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Nitchequon 1959/60

by Edward J. (Ed) Harvey

 

Early in 1959 a letter from the Quebec Regional Office listed several job openings, one of which was for the Officer in Charge (OIC) position at Nitchequon, Quebec and another for the OIC position at Coral Harbour, North West Territories.

 

Nitchequon according to Google Earth is located at 53 11 44N, 70 54 36W at an altitude of approximately 532 meters, in what is known as Lake Nichicun. It is approximately in the center of Quebec, bounded on the west by Great Whale River and on the east by Schefferville or Knob Lake. On a map it appears as an island but having been there it is attached on the northeast tip by a thin line of sand, to the surrounding land. It was considered an isolated post.

 

The ICAO identifier for Nitchequon was CYNI and the Morse code call sign was VFN4.

 

Nitchequon was originally a Hudson Bay Post believed to have been operational during 1816-1822, 1825 and 1834-1943 when it was closed. In 1945 the Federal government established an Aeradio station on the site. Hourly weather conditions were recorded and the winds aloft were recorded twice daily and the reports were sent to Dorval via Sept Iles. Nitchequon as all of the Quebec Region Isolated stations was administered from the Regional Office, however, there was a difference as the OIC of the station was selected from the radio operator ranks while other radio-met sites were under the supervision of the Meteorological Section. There was no landing strip there in 1959. The station was closed in 1986.

 

I had been in Fort Chimo from October 1955 until May 1957. Following this assignment I had been working in Montreal as an operational shift supervisor and in early 1958 as a communications and navigational aids technician. I had also written the radar exam and taken the radar course given by Raytheon the company which installed the new radar at a number of sites across Canada. I had also taken a radio-TV course.

 

I had attempted to leave the Quebec Region and go to the Ontario Region, however, all the Ontario Region would offer was work at an isolated station and when Quebec Region found out they were less than happy, however, they did offer me a job as a technician in the regional office. The job in the regional office involved travelling and didnít appeal to me. The job in Coral Harbour did not appeal to me either but the opportunity to move to the Winnipeg Region was interesting.

 

Around the end of May 1959, I received a call from the Regional Office advising me that I was the successful candidate on both jobs and to advise them within two weeks, which job I would accept. My investigation of the Winnipeg Region was that opportunities there would be no better than those in Quebec, so I accepted the Nitchequon job and advised the Quebec office.

 

I was called to the Regional office where I met Dunc Grant a young engineer just hired and his boss Mr Gingras who did the briefing.

 

He stated that there were a number of modifications to be installed on various equipment and the material had already been shipped. There had been an oil spill the previous year and they had also ran out of flour and sugar which entailed a special flight with supplies which was an additional  cost. The latter should not have happened as the Ministry of Transport (MOT) had a standing offer with a grocer in the Roberval area to supply fresh food and other items which were on a master list. Each month, conditions permitting, a Beaver or Otter would deliver the mail and any items ordered. The heavy items plus the oil would be delivered during July and August via a Canso.

 

I inquired about a first aid course as we would be totally isolated during freeze-up and break-up but was told that nothing was available, if an accident occurred they would try and get us out. I never did find out why I was briefed by Gingras and not Ed Lipinski who normally had those duties. Installation supervisor Bill Woodley and maintenance supervisor Murphy were also missing.

 

Having talked to various people regarding Nitchequon I came to the conclusion that it had the reputation of a bad luck station as every year there had been problems. A few years previous a radio operator, Vic Valiquette had shot himself in the foot and had to be evacuated. He recovered and later he retired from Communications Canada as a Radio Inspector. A few years before my tour, a Canso was making a delivery of materials and a blade for a tractor. The pilot made a heavy landing and the tractor blade went through the bottom of the plane and it sank, the crew were rescued by the station staff. I would have my own problems during my year there.

 

Having put my car in storage along with the few items I owned, I left Montreal on July 1st and made my way to Roberval to be picked up by a Beaver on floats. On arrival I talked to the pilot, Bert Thibault and discovered that Bob Douglas and Bert Harper, two Met Techs had arrived before me, also going to Nitchequon. Bad weather set in and I think it was July 7th before we arrived at Nitchequon.

 

On arrival in Nitchequon we were met on the dock by most of the staff. The outgoing OIC shook hands with me and left, the pilot didnít stay for lunch as he wanted to get back to Roberval. I was not briefed on any problem area and immediately had to start sorting everything out.

 

We retired to the living quarters where I introduced myself and the other two guys. The remaining staff were all tied up with reading their mail. The staff at a station such as Nitchequon usually consisted of an OIC and four radio operators, who handled all the communications usually via CW or Morse code and were responsible for the hourly weather reports, three Met techs who were responsible for tracking the winds aloft, a diesel mechanic and a cook. The staff was a mixture of full time government employees and contract employees who were hired for a two year period. The contract employees couldnít leave the station except for a medical emergency and would receive an $1800.00 bonus if they completed their contract. Individuals were paid according to their class and grade which was set by Ottawa. In addition each individual was paid an ďisolation allowanceĒ of seventy five dollars per month and the OIC received an additional sum of fifty dollars.

