down to the cove to see the Eskimos' latest catch. White whales were a big thing, providing food for themselves and the dogs, and producing various byproducts including oil. We enjoyed the whale skin, something like the white of a hardboiled egg in consistency when cooked, a delectable snack White whales are a small species, mostly ten to fifteen feet long, and are relatively easy to catch either by spear or rifle -- for the natives anyway -- and sometimes they would come right into our cove. At other times there would be seal or walrus, and we would get a treat of seal liver or steak. But at times game could be scarce, as hunting can be either feast or famine, and it takes a lot to feed a large family, and the dogs.
THE WALRUS, one of the homeliest of animals, is nevertheless undoubtedly the most useful catch for the native. Walrus meat is the best energy food for the dogs, and on the trail it is carried in ready-to-eat pieces to facilitate feeding at chow time. It's hide, when cut into strips of various widths by the women, has many uses. A komatik (their sled) is fastened together entirely by these strips -- no nails are ever used -- giving it a certain amount of flexibility when going over rough spots like the "barrier", that ridge of jagged ice between the sea and the shoreline, formed by the expansion of ice during freezeup. It is also used for the dogs' harnesses and traces where great pulling strength is essential The whips are made from narrower strips, many being woven together at the handle end and taperng down to a single strip at the tip, a real work of art. I still have one, a treasured souvenir. Darn it, I forget the other thousand and one uses! By the way, the whip is rarely used on the dogs, except for disciplinary reasons, rather for signalling the lead dog to go right or left, etc.
ONE DAY IN SPRING while enjoying a walk in the sun, I happened to see a kayak moored at the wharf in the cove -- a real, genuine, handmade, sealskin, Eskimo kayak! As no natives were around and the water was calm, I yielded to temptation and carefully got in and took a short turn around the cove. Oh, they handle so beautifully and move over the water so effortlessly that I really enjoyed the experience. A bit foolhardy of me now that I think of it, being practically a non-swimmer, but who could resist a real, genuine . . . etc. However, I was very cautious as they can tip quite easily, and that water was cold!
While we enjoyed skiing in our clumsy fashion, the Eskimo kids were much better at it than we were. Their skis were a flat piece of sealskin, very stiff from the intense cold, and with or without a couple of sticks for poles down the hill they zoomed, rarely falling. Most of the skiing we did was crosscountry as there weren't many hills that were not too rocky and bumpy. Snowshoeing was okay too, if you could avoid kicking your ankles.
Bob, the cook, who with our cooperation could take a little more time off at a stretch, took an overnight trip with the Eskimos checking their trapline. Being quite a large chap, and not being able to keep up with the dogs' pace, he had to ride most of the time. At thirty or forty degrees below zero you must exercise to keep warm, and Bob himself said it was only his "fat" that protected him from hypothermia. He advised us not to take the trip, which let me off the hook without being "chicken", I prefer a warm bed at night. At another time, when the weather was warmer, he went on a walrus hunt with them in the station's motor launch, which he enjoyed much more. He said a live walrus is an awesome thing, and the males when hit would roar like a lion. Now that I would like to have seen.
BEING ON AN ISLAND we did not receive many visitors, except when the supply ship came in the summer. Any of the crew and maintenance men who came ashore would come up to the living quarters for a visit, and it was pleasant to see new faces for a while. But strangely we were not sorry to see the ship reembark, and we could get on with our normal routine. (Sounds like the first signs of getting "bushed"!)
During the winter months some of us had finally managed to kick the smoking habit. But then the ship's crew would offer us cigarettes as a friendly gesture, no matter how often we declined them -- I'm sure they thought they were doing us a favour to offer us "tailormades"-- and finally we would submit, thinking one wouldn't hurt, but soon there was a second one and we'd be hooked once more. It took a few months to beat the habit again.
Two of the few other visitors we had were the catholic mission priests, Father Cartier and Father Choque. Their headquarters were at Cape Dorset, relatively close to us and within range of their little skiff. Their boat was twenty-five or thirty feet long, had a mast for sailing and an auxiliary engine -- about the same as ours. It had no "head", and with a little indiscreet inquiring I learned that when necessary the procedure was to climb out onto the yardarm, keeping a firm hold on the rigging, and dexterously assume the required position. It must have been quite a feat when under way, allowing for the movement of the boat. (Timber!!)
I had the honour of carving my initials in the cabin door, something all new boarders were allowed to do. I had a tough time finding space enough, there sure had been a lot of visitors, some quite famous, I bet!
THE ONLY OTHER FOLKS who "dropped in" were Mr. and Mrs. Monty Demment, the managers, or "factors", of the HB post also at Cape Dorset. They were a very pleasant couple, and it was so nice to see a female personality again. I admired her spunk in sailing the waters of Hudson Strait with her husband. It can be a rough, unpredictable stretch of sea, but I imagine during the almost four years they had been at Cape Dorset she had done it several times before.
They brought with them the few items we had ordered when we heard they were coming, including some ivory carvings for me. This marvellous art form did not really come into demand until about a decade later, and it now seems incredible that, for the $25.00 worth I had ordered, I received three 12-inch long cribbage boards, beautifully carved and etched; two lovely fragile little birds (geese) about two inches high, with widely outstretched wings and mounted on ivory stands; a little seal, one of my favourites; and an 8-inch kayak with a miniature paddle and spear. Everything was perfectly symmetrical and in complete detail. I still cherish the four pieces I managed to retain, the seal, the kayak, one cribbage board and one bird. (So 'ands orf!)
The Demments could only stay for two days as they must needs take advantage of the fair weather which could change with very little warning. By the way, four years is supposed to be the longest stay at one stretch for an HB factor, though many would wish to stay longer. It is easy to get used to the unhurried life up here, and they could save almost all of their yearly stipend, building up a nice little nestegg for later years.
THE SLED DOGS are the work horses of the Eastern Arctic, the so-called "Barren Lands" where the vegetation consists of lichen, the many varieties of small flowering plants and miniature willows, vegetation that could never supply sufficient fodder for larger draft animals. Even the caribou shun most of this treeless land, though some herds may still be found on the west side of Baffin Island. But dogs are fed on walrus meat and other products of the sea which are generally obtainable. They live and sleep in the open the year 'round, curling up with their noses under their tails and letting the snow drift over them. They require little care.
Snowmobiles were not available in 1942, but even in this modern age the dogs are still the Eskimos' best means of transportation over the rough terrain while on bear and seal hunts, checking their trap lines, and for any long range travelling. However, these days a surprising number of natives do own snowmobiles, but gasoline is very expensive and dogs are still essential to any family living mainly off the land, or should I say sea. By the way, I have declined to use the term here, but up in the arctic the Eskimos are designated "Huskies" by the Kabloona, and the dogs simply called "the dogs".
BEFORE THE INUIT obtained rifles -- and even later if short of ammo -- the dogs were an integral part of bear hunting. They would surround the bear, constantly darting in and harrassing it from all angles. The bear would rear up to swat at the dogs, giving the hunter a larger and more vulnerable target at which to thrust his spear. Occasionally, of course, if a dog became too careless he would be sent flying by the bear's swinging paw, but generally there were few casualties.
In the Western Arctic where there are trees, the "twin hitch" is used to harness the dogs They run side by side in pairs thus staying together on the trails through the bush. In the Eastern Arctic where trees are nonexistent, the "fan hitch" is adopted. Each dog is on his own long lead, the lengths varying, matching on each side, and getting shorter towards the lead dog, so that they form a "fan". This is preferable where, for instance, the dogs have to scramble over rough spots like the barrier' between sea and shore. The fan hitch also makes it easier to stake out the dogs during camp, which prevents them fighting among themselves, especially when being fed.
