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1956-1958

Eureka, NWT

 

I offer this as a view of Eureka, NWT as seen through the eyes of a 20-year old. It was published in my old school magazine and it is unedited – so there are no doubt some political incorrect statements, but that’s the way it was back in 1957.

 

 

On Top of the World

by JA Gilbert

 

Just over one year ago, I was standing on a railway station platform in Toronto, Ontario, in company with two others. One of the others and myself were radio operators, and the third was a weather observer; all three of us were heading for the Arctic. Other than knowing the name of our destination and how we were going to get there our knowledge of the Arctic was rather scant. This lack of knowledge has since been remedied. The taking-off point for the Arctic is Churchill, Manitoba, and we arrived there three days later after travelling across northern Ontario and Manitoba. Churchill is a sea outlet for the grain from the Prairie Provinces, but during the winter months there is not much activity there. The temperature was minus 25 degrees while I was there, and I thought that was cold; here we have had temperatures below minus 50.

 

On the morning of 25th March 1956, the other radio operator and myself boarded the plane for Resolute Bay, 75 degrees North and 85 degrees West. The company on the plane included one Mountie, one Eskimo, seven airman and two very green radio operators. After looking at the last tree, just north of Churchill, we flew across vast expanses of ice and snow for five hours before Resolute Bay hove into view. From the air Resolute is a depressing looking place, a mere red blot against the white background.

 

Once we landed though, it began to take on a more liveable appearance. The first person to greet me when I climbed off the plane was the operator I was replacing; he did a very quick exit into the plane after an equally quick introduction. Eventually I found myself in the Dining Hall, and was deluged with questions about the south, mostly about the weather or the current films. After having answered all the questions as best I could, one of the “old hands” showed me round the camp and showed me my room.

 

That evening I unpacked and settled down to stay the year at Resolute.

 

The main purpose of Resolute is to supply the stations North of the Arctic Circle in Canada, and work there consisted mainly of relaying radio messages to and from these stations. Resolute is not a large place, population about 35 during the greater part of the year, and mail service every two weeks. I was there during the Spring, and the temperature averaged 30 degrees.

 

Besides the main camp at Resolute, there was also an Eskimo village about 2 miles from the station with a population of 15. Towards the end of April the Spring re-supply started to the stations north, and thing’s really began to get busy; at one point we were working almost all the time. Half way through the resupply, a message came from Eureka asking if one of the radio operators could be relieved immediately, and I was to replace him. Thus, April 25th found me once more flying over the Arctic, only this time the scenery was a little different. From Resolute to Eureka the route was over Ellesmere Island, and from the air it looked as though we were flying over the Himalayas. There are some really tremendous peaks on the Island, and from the air we could see deep gorges and glaciers on the sides of the mountains. This time my travelling companions were a little different from my previous flight. On board we had 22 Huskies, 2 geologists, one airstrip mechanic and myself.

 

Once we landed at Eureka we helped unload the dogs, and then waited for the crew to come and meet us. After a few minutes we heard the Snowmobile climbing up to the strip, then after hasty introductions Harry, the mechanic, and myself clambered into it. My first impression of Eureka was that someone must have been playing a practical joke on us, as all there was to see were about eight buildings that were almost completely snowed under. However, once inside the main building. and meeting the population of eight, things began to look good. Everything was very compact and built for comfort. There were about 200 books gramophones and records, and numerous games in the living room. The radio room was small but quite pleasant to work in. I stayed at Eureka, the first time, for one month, and then the last plane of the Spring came in and I had orders to return to Resolute. We went back to Resolute via Thule, Greenland which is one of the United States bases, and were stuck there two days. I did not particularly enjoy my stay there, but was very pleased to see Greenland.