 

During our layover in Roberval I discovered that the family of Bob Douglas owned a hardware store in Portage and he was familiar with inventories and ordering materials. He agreed that he would work with the cook and ensure that we would have enough of the basic supplies for the coming year. He and the cook, Andre Lacroix started the next morning as the airlift was starting the next week. He did an excellent job and we had no problems, provision wise, for the next year.

 

The next morning I met with the mechanic, as he had been present during the oil spill. We had two large tanks which were located on the grade above the station and the smaller tanks at the Met office, the main building and the radio shack were gravity fed from the larger tanks. There were shut off valves at each smaller tank and if one filled each tank at a time, as the mechanic claimed he was doing, it was nearly impossible to have an oil spill. He didnít want to discuss the problem he encountered the previous year but I was soon to discover what the problem was. I went over the procedures for filling the various tanks and also discussed the maintenance schedules for the power plants. Just after my discussion with the mechanic, the radio operator called and said there was a problem with the power. The voltmeters were varying all over the place and there was some interference on the High Frequency (HF) receivers. I called the mechanic and went to the power house. The site was supplied by two diesels and during my earlier discussions I told the mechanic that I wanted the diesels changed over each week and worksheets kept of all the maintenance he performed. Number one diesel was in operation so we changed to number two and the problem disappeared. On inspecting the output panel for number one we discovered that terminals were loose and had overheated, the mechanic made a new terminal board and installed new terminals which cured the problem. A week after the problems with the power system someone noticed arcing at the power disconnect switch which was located outside the kitchen window. The next day we shut off the power and sanded the fingers on the switch which were pitted. This cured the problem while I was there. Only a few days on site and already technical problems, at least we were able to resolve them quickly.

 

The mechanic had worked as a diesel mechanic but his real passion was music and he had played in a band. He had a piano accordion and spent all his spare time playing various tunes.

 

About two weeks later, I was walking by the shed for the oil tank of the main building and noticed the door was open and the tank was being filled and nearly flowing over. I shut off the valve and found the mechanic in the living area. I hollered you are having an oil spill and he nearly ran over me to get outside. He returned a few minutes later went to his room and found his alarm clock which was one of those large silver Big Ben clocks with a bell on each side. He put a lanyard on it and for the remainder of the year he would hang it around his neck to time the filling of the tanks, we didnít have any oil spills in 1959/60.

 

Another problem with the mechanic was his dog. The natives left it behind when they went south to Mistissini. A couple of weeks after my arrival I turned up for breakfast and met the cook who was complaining about the dirty dog. There, in the middle of the living room was a large pile of dog crap. I grabbed a broom and meeting the dog coming from the sleeping quarters gave him a couple of swats and he disappeared outside and went under the building. I called the mechanic and had him clean up after his dog. Two weeks later we had a repeat incident. This time the door wasnít open and I gave the dog about a half dozen swats before he bolted through a screen window. I told the mechanic the dog was no longer allowed in the living quarters. He then took to living under the main building where all the dogs had burrows. Any time the dog saw me outside he would run and hide and would never come within a hundred feet of me even with the mechanic around.

 

Around the middle of January 1960 I was working the midnight shift and around three am I heard a scratching and whining at the door of the radio shack, I opened the door and there on the step was the mechanicís dog all snarled up in a long fishing line, he was crying and made no attempt to run away. On closer inspection he had a large eight inch fishing hook protruding from side of his upper lip, the hook had been baited with some sort of animal hide which he had attempted to eat. I picked him up and carried him into the radio shack, cut away the line so he could stand, I picked up a blanket from the living room and covered him until I could find some tools to remove the hook. I used a hacksaw and a vice grip to remove the hook and the dog never cried during the procedure. He didnít even flinch when I put iodine on his wounds. I fed him and he stayed the remainder of the night in the radio shack. Any time I worked he showed up and stayed until I left.

 

When I left the station in July 1960, the dog was sitting on the dock watching the plane leave.

 

Sometime in September 1959, one of the staff advised me that he thought he was having family problems as he had received pictures of his wife on a beach in Plattsburg. Someone thought they were being funny, made the comment that her boyfriend must have taken them and this started him wondering. He was spending too much time in his room as this was really bothering him. He was a contract employee and if he left his post he would lose his job and forfeit his bonus.

 

He was developing a cavity in his tooth so I told him I would send him to Roberval to have it treated.  I wanted him back in a week. A flight was due in the following week, which he caught to Roberval and true to his word was back in Nitchequon within seven days. He had checked at home and everything was ok.