DOGS ARE "MAN'S BEST FRIEND" the world over, and even these half-wild canines are not generally considered dangerous, many being allowed to run loose when "off duty". Nevertheless, caution must always be taken. The general rule is "stay on your feet", especially if alone with dogs. Eskimos living in igloos always make sure there are none nearby when crawling out of the low tunnel exit.
There are stories told of deaths by dogs, too often concerning children. One tale we heard was where a team of dogs had killed a child, and the father immediately shot them all, even though they were so important to his livelihood. In another tragic case they had mauled and caused the death of a factor's wife. There were numerous theories concerning the cause but it was never resolved what provoked the attack. There are always some latent instincts that can affect a dog's behavior, even a "tame" one, and any pronr objrct like a fallen child may be perceived as a small animal, which nature tells it to attack.
I had only two occasions which caused me any concern. One, probably quite trivial, occurred when Dave and I were skiing near the station. We were about two hundred feet apart and there were several dogs nearby. Dave happened to fall, and immediately the dogs started running towards him. As I had heard about "staying on your feet", I quickly headed for Dave, whereupon the dogs at once made a U-turn and retreated, much to my relief. Well, I wouldn't exactly say I saved his life . . .
ON THE OTHER OCCASION I was alone. One day I decided to take a stroll, taking with me for protection(?) a single shot .22 cal. rifle. There were about ten dogs lying around enjoying a day off when I started my walk. After a few hundred yards I noticed the dogs, including the "lead" dog, were following me. I didn't exactly care for the idea but I wasn't sure what they would do if I yelled "Shoo!", so kept going anyway.
On checking every so often I noticed they had drawn nearer, and were eventually right on my heels. This was disconcerting enough, but then I felt the lead dog nipping at the heels of my sealskin mukluks. Several times I stopped and so did they, but each time she seemed to be nipping a bit more seriously.
I admit I'm no 'ero, and soon I started to feel a tickling up my spine. It sounds queer thinking back, but all I know is that suddenly the fear I felt turned into a great rage! I turned around, shot home the bolt to load my gun, pointed it at the lead dog and yelled: "You SOB, I'll kill you!"
Immediately she and all the rest of the pack made an about face and headed back towards the station. To say I was greatly relieved is an understatemeny, but I almost enjoyed the rest of my stroll. I think it proved that the dogs, after being on so many hunting trips, knew what a gun could do, and also when a human being meant business! -- even a greenhorn. I've often wondered what Tommy would have said if I had shot his lead dog, probably "Sukiak", which roughly means "Too bad!"
For a while we had one for a pet, a beautiful dog we called Pootilik, but he was very jealous of the other dogs and would chase them away from the house or fight with them. But he was great as a pet -- or should I say a "great" pet, as he was nearly as tall as me when he put his paws on my shoulders. He was welcome company on the midnight watch, especially when making those spooky rounds outdoors.
But sadly, one day he disappeared, and when we eventually inquired of the natives they said that he had followed the team on the trail, and in an ensuing fight they had "done 'im in". A plausible explanation; however I'm inclined to believe the Eskimos shot him as they understandably considered him a nuisance. Either way, it was '"So long, Pootilik, old pal!"
ONE LAST INTERESTING(?) little bit regarding dogs (those with weak tummies may be wise to skip this paragraph). However, it is a fact of nature and used by many backward countries as a sanitary aid. To put it as nicely as possible, you will never find a spot of human excrement polluting the terrain in this primitive land, generally speaking without toilet facilities. The dogs are given most of the credit, though other animals may also be actively involved. Our premises boasted a commode of the chemical variety, and periodically the help would empty it somewhere a fair distance from the station. Some dogs generally followed them, and should you chance to meander that way a little later you would find only a few razor blades. The chemicals obviously were not a deterrent. (Very tastefully put, old man!)
THE EASTERN ARCTIC may be a barren snowcovered place in the winter but it's really quite scenic in the spring and summer starting about mid-May. The land consists of permafrost or rock, with just an inch or so of soil thawing out in the warmer season. But I was amazed at the number of little flowering plants "that bloom in the spring, tra la" -- I counted over twenty varieties. And there are the dwarf willows only a couple of inches high, and the waving fields of "arctic cotton", a fluffy puff of white on the top of a thin foot-long stem.
The rock formations -- oh, for that colour film! -- were something in themselves, cliffs and boulders of all types and shapes, and all shades of grey and granite-like reds. In one place it was multicoloured in streaks, giving the impression it had just been poured. I honestly think trees here would have spoiled the panorama
But the part that I found especially delightful were the multiple rivulets, formed by the melting snow flowing in the channels of the rocky terrain, little streams only about a foot wide making that soft rippling sound. The crystal clear water had a unique mineral flavour; it was a refreshing thirst-quencher when you were warm from a nice long stroll.
In one of the few permanent larger streams, one of the chaps from the supply ship tried fly fishing much to our amusement, and we were flabbergasted when he caught a small fish, probably an arctic char fingerling as the natives do "jig" or spear for them through the ice during the winter months. I tried jigging once, but I haven't the patience, or stamina, to kneel and gaze into a hole for hours---and then miss.
WE CERTAINLY ENJOYED our hikes, best when in twos or threes so that we could "oh" and "ah" together, especially in the summer, and as we were all newcomers they were also exploratory expeditions. Bob the cook, Dave and I went on one together which turned out to be quite amusing -- in hindsight, anyway.
We were about a mile from the station when we came upon a small body of water a few hundred feet across, which narrowered at one end and went between high cliffs. As we could see the bottom and the water was shallow, we decided to wade across it to the other side. However, after a couple of hundred feet the bottom started sloping sharply and the water became much deeper. So we about-faced to go back, and then noticed that the water was rising. It wasn't a lake after all, but a cove connected to the sea through the gap in the cliffs, and the tide was coming in! Another disconcerting thing was that in turning around, the light refraction on the water changed and we could no longer see the bottom.
Speaking for myself, imagination took over, and I could picture myself stepping into a deep hole and floundering in icy water, even though I really knew the bottom was flat. By now the water was over the top of our knee-high mukluks. I thankfully made shore, but that had seemed an awfully long two hundred feet! I wish to state that I was at no time afraid, I think "slightly perturbed" is much closer -- kinder, anyway. It was a soggy walk home.
At a later date Dave and I returned to the cove and set some nets. The next day we found we had been rewarded by a catch of a dozen nice arctic char, a most palatable fish much like sockeye salmon only better, and enough for a supper for all five of us---fish and chips without the chips, just dehydrated potatoes a la Weyrich.
Later we were informed that this cove had a name, "Busherville"---its historic origin I could not discover---and that many years ago it had been the site of a Hudson's Bay Co, post, so perhaps at that timee Nottingham Island had had a greater population. And more prolific game, as we did find a few bits of reindeer antlers.
ANOTHER TREK OF NOTE was "the great bear hunt", starring Bob Weyrich and myself. We were off duty when some of the younger natives came to tell us they had spotted bear tracks. All the men were absent sealing, so off we went with the young hunters and a few of the dogs. I had my trusty one-shot .22 caliber rifle and Dave's "forty-five" revolver which he insisted I take. I wonder what a polar bear would have done if I had hollered "FREEZE!"