 

Back at Resolute things had changed a lot in the month I had been away. Four of the Radio operators had left, and four new ones had come in; also most of the snow had melted. The summer at Resolute went very fast, and there was so much work to do that I saw little of the surrounding country. Up until the beginning of August we were kept busy with survey aircraft, but in August they went South, and instead we started to contact the ships who were coming up from Baffin Island. In the midst of it all, the radio operator here requested to leave, so I sent a message out asking to replace him, and within a week was told to prepare to return to Eureka on the Boat.

 

After a couple of days delay, when the ice forecasters were trying to decide whether the boat had a chance of reaching Eureka or not, we finally got under way. For the first day of the trip, we made good progress, and except for a few drifting pieces, we did not run into any ice until we began to go North into Norwegian Bay. Then things really got rough. It took us two days to travel 50 miles, and the ship was breaking ice all the way. At one point the Captain was considering turning back, but changed his mind because it was farther back to Resolute than it was to continue to Eureka. Eventually we steamed into Slidre Fjord, and they were unloading within four hours. Eureka looked a lot different in August than it had the previous Spring. There was one new building which the crew had built during the Summer, and all the snow had melted. Also the population had soared to a total of 12, the extras being two U.S. air force strip mechanics. It was not long before I was back to the “work two hours and sleep ten” routine, and it felt good to be back after working all summer. The ship only stayed for two days, and then three weeks later we had a plane in which took out two of the surplus population. In the middle of September it began to get dark around midnight, but it was not until early October that we were getting the regular 12 hours of dark and 12 of light.

 

By the 15th November we were getting 24 hours of darkness, and I did not see daylight again until February 2nd. A plane had come in early in November and took away two more of our population bringing it down to the winter crew of 8. Once the Dark Period came the station activities were mostly carried on indoors, and we only went outside to haul ice to melt down for water, or to go from one building to another. We found it very necessary to have a hobby; mine is amateur radio, and it was not long before we all knew each other like a book. Four of the crew are sent up here by the U.S. Weather Bureau, and all four of them are from different parts of the States, while the rest of us are all from around Toronto, so that was one of the big topics of discussion. I think I leaned more about Toronto up here than I ever did in the four months I lived there.

 

During the dark period nothing much happens at all. The highlight of the winter is the Christmas mail drop, but this year the American boys had their mail free dropped, with devastating results, so that did not seem such a happy event as it should. Soon after Christmas we found things getting very dull so we started to reconstruct the station. This kept us busy until the sun came up, and when we had finished we all thought it had been worth the trouble. We had painted all the rooms, built cupboards, remodelled the Radio Room, and ever since we passed the word along to the other stations there has been a steady stream of requests from other stations to transfer to Eureka.

 

In mid-February the U.S. Air Force started an airlift into one of the ice islands floating about 300 miles north of here. Since then they have established a station on the Island in preparation for the Geophysical year. Other than that base we have very few neighbours. There is a Mountie station 200 miles southwest of us with a population of 5; Alert, the farthest north station in the world, 300 miles North; Isachsen, 300 miles west and Resolute, 320 miles south. Needless to say we do not get many visitors.

 

Eureka is one of the best places in the Arctic for wild life. This past winter we had six Artic foxes at the station all winter, 5 snowy owls, 4 falcons and hoards of rabbits were transient guests, and about 5 different packs of wolves came around the station; 4 of them stayed here after Floyd, the cook, had fired a few shells into them. The temperature ranges from minus 60 F to plus 60 F. During the winter the temperature seldom rises much above minus 30 but, for all our cold weather, we have had very little snow this winter. There has only been a total of 4 inches since last September. The surrounding countryside here is quite scenic. To the north we have a small range of mountains, to the south a long fjord, and to the east we can see for 40 miles when the visibility is good. There are no trees or any other kind of plant life during the winter, but during the summer a few flowers grow in the less rocky parts.

 

In a few days the Spring airlift will begin, and we will say good-bye to four of our staff, two Americans and two Canadians. The rest of us are staying until April 1958.

 

John Gilbert

 

(This must have been written late March or early April 1957 for publication in “The Red Dragon”)

 

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