It was strenuous exercise walking over very rough terrain, new to us so another good exploratory jaunt. However, as a bear hunt it came to naught as after an hour or so we came to a deep, steep chasm, and even the dogs lost interest. (Actually I was just as pleased, as I have never had the desire to come face-to-face with a bear, polar or otherwise.) So it was about turn again, and once more it seemed that the walk back to the station was twice as far. Although it came to naught, I still contend that a bear'unt is a bear'unt, requiring courage and intestinal fortitude!! (Do rabbits count?) In hindsight I must admit we were guilty of stupidity -- I'll bet the Inuit wouldn't chance taking their kids with them on this dangerous mission. Gee, we just didn't think!
THERE ARE THREE PHENOMENA, as I like to call them, which I
witnessed while "up north" as the oldtimers would say (because all
rivers flow northward to the sea), the "Hissing Snow", the "Harvest
Moon", and of course the "Aurora Borealis".
The "Hissing Snow" (can't think of any other title for it) was unique in that I could find no one at Nottingham, or anyone I later queried, who seemed to understand it, and some even suggested that perhaps it was just my imagination, so I could get no explanation. It was forty years later that I happened to read about it in a book on the arctic. It can only be experienced when conditions are perfect, and I was lucky enough to hit them.
First of all, it is best that you be alone as quietness is imperative, and there must be absolutely no wind. Secondly, it must be the time of year when the surface snow starts to melt, then forms a thin icy crust over the surface.
As I was walking alone on such a day, far from the madding crowd (the station) I thought I heard a slight "swisssh", barely audible, which seemed to start at my ear and fade out behind me. I stopped to listen but hearing nothing more commenced walking again. A few yards further on the same "swisssh" occurred and again I paused -- nothing. Was it my imagination? This sequence continued for some distance. The sound, so infinitesimal, always seeming to start beside me and fade out behind me, was the nearest thing I have ever felt to a ghostly experience. Ah yes, the answer.
Under that little crust of snow a pocket of air sometimes forms, slightly under pressure, and as your foot breaks through the crust the air is released, giving a little hissing sound. As you are moving, the sound seems to start beside your ear and then fade away rearwards, giving that "swishing" effect. The article in the book said that this sound often "spooked" the dogs which have very sensitive hearing. (So did 'e, then!)
The "Harvest Moon " is the result of the refraction of light (I think) under special conditions, somewhat like the Harvest Moon seen further south, only more so. The rising moon was a deep orange-red colour and somewhat larger to the eye than it normally appeared. But the strangest part was that as it moved past its zenith and started to set, it became elongated until its length was about four times its height, and it "poured" over the horizon. It was a truly marvellous sight, and as it happened late at night I was lucky to catch it while out reading the thermometers. I saw it just the once so cannot say how many nights it occurs. The month, I think, was October.
A lesser oddity was the orbit of the sun. In midsummer it dips only slightly below the horizon. Therefore, on rising it appears to first travel eastward, then up and over. In setting it seems to be travelling eastward again. (Draw a circle and take just a small slice off the bottom, and you'll see what I mean.) At this time of the year you could easily read a book outdoors at midnight. But in midwinter the sun forms only a very small arc above the horizon, rising sometime after 10 a.m. and being completely set before 3 p.m. Above the Arctic Circle, the "Land of the Midnight Sun", it never dips below the horizon in midsummer, and completely disappears for a period of time in midwinter.
The "Aurora Borealis" is of course known to everyone. It is just that in the arctic the display is so muce more vivid. It literally covers the sky and swishes in all directions, with all the colours of the spectrum (I presume). I must admit that this "full show" doesn't happen too often. And I will neither confirm nor deny the conjecture that it can be heard. To have been privileged to have seen it in all its glory, and in its natural environment, is enough.
TRAGEDIES OCCURRED up in the arctic, comparatively speaking, far out of proportion to its population, a condition I sincerely hope has changed today. There were many in the short time I was there. We would get news via radio from the posts and relay it to VAP Churchill for possible medical advice. The American army medics and the airforce personnel were great in helping when they could, be it by flying in, making parachute drops, or just giving medical advice. I list a few here that occurred during my short stay, though not in chronological order.
Soon after my arrival at VCB, reports came through of the deaths of natives from meningitis, sometimes as many as thirty in one camp. This disease was very prevalent in the arctic at that time, and the crowded living conditions in igloos or snow-covered tents was the reason it spread to so many. It is to be hoped that modern medicine has curtailed the ravages of this scourge, though overcrowding may still be a problem.
Another report from Pond Inlet said that twenty-one natives out of a camp of thirty-five had died from eating rotten narwhale and walrus meat. It is true that many Eskimos prefer their meat and fish to be a little "high" as, to their taste, it improves the flavour, but they must have been desperate for food to have eaten anything that far gone. The Canadian government ordered a full investigation into this incident.
A fellow at the HB post at Clyde River became very ill and the hospital at Pangnirtung diagnosed it as appendicitis, which gradually became acute. An operation was deemed imperative with the result that, with the aid of the USAF at Churchill, a surgeon was parachuted down. The operation was performed successfully, but the poor doctor probably had to stay there untill spring. A lot of "medicos" were sent back and forth duiing this episode, and we were later congratulated for our part in relaying the correspondence.
A terrible tragedy occurred at the government coast station VAW, Resolution Island. A few of the personnel had gone out in their dory to try their hand at seal hunting, and it appears that one of the men suddenly called out, causing the cook to turn around abruptly. His gun was "off" the safety catch and accidentally discharged, wounding one of the operators in the back. They called by radio to report the accident, asking for assistance if possible, but a little later called to say that regretfully it was too late. An inquiry was made when the supply ship arrived the next summer but no charges were laid.
Two other accidental deaths occurred at the HB post at Clyde River. They, along with the other HB posts, usually had some traffic for us on our 7 o'cloxk skeds. But for several days we got no answer to our call "any traffic for us?".We could not understand why, and could only report it to VAP Churchill. The details were finally learned through natives travelling from Clyde River to another post with radio facilities. It was revealed that the factor, Jock Kilgour, and a native helper had been working on their boat when for some unknown reason it had capsized, trapping them underneath. Both were drowned. As Mrs. Kilgour nor any other person there understood the code or the workings of the equipment, they could hear us calling but were unable to answer. It was a sad incident in the annals of the Hudson's Bay Company.posts.
One with a happier ending was at a mission at Port Harrison (coast station VAL), across the Bay from Churchill. Mrs. Harris, the wife of the Anglican Mission minister, was due to give birth any day, but as time passed and the baby was behind schedule, they called Churchill for help. It was diagnosed as a breech birth. As time was of the essence, the advice given was for an Eskimo woman to physically turn the baby around. This was done and the baby forcibly removed. Apparently lifeless, it had been laid aside while Mrs. Harris was being attended to, when someone heard a little sound. The baby had miraculously survived the ordeal, and both mother and baby made a complete recovery. A truly happy ending to another arctic saga !
Most skippers are pretty knowledgeable, and cautious, of the waters of Hudson Strait, but a mission supply boat, the Ste.Therese, carrying personnel and supplies for missions in that area ran aground off Salisbury Island, just north of us, and sank losing all the cargo. The passengers and crew got to the Island safely and were later picked up.
Not quite a tragedy, this episode took two years to complete, a good example of the harsh conditions that shipping has to contend with in the arctic waters. Fort Ross was the most distant HB post serviced by their supply ship the Nascopte. Captain Smellie, commander. In the fall of 1942 the ice was very bad, and the closest the ship could get to Fort Ross was 150 miles away, so any attempt to land supplies there that season were abandonded. Luckily all posts are required to carry two years' supply of food and necessities such as coal and gasoline, so they could survive another season.
But again in 1943 the Nascopie was unable to get to Fort Ross. Hope it's not too lengthy but I would prefer to let the Captain give his own report.
". . . Arriving at Churchill on August 22nd we found a large tonnage of freight and bunker coal assembled for loading. Leaving Churchill September1st we had on board as heavy a load as when leaving Montreal, the decks being full of gasoline and boats. From Churchill to Clyde River there was nothing outstanding to report.
". . . Very little ice was seen until we reached Batty Bay, our farthest south in 1942, and the prospect of reaching Fort Ross looked fairly good. However, after passing Batty Bay the old ice floes became more numerous and we stuck in heavy ice on the night of the 17th (Sept.). During the morning of the 18th water was sighted to the westward, which we reached and the going was good until we were five miles off Fort Ross where we stuck at 10:00 p.m.
"On the morning of the 19th no water was visible and we were held tight in the ice pack, drifting one half mile per hour to the southward. One edge of our ice pack was grinding against a large iceberg grounded in three hundred feet of water five miles south of Fort Ross and it was only by five hundred yards that we missed destruction as we were carried past.
"Whenever there appeared to be a movement in the ice, our engines were worked to attempt to move the ship and get out of the pack. There was no movement in the ice on the 20th and 21st of September, and the ship continued drifting southerly with the ice pack. At noon on the 22nd a little water was sighted to the eastward, this patch of water we were determined to reach, and with the working of the engines ahead and astern we reached that water. From that patch of frozen water (sic) other patches of frozen water were sighted and made for. Before dark on the night of the 22nd we were back to the position we had left on the 17th. By this time the whole inlet was frozen over. Having now given everything careful consideration, I came to the conclusion that any hope of reaching Fort Ross had to be abandonded. Five days had been spent in the ice pack drifting to the southward.
". . . Our failure to reach Fort Ross was through the delays in loading at Churchill and the landing of supplies at Clyde River enroute to Fort Ross . . ."
And now the climax. As there would not be enough supplies for another year, the staff would have to be evacuated and the Fort Ross post closed. Here again the Americans came to the rescue. On November 4th, 1943, an officer, Captain Fletcher (later "Major") made a parachute landing,.There he selected and marked a strip long enough for a plane to make a safe landing, and on November 7th one was flown in and the factor and his wife and the Captain were airlifted to Churchill. It had kept us chaps at VCB busy with the extra weather reports necessary to make sure of good conditions for the plane to get in and out again post haste. (End of story.)
AT OUR STATION we had our own tragic event. Early one morning in April 1944, the Eskimo men brought little Suzie up to our living quarters. She had been playing near a bonfire and her clothing had caught fire, burning her back severely. There were no helicopters available at that time so she could not be evacuated until the ice left the cove, so we attended to her to the best of our ability, following medical advice by radio, for five long months. In September, when able to land in the cove, an RCAF Canso Flying Boat (a PBY) flew in to take her to the hospital at La Pas, Manitoba. Her sister Annie went with her for company, and as I was due to be relieved, I hitched a ride too.
We took off from the sea and landed on the runway at the new American air base at La Pas, a truly amphibious flight. All the Yankees at the airport were saying what a beautiful landing it had been and I agreed -- I had watched the perfect maneuver from the air, curving down and around and landing so smoothly at the end of the "arc", with precise timing. The pilot was Squad. Ldr. Jack Hone, R.C.A.F.
The PBY is a great plane for rescue work, etc., but not a fast one. It had taken us ten hours to fly about 1000 miles with strong headwinds -- at one time the navigator had exclaimed: "Gee, we're not moving!" But it should be remembered that this was before the age of the jets.
I am happy to say that the doctors and Sisters at the Catholic hospital at La Pas did a wonderful job of skin grafting, and Susie made a complete recovery, and two years later returned to the arctic. I happened to be at Southampton Island air base in 1946 when she passed through, and she certainly had grown into such a pretty little girl! A happy ending to this story too.
ALTHOUGH MY PERSONAL PART in the care of Suzie was minimal -- except for giving up my room to her, it was closest to the kitchen and the warmest -- I was included in the honours bestowed on us by the "Royal Canadian Humane Association, for the Saving of Lives". They were presented to us in the Council Hall of the now "Old" City Hall before a full gallery, by Mayor McGuire. (He was one of Toronto's most popular mayors and now has a memorial statue on University Avenue.)
Doug King got the top honours for his care of Susie and a gold
medal; Bill Lawson, Dave Clarkson and myself received "Honourable
Mensions". We even got our picture in the paper, but as usual they
got the names mixed up and I turned out to be "Doug King". However
Doug kept the medal! Such is fame.
THIS CONCLUDES OUR storytelling session at this time and we hope we have made you a bit more cognizant of life in Canada's Eastern Arctic. I may have made it sound like a desolate, uninviting environment at times, but I doubt if anyone would say that they had not enjoyed their term there, and most found it a pleasant change from "the fast life" of civilization. No, not bad at all, especially if you have had the comparatively easy job of a government radio operator, and lucky enough to have Bob Weyrich for your caterer.
("To tbink I saw all this . . ."
AND SO TO ALL of my faithful readers---hey, wake up!---may I say "so long" 'till we meet again. (and devil take the hindermost.) That does it!
SEE BELOW ! EPILOGUE
The continuing saga of "A Sojourn in Canada's Eastern Arctic"
by the same author, whatsisname.
E P I L O G U E
1944 - 1946
The last fond memories of Canada's Eastern Arctic by
(Ernie to friends)
THIS IS THE SECOND and, by popular demand, the concluding literary version of my stay in Canada's Eastern Arctic, wherein I attempt to elucidate (Good word!) how, in the year 1945 at Coral Harbour, Southampton Island, N.W.T., ten stalwart Canadian men ousted a small American army of 400 military personnel. Well, maybe we didn't exactly oust them but we did become the sole occupants of the territory they had so generously developed. Fate had decreed that I should be one of the ten, and once again be heading north to a new rendezvous. But I would find living conditions there much different from my two years at the Canadian Coast Station VCB, Nottingham Island, being almost luxurious in comparison.
But first, for the sake of continuity, we must revert to the autumn of 1944, when I returned to civilization from VCB. Looking back, over fifty years later, I will always consider the combined period 1942-46 as an interesting and memorable break in the rather mundane routine of my existence (aw, it wasn't that bad!), and I'll always be grateful that I'd had that opportunity. And so, without further ado . . . (rap, rap) your attention please!
ON RETURNING HOME to Toronto in 1944, my first priority was to enjoy my accumulated two years' 56-day leave, happily renewing old friendships and acquaintances. I even got a bang out of riding the street cars and buses, now more appreciative of these wonderful and economical means of transportation. It was great just to see around good old "Cabbagetown" again, absence really had made the heart grow fonder! But my holiday was over all too soon, and it was time to report to the DOT office for a new posting.
It is my humble opinion -- well, not that humble -- that the DOT, in its desire during the war years to be prepared for any eventuality, had hired radio men in excess, and that I was one of the ones for whom, at that moment, there was no required vacancy. The coast stations of the Hudson Bay area require only a limited number of operators, leaving only the more southerly "range stations", the ones situated periodically along airway routes, used mainly as check-in points for passing aircraft, and as weather observation posts.
MY FIRST assignment was to the Toronto airport. At that time it was designated "Malton Airport" but later renamed "Pearson Internatiional Airport". Initially I found it interesting in that its operational procedures were so different to that of the arctic stations. Up there it had been mainly working with the key and using the International Morse Code, something to sink your teeth into. But there was really very little to do at Malton; being a large airport, most aircraft communicated directly with the Air Traffic Controllers. The nicest part was chatting and joking with the Met girls in the next room, through the adjoining cubbyhole through which they passed the prepared weather data. Heck, I'd been away a long time!
As at all large airports, at Malton there was the range beacon to monitor in case of a rare malfunction. The "beacon" guides aircraft on the airport's flight path. It is a radio beam which automatically and continuously sends out: (A) a steady signal if the plane is directly on the flight path; (B) an "A" signal, dit-dah, if it is to the left of the beam when approaching the airport; and (C) an "N" signal, dah-dit, if it is to the right. Pilots normally like to fly so that they just receive the "dit-dah" of the "A" leg, easier to monitor than a steady note. Another "vertical" beam, when passed over, indicates to the pilot his exact distance from the airport. So now you know.
ABOUT THE ONLY OTHHER duties were broadcasting vocally once every hour the weather report, prepared by the meteorological office; also to broadcast as available any information or queries there might be for air traffic in the vicinity, collectively or individually. Incoming aircraft, after identifying themselves, were cleared to the "control tower", the Air Traffic Controllers who handled all incoming or outgoing traffic. TransCanada Airlines had their own radio frequency and tower to service their transcanada flights.
Air travel has certainly changed in the last five decades with the advent of the roaring jets. Back in 1944 a two-engine propeller-driven plane would land and taxi to within a few yards of the reception area. A ramp would be wheeled out, and a dozen or so passengers disembark and walk across the tarmac to the administration building. I had a front row view from our office window. I figured anyone travelling by air must be a VIP!
I WAS AT MALTON for a few months, truly excess baggage, then was transferred to Kapuskasing in northern Ontario, a pleasant little trip by train. The accommodations there were quite posh compared to the regular government stations. The Range personnel were put up at "Kapuskasing Inn", a very high class hotel. We had our meals in the main dining room, and if you missed one by being on watch you were provided a very adequate box lunch to take with you. You certainly could not kick about the digs.
But "Kap" was a small papermill town with very little of interest. and the work at the radio range was even more boring than at Malton -- absolutely nothing to do on watch but read the prepared weather report once every hour. There was rarely any air traffic for the government personnel, none while I was there, and TransCanada Airlines had its own "tower" here too. So I was not disappointed when, after another few months, I was again transferred, this time to Windsor Airport.
THOUGH A MAJOR city airport, it was still a range station, the largest I had seen so far, but with no what I would call "real radio work". And there was the teletype, a fancy form of mechanical typewriter for which I felt an instant dislike. I did give it my best shot, but one should be given special instructing to master it. Flight plans etc. were generally passed on to Malton via the teletype. Only once did I try doing so but it was a complete disaster and came out garbled..So I got around it by simply relaying it by phone via London (Ont.) Airport. The chaps there were very understanding and cooperative. I imagine the teletype is almost extinct by now, that monstrosity must have been invented by a sadist!
The only time I felt like an "authoritative range person" was one day when the weather had really socked in. The clouds were black and the ceiling only about 500 feet, and there had been some lightning. I was alone in the office -- the OIC was out washing his hands -- when an American Airlines pilot came in and requested clearance for takeoff. (From me? Did I have the authority?) I was new there so concluded our office must have it, so I did what I thought best and reluctantly declined to give him clearance under such ominous conditions, though it was just to fly across the St.Clair River to Detroit, Michigan. I'm sure I did the right thing and was adamant (ahem!) even though he was quite perturbed and tried his best to make me change my decision -- he just wanted to "get home", poor chap. I didn't see him again so maybe he went to a higher echelon.
ACCOMMODATION AT Windsor had been prearranged for me at the "Airport Inn", which was actually only a boarding house but a really nice one. Moreover, its vicinity made it most desirable. Those of us staying there could simply walk from the airport, across the tarmac and grounds, and across the road to the Inn. Not exactly the best security measures for the airport during wartime, with not even a fence around it -- but very handy for us!
As far as I was concerned, I never had a cushier job. There were only a few hours on shift necessary for me and another chap, so we arranged to have "six days on and six days off", and the OIC okayed it. But even with this setup I still found range work not my cup of tea, so when a memo came through from "Radtrans" that there was an opening at Chesterfield Inlet on Hudson Bay north of Churchill.. I excitedly had the OIC enter my name. A disappointing reply was received saying that this posting had been filled, as Chesterfield Inlet was considered one of the "better" northern stations, and even boasted its own doctor. But they also said that there was one still open at Coral Harbour, Southampton Island, also in the Hudson Bay-Strait.area. Once more I entered the lists and this time was successful, so again would soon be on the move. All this lovely travelling by train and plane, it was "a shame to take the pay" as the English "Tommies" used to sing.
WHILE IT WAS ON Canadian soil, Coral Harbour was not originally a Canadian air base. It was an American acquisition made to facilitate overseas flying for their army prop planes. A line joining Winnipeg, La Pas and Churchill, Manitoba, Coral Harbour, Greenland and Britain forms an almost perfect curve, making it a safer route with more places for refuelling or emergency landings. The American government therefore leased this part of Southampton Island from Canada and it became virtually American territory.
But, as so often happens, they had scarcely finished making it a viable airport than progress took over, with longer-range aircraft, etc.-- by this time too, the summer of 1945, the hostilities in Europe had ended -- and the base was no longer deemed necessary. So it was returned to Canada with all its very considerable goodies, including the latest in radio broadcasting equipment, refrigeration facilities (huge walk-in types), heavy duty tractors and airport maintenance equipment, the list goes on -- the diesel power generators would have been adequate to serve the electrical needs of a good-sized town. You have to admit that when the Yanks do anything, they do it up brown!
AND SO IT CAME TO PASS (amen!) that in the early summer of 1945 I boarded a train at Windsor and was off with new worlds to conquer. At Winnipeg I caught up with my fellow crew members, and we boarded the train to La Pas, whence we would be airlifted to Coral Harbour --ten Canadians to take over from four hundred GI's. My colleagues were: the radio operators OIC Alex Rosenthal; Les McPherson, Victor Beneditti and myself, Ernie Hollands; the radiosonde men Albert Miceli and Al Harrington; the cook Honore Bazinet; the maintenance men Karl Andersen and Bert Svenson; and Ross, the caretaker (his surname slips my mind). They were a great bunch and we got along well. Already in residence there was a mountie, Al Taylor, to keep the peace.
It would seem that I was destined not to enjoy any completely peaceful voyages to my arctic destinations -- my sea trip to Nottingham Island had been hectic due to a vicious gale. Our lift to Southampton Island was in an American army C-47, which incidentally a crew member told me was 1000 hours overdue for a major checkup, but not to worry. Who, me!! Being a cargo plane, it had no regular seating, just platforms along the sides. Soon after takeoff we ran into a terrific thunderstorm, lightning flashing all around us, scary but spectacular, and we could hear the thunder crashes above the roar of the plane's engines. Looking out of the window I thought the wings would fly off -- and we had no seat belts to buckle, a case of "ride 'em, cowboy!"
To ease the tension we had a bit of humour injected. Between the two rows of platforms on which we sat was a coffin, being sent to bring back a deceased GI. Suddenly something started flying up and down the aircraft. We thought it was a small bird, until at last a crew member managed to catch it. It was a little bat! My imagination, of course, immediately conjured up visions of Dracula, hitching a ride to try his luck in the arctic. First time I''d ever seen a young bat close up and it really was a cute wee thing, not a bit like Bela Logosi. (Aw, Bela was cute too!)
Another thing that caused us amusement mingled with consternation was that, some time after the storm, the cook Bazinet turned and glanced out of the window and started to laugh. We all looked, and behold we were flying only about 400 feet above the ice! It seems the Yankee pilots did this regularly defying regulations, flying low to see if they could spot any polar bears --the Canadian north was a great novelty to them.
Later I was invitedt up front to sit in the copilot's seat (we didn't have one) and was astounded when the pilot just got up and walked away, leaving me there alone! Just before seizing the controls to save us all, I realized we were flying on automatic -- at 400 feet! And the first guy who says I was the "Coo!-pilot" -- POW, right on the kisser!
AFTER THIS ADVENTUROUS TRIP, we landed safely at the Coral Harbour airport on Southampton Island, and were welcomed by the Major who was the base's CO, together with quite a few GI's -- especially welcomed, no doubt, because we had come to release them from, in their view, this cold, treeless, isolated land. (They coulda done worse!)
We noticed that there were only a few buildings adjacent to the airport facilities, those housing the radio transmitters, heavy equipment, etc., and a large hangar, but were informed that the main camp was located several miles away. This was so that should the airport was ever be bombed, the living quarters and offices would have a better chance of survival.
We were driven "into town" and shown our temporary living quarters, a Nissen hut (I had always thought it was "Niessen" but I stand corrected). They are also known as Quonset huts --they were developed by a chap named Nissen but were first mass produced at Quonset, Rhode Island, U.S.A., so you takes your choice. Except for a number of buildings of conventional wooden construction -- the offices, library, theatre, etc. -- these huts predominated, forming the living quarters and recreation spots for the GIs.
The quonset hut is a marvellous innovation and perfect for this environment. They are of metal construction; the walls and roof form a semicircle and each building is about 40 feet long and 20 feet wide. Here they were well insulated, and the interior partitioned as the occasion demanded. The whole camp was developed to make it as close to a real "town" as possible. There were buildings identified by large signs: "CANTEEN" where the GIs ate or snacked (including us Canucks); "ARCTIC THEATER" (their spelling) for movies and impromptu entertainment, and so on. As army life went, I don't think it could have been beaten, but most of the men wanted to get back to civilization anyway; they missed one thing so much, poor chaps -- girls!
WHILE THE AMERICANS were there it.was a leisurely time for the ten of us. We could walk around at will to get oriented, and the GI Joes were always there to help or answer questions. They made us feel like one of the gang -- we lined up with them for our omelet and toast at breakfast, and mingled with them at the other meals. In the evening we were often invited to play poker with the Major and other officers or noncoms. Any qualms we may have had about how we would be received were laid to rest.
They did a little relaxing of their own, a good/bad example of "boys will be boys". One night about midnight when the whole camp had settled in, we were awakened by a motor vehicle careening through the camp with its horn blasting constantly, and a few minutes later back again. We thought someone would get heck in the morning, but as it turned out, it was the Major (the CO) and a Captain who was the camp's Medical Officer, out on a little spree of their own. I doubt if they courtmarshalled themselves. (Wonder if the stores "for medical purposes only" took a beating -- or if the doc had a "recipe" of hia ow n!).
BEFORE THEY EVACUATED the base, the engineers did a great job of setting up living quarters for us just a short walk from the buildings housing the radio equipment in which we would be working. To start with, they dragged up four quonset huts and aligned three of them with the end doors facing in the same direction -- two were bed-sitting rooms and the other the cookhouse and dining room. Electricity being available here, the latter was equipped with everything a chef could wish for.
These three huts they joined by constructing a covered walkway the length of all three buildings; it was weatherproof so that in the worst possible weather we could go from one to the other in comfort. The walkway had two doorways, facing in different directions, in case one got blocked with drifting snow. The fourth hut also protruded from the walkway but from the opposite side to form a shower and laundry room (each man did his own, no native help here) with hot and cold running water. The GIs themselves never had it this good!
Soon it was time for the army to leave, and it got down to the last plane load, which included the Major and the medical Captain. Before boarding, the Captain and a GI were standing off to one side.making a "last call" (you mean they . . ? YES!). The Captain turned to the GI and said with a straight face: "I'm going to report you for impersonating an officer!" Love those Yanks! We said our goodbyes, away they flew, and we were left with this huge complex all to ourselves.
ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT utilities of any large facility is sufficient electrical power, and the American engineers had made sure of that. Now, the generators that the GIs had used to run the whole kit and kaboodle were massive, much too large for our needs. However, there were two other generators just the right size for our needs with power to spare. Each was driven by a gasoline engine, and one of them was always kept running. Once a day the generators were alternated. They were in a building a fair distance from our digs but we had trucks for transportation, and it felt good just to be able to get behind the wheel and drive around a bit. So we had electric lighting, etc., the cook had his electric stove and refrigerator, and there was even a Coca Cola machine in the billiard room.
The heating for the huts was supplied by very efficient individual oil burners. The fuel oil was fed from a large tank outside the building, which in turn was filled by a pipeline from the cache of 45-gallon drums of fuel oil -- we took turns pumping the oil from the drums to the big tank using a hand-driven rotary pump, about the only really arduous job we had. The large building where we operated, and which housed all the radio equipment and transmitters, had its own fuel oil furnace.
I should have said it was the only arduous job I had. Poor Alex and the maintenance men Karl and Bert had another really big one. Until freezeup, we got our water from a fresh water pond. Then, when the water froze and the ice got thick enough, they had the job of cutting big slabs of ice, loading them onto a truck, then unloading them again, piling them neatly outside the door nearest the cook's domain. This was our winter water supply so you can figure how much was needed for everything, including showers and laundry!.
Gee, I almost forgot (I wish I had), but there was one other tough job which required my help and expertise (we had no Eskimo help here), and that was the periodical emptying of the latrine barrels -- nice big 45-gal. ones -- at some forlorn spot a good distance away, well out of range as it were. It was a job that did not make a big hit with us, and we tried to avoid making a big splash of it, but if we did I am ashamed to admit we found it hilarious -- unless you were the splashee! I regret to say that we rarely "came up smelling like violets". But one must do one's bit, no matter the cost. War is hell!
SOME OF THE LARGER BUILDINGS of the complex were warehouses filled with "condemned" goods of all sorts -- flour, sugar, raisins, canned goods, tobacco products, you name it. (When the army abandonned any food, it had to be marked "condemned" to remove any onus from them in case of misuse by unauthorized persons.) With this "cornucopia" at our fingertips we thought nothing of opening a 3-lb. can of large shrimps, or fruit -- no little 1-lb. tins for the army -- as a snack while on watch, and no doubt the cook introduced some of the items into his culinary confections. Even the mountie took advantage of the surplus -- he concocted a fifteen-day brew (though sometimes he rushed it a bit) from the sugar and raisins -- he must have dug up some yeast too.. It was the worst "drink" I've ever had, but he and Ross, who had known each other in Winnipeg, would often pass a social evening together and apparently enjoyed it. One must admit it packed a wallop! I only tried it once while playing bridge with Al, Alex and Dave, and once was enough; I left it by the wayside on the way home.
We much preferred the "wee drap" prepared by the cook from lemon extract -- it actually contained alcohol in them days. This was only given as a warm-me-up after a spell of duty outside in the cold. He just put the extract and a little sugar in a glass of hot water, and skimmed off the oil which burned your lips, but it warmed the tummy. I guess the poor guys up there now have to make do with the real stuff!
THERE WAS A VERY GOOD library down at the main base, but as I said we had trucks so it was not a problem, and gasoline was no object, no rationing up here!. There were caches of it scattered around the base (again, in case of possible air raids) of both automobile fuel and high-octane for aircraft.
Did I mention that we had a great fire engine -- I'd always wanted to drive one but unfortunately never got the chance. The oil heater in the fire hall got carried away one night when a high wind came up and overheated, and it all went up in smoke. Dave tried to save the fire rig but the engine wouldn't start. Ah well, it made a spectacular blaze, almost as good as fireworks!
One of the most eye-catching innovations of the U.S. army and navy was the improvised unloading facility at the wharf. It was a quite large seagoing ship which had been purposely beached so that it became an integral part of the wharf (I never saw it in operation so can give no details thereof). In very large letters on the hull were painted its new name, "SNAFU". I'm quite sure that by now everyone knows what that stands for, another example of Yankee humour -- but just in case, it's "Situation Normal, All (Somethinged) Up". Darn, I can never remember that word! (I can, it's . . . ouch!!)
I WAS AGAIN to be disappointed with regards to the radio work required by us operators -- there was almost no code work using the key, except for the usual weather reports which we had to prepare ourselves. Not only that, but we didn't get the extra $35 a month as this was designated a meteorological station. Ah well, our other comforts made up for it.
The observations to be taken were much more intricate, too. At Nottingham, the height of the clouds was just visual and a rough guess, but here we had to launch hydrogen-filled balloons, to which we had attached, and lit, a little candle lantern. After letting it go, which was quite a trick on windy nights, we had to follow it with a theodilite, a mounted telescope calibrated vertically and laterally. On each one-minute "beep" we would take two readings, one gave the height of the balloon, and the other the distance and direction it had travelled horizontally, doing so until we finally lost sight of the little light from the lantern. This was done outside in temperatures well below zero fahrenheit. One almost hoped for low ceilings so that it would take only three or four minutes -- those "unlimited" ceilings were corkers, 25,000 feet meant at least 25 minutes!
The last step was to plot the readings taken onto a chart, which produced the wind speed and direction at 1000-foot levels. The result was finally coded into 5-figure groups, still considered a wartime necessity, and transmitted to VAA Ottawa.
RADIOSONDE WAS a means of finding out more intricate information about conditions in the upper atmospheric levels. The radiosonde chaps also .had a balloon to send up but theirs was huge, about 5 feet in diameter, but once it was away they did their plotting comfortably indoors. However, they had another chore to do first, namely to make the hydrogen with which to fill said balloon -- our little one, too. Please don't ask for the complete recipe, sufficient to say they started out by pouring a few pounds of zinc into a big iron cylinder plus water and other ingredients, gave it a good stirring, capped the cylinder, and then left it for a while to percolate. The result was a tank of hydrogen gas; a meter on the tank showed when the correct pressure was reached.
The huge radiosonde balloon had quite a load to lift, actually a small radio transmitter (about 10"x6"x4" if memory serves) which, when aloft, emitted various signals. These were picked up and fed to a special receiving and printing machine for interpretation, which in turn plotted them on a moving chart -- something like a lie detector only different.
That big balloon was really something to launch on a windy night, and us guys used to assist when requested. You see, in a wind the balloon had a tendency to fly horizontally when first released, and there was danger of the transmitter hitting the ground. So one man held the balloon and the other held the transmitter at the string's length away, about 15 feet. When the balloon was released, the guy with the guy with the transmitter ran after it until it had gained sufficient elevation and then let 'er go! It worked -- nearly every time.
THE LANDSCAPE adjacent to the airport was flat -- come to think of it, there are very few hilly runways -- and not very scenic, but improved a short distance away. The walk of a few miles to the Hudson's Bay Company post was a pleasant jaunt, with the Bay and its stony shore (what the English call "shingles") on one side, and a rolling terrain with quite colourful vegetation on the other. There I saw the largest field of arctic cotton yet, lovely with its tall stems and tufts of fluffy "cotton" on top, waving in the breeze. By the way, Coral Harbour was so named for the bits of ossified coral that could still be found on the shore, mementos of some bygone warmer era. It was not hard to spot among the shingles and made an interesting souvenir.
At the HB Post we met the HB manager (the company calls them "factors") and his wife, and the mission priest Father Rio. Memories of the visit have faded but I'm sure we had a good chat and a cuppa. We had another trip there in the winter with the Eskimos, and dogs pulling the komatik (sled), and saw Father Rio again in his furry winter outfit and big black beard, a right jolly old elf. Many of the local natives there did not build igloos, but lived in tents with the snow piled over them, quite cozy no doubt.
BEING NEWCOMERS to this land, we saw quite a few things of special interest. For instance, while cruising in the truck one sunny day, driving haphazardly over the flat terrain, we came upon a little river. This was a nice surprise, but as the land sloped it became a rippling rapids and then, behold, there was a quite spectacular waterfall with about a 40-foot drop. The large pool at its base looked like a good fishing spot but alas, no tackle. Then it narrowed down and became a river again. There is always something to surprise you in this strange land. It was almost like an oasis, and there was a great variety of flora, but no fauna; maybe the truck had scared them away. Fifty years later I found out that its name was Kirchoffer Falls, so I guess we hadn't discovered it after all. (Mr.Kirchoffer, I presume?)
I SAW SOMETHING while on watch one day that I had never seen quite the same before. It was just a rainbow, but it was unique in that you could see the spot where it "rose from the ground" as it were, and the spot where it "went back in". Aw, you know what I mean. You see, I was overlooking a large area of very flat land (yeah, no hilly runways), so that the rainbow formed a perfect arc. Magnifique! Oh sure, have you seen one?
Another thing that I saw for the first time at Coral Harbour -- although they really are very prevalent in the arctic I had never seen any at Nottingham Island -- were lemmings, those little mouse-like-size creatures that, if stories are true, periodically submit to some primeval urge, swarm together and head straight out into the sea and commit mass suicide. At times, especially at dawn, I saw dozens of them running around. They say a good lemming year is a good fox year, as they form a good part of the fox's diet, poor little devils!
Just one more spectacular (Promise?). On a day in spring Dave and I went for a hike, and although most of the snow had gone, away in the distance we saw what looked like a big bank of it. Then I noticed something moving. Far out of range, I fired a round from my .22 rifle just for the effect, and immediately there rose up a great white cloud -- it was a huge gaggle (GAGGLE: n: flock) of Canada geese. There must have been over a thousand of them, winging their way north for the summer. They had most likely been "taking five", and the one I had seen moving was a "sentinal". Ah, the wonders of nature! And you, too, can see them -- just join the DOT and they will pay all expenses. You can't miss -- except for those !*@?! balloons!
THERE WERE ONLY a couple of aircraft landings during my stay. One was a mercy mission by the RCAF to pick up an ailing Eskimo. The other was a real surprise for me. One day in early autumn, before the first snowfall, an RCAF Canso Flying Boat (a PBY, like the one that vacated Susie and me from Nottingham Island in '44) flew in, and who should alight but a chap I knew down south name of Bert Hawke. He was the plane's navigator and they were doing aerial mapping reconnaissance over Baffin Island.
Going back a few years to 1938, I and five of my buddies had bought a log cabin about nine miles north of Orillia, Ont., from Al Hawkins, the proprietor of a canteen on Hwy.11, a popular hangout for the local summer trade. Bert Hawke was a relative of Al, and worked there as jack-of-all-trades. He was a tall chap, over six feet, and had a pleasant disposition -- everybody liked Bert. And now I meet him again, in the arctic of all places!
They could stay onlt a couple of hours as it was just a refueling stop, so to show my pleasure at this amazing meeting I scrounged up a few 1-lb. cans of cigarette tobacco for them, gratis of course (courtesy the condemned goods cache) -- made me a little big shot, which doesn't happen very often. They refueled and off they flew, and I'm afraid I can't remember ever seeing Bert again. However, the next time I saw Al Hawkins he told me he had heard of the meeting, so I'm sure Bert got back home safe and sound.
RECREATION AT CORAL HARBOUR did not include quite so often what had been one of our favourite timefillers at good old VCB, that of taking short strolls around the countryside. Here, the terrain was rather uninteresting, certainly nothing for a camera bug like me to photograph, until until you got some distance from the station. But we were content to mostly stay in the cozy and spacious facilities of our new domain -- and drink Coke. Our main activities were: playing all varieties of poker, and with up to eight men off duty at a time it made for a good game; and there was the billiard table, a game at which we were all novices, so there was no "hustling". Reading was also high on the list, with such a good library at our disposal. And of course, just a good old gabfest is always a pleasurable pastime. Sometimes Alex would play the piano -- yes, we had one of those too! I can imagine things up there now . . . television, and CD players, and computers, but maybe not so much camaraderie.
Re playing poker: At the end of the year Bert Svenson ended up owing me $25. I didn't really care (much) about it, but Bert said: "Let's try something, and if it works you get your bloomin' $25." So he tore off a piece of a brown paper bag about 6x9" and wrote on it the wording of a bank's cheque, with his bank's name, account number and all the rest, and signed it. When back home I took it to my bank, and they cashed it without question; of course, an honest face helped. I bet Bert was surprised when he got his cancelled brown paper! Try it sometime just for a lark.
ONCE AGAIN I was fortunate to be at a station with a first class chef, good old ex-artillaryman Honore Bazinet, and all our meals were tasty and varied. Having refrigeration was a great asset, as meat brought in during the warm weather could be kept indefinitely. By the way, Honore made a chili sauce that was so good I asked him for the recipe, and we still enjoy doing down a batch using our home-grown tomatoes; but it can be made with either fresh or canned ingredients. (See page 11) His pies and cakes were beyond reproach. So it's "Hail to the Chef!" (get it, Chief, Chef?)
I had only one run-in with the mountie, Al Taylor, but I knew I was right through being at Nottingham Island, so was adamant (gee, that's twice!), The chaps were talking about fox furs, and I told them they were entitled to "take out" $100 worth without a trapping licence (the manual's official wording was "to acquire"). The mountie vetoed this, but after a heated debate he sent a deadhead to his superior for a decision. His boss must have confirmed my interpretation of the law, as Al allowed the Eskimos from the Post to bring some furs over to trade, and everyone got four fox pelts apiece. Later I beat Al at pool, just to show there were no hard feelings.
AND SOON MY THIRD and last season in the Eastern Arctic was over. Looking back, it's hard to believe that isolation and long winters were as pleasurable as we found them. I guess it's just a matter of adapting to any environment in which you may be placed; and after all it was certainly a leisurely way of life. Nottingham or Southampton Island, which was the better . . . I would find it hard to answer, each had so many good points. So in the late summer of '46, two of us said our farewells to the rest of the gang, and Vic Beneditti and myself were once again aboard the N.B.McLean heading for points south. Ah, how different the old girl was now! They had fitted her with what they called "rolling chocks", something that had stopped that continuous rolling, and she rode as steady as the best of them.
But I felt something was missing -- why sure, the gun was no longer mounted on the stern, no danger of enemy action now! Even the Asian war was over. This time we were not expected to take any watches so it was just a pleasant cruise for Vic and me, though truthfully I would have found it kinda nice to have done a few..
The skipper, now Captain Caron, allowed us to go ashore a couple of times on our trip down the Hudson Strait, once at a mission post at Cape Hopes Advance where we were treated to a glass of the Father's homemade orange liqueur -- he told us the secret recipe, a bit of sugar and orange peels soaked for a month or so in alcohol Guess he got a yearly ration of oranges..
The second time was at the government coast station VAW, my old friend of the airwaves Resolution Island (scene of that terrible accidental shooting back in 1942). The station was high up on a cliff, and supplies were hauled up on a rig like a ski lift. A former operator at the station had been a very talented artist, and to enhance the drab decor of their digs, on the wall of one of the bedrooms was a large painting of a beautiful girl, au naturel but in good taste, more lovable than any movie star pinup. I heard they took turns sleeping there. Boy, if I'd been OIC . . . !
VAW was a favourite homeward stop for the McLean's crew, as Resolution Island was noted for being a special rendezvous for ptarmigan, those plump delectable little fowl. Talk about nature's camouflage---they are white in the winter, with just a little orange patch on each side of the head, the colour of the lichen on the rocks. The operators of the station shot a great many just before ship time, and the ship's crew attained them (negotiations unknown). They preserved them (another secret recipe) and packed them in sealers as a delicacy to take home to their spouses. If I had parle'd French I'd have dickered for a jar!
IT WAS THE PERFECT means of transportation for the trip home, a relaxing cruise along Hudson Strait, down the Labrador coast, through the Strait of Belle Isle and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City. Standing on the deck, it was heart-warming, and a bit of a thrill for me, to hear every ship we passed in the river saluting the N.B.McLean, the old veteran, with three blasts, and us returning the compliment. I felt honoured to have served on her briefly in 1942. (A few years later she was replaced by the new icebreaker, the C.D.Howe.)
After spending one night at a hotel in Quebec, Vic and I parted company, and I boarded the train for Toronto. A few hours later we arrived, and I was greeted by a cheering crowd of enthusiasts -- and then the conductor tapped me on the shoulder and said "Okay sonny, we're here!" And so I squared my shoulders, and was ready once again to join the big city rat race.
So it's au voir, my friends. (and devil take the hindermost!)
That does it!
TO TOP IT OFF, a little ditty I just happened to recall that
seems to fit the occasion, that old WWI marching song the British
"Tommies" used to sing . . . wish I could give you the tune too . .
Wipe the tear, baby dear, from your eye-ee.
Though it's hard to part I know,
I'll be tickled to death to go!
Don't cry-ee, don't sigh-ee,
There's a silver lining in the sky-ee.
Bon soir, old thing, cheerio, ching ching,
Nahpoo, toodleoo, goodbye-ee!
A BONUS FOR OUR FAITHFUL READERS
Honore Bazinet's Famous Recipe for
3 2-lb. tins of tomatoes (cut up if whole)*
1 cup applesauce
9 med. onions, chopped 1 tsp. ginger
4 cups cider vinegar 1 tsp. dry mustard
4 cups brown sugar 1 tsp. cloves
3 tsps. salt 1 tsp. pepper
1 cup chopped celery (optional)
Boil about three hours, until thick.
* If you grow your own, use 10 lbs.