 

I wondered at the time if this was the start of my real problems with Nitchequon!

 

During my briefing in the regional office they were concerned regarding the shortage of food and the effect it would have on the staff as a station that had a good cook and good food had fewer items to complain about.

 

The other item they forgot about was mail. Some of the pilots in Roberval knew me from Fort Chimo so when they came to Nitchequon they always ensured they had the latest mail. They often brought a twenty- four of beer and I would pay them for it and often supplied them with lake trout. Sometime after freeze up we had a flight to the station and a new pilot appeared, he was an Englishman who had been in Coastal Command and he arrived without mail. He tried to order the staff to offload the material while he and his crew went to have lunch, however, the cook wouldnít make him lunch and I refused to order him to do so as the pilot didnít bring any mail. When he returned to Roberval he reported me to Frank Henley, his boss.

 

Now Henley had been a pilot with Maritime Central during the DEW line supply, a no nonsense type of guy and he knew that something must have happened as he also knew me from my Chimo days. The next trip to Nitchequon was taken by Ralph Lord, their senior pilot.  He arrived with mail, beer and a bottle of rum. I paid him for the liquor and I also filled him in regarding the problem flight. We had no problems after that and any flight that came to Nitchequon always had mail.

 

I saw Ralph several years later in the Ottawa terminal when he was the chief pilot for Quebec Air and was ferrying Premier Lesage around the country and we had a good laugh about Nitchequon. His son would later become Premier of New Brunswick.

 

While all the other junk was going on I still had to deal with any electronic problem that came along and had completed all the modifications by the second month I was there.

 

We had two AT-3 transmitters or four channels which were modified as the stability of the oscillators was not up to specification. In 1959 all aircraft operating above 50N were required to be equipped with the new frequency 5680. Nitchequon also had a Low Frequency (LF) beacon, two channels of Very High Frequency (VHF) and a LF transmitter on 160. The latter would be used when atmospheric conditions were poor. The LF transmitter was in the radio shack which was heated by a space heater and most of the time the frequency wandered and every mail delivery would bring a bunch of out of tolerance reports from the monitoring stations. In addition to a receiver for 5680 we had several tuneable receivers and I had my own amateur equipment and operated as VE2XT.

 

Around the middle of November 1959 one of the staff came to me complaining about sore hands. They were full of scabs and the area between his fingers were covered with watery blisters. He said that nothing was contagious and he had a similar outbreak a few years before and it was cured by pills and medication, he didnít want to be evacuated. I immediately contacted the Medical officer in Ottawa with the name of his doctor in Winnipeg. The answer came back that the pills and ointment would be in Roberval in a day. The region arranged for the aircraft but immediately one large storm blanketed Quebec and it was five days before the aircraft could leave Roberval. I had already confirmed that there was adequate ice for the aircraft to land on. His hands were looking worse every day and some staff members did not like eating at the same table as he.

 

Finally the storm cleared and Bert Thibault left Roberval with the drugs on the seat next to him. When he arrived in Nitchequon he handed the box to the mechanic to carry to the living quarters, however, between the dock and the living quarters the mechanic lost the parcel. I was at the beacon about a quarter of a mile away when the plane landed. Everyone searched for the parcel, however, with a snowfall of about two feet nothing was found. I also searched for the package in the spring when the snow disappeared but never found a trace of it.

 

I immediately sent a message to the office explaining what had happened and while they replied that the flight would be repeated the next day, they added please ensure that OIC Harvey picks up the parcel himself. The next day we had a successful delivery and after two weeks of treatment the staff member was ok. I think that his father obtained an additional supply of drugs and mailed them so that he would not be caught short if he had another attack.

 

This problem was no sooner finished than a new one appeared.

 

The natives around Mistissini, QC normally hunted north of their location and some of them also hunted north of Nitchequon. In 1959 an advance party consisting of Sammy Rabbitskin and his brother arrived in Nitchequon to set up a camping area where they would live before heading north. A few weeks later the main group arrived and they made preparations to head north. Just when they were ready to leave a problem developed which delayed their departure.

 

Two sisters from the native group showed up at the MOT living quarters. The older one had attended school in Ontario and spoke perfect English, her sister spoke some English. Her sister had the medical problem.

 

She claimed that her sister had stepped from a bank of snow onto some snow covered bushes which collapsed and a piece of angle iron which had been used previously to secure a tent had gone up between her legs and she was bleeding. Going to a spare room the older sister helped the younger one take off the various layers of clothes. It was then discovered that the iron had scraped  her upper inner thigh for about ten inches and had stopped short of injuring her groin area. We had a large first aid kit so I provided disinfectant and hot water for the older one to wash the injured area. The bleeding had nearly stopped so I provided iodine to paint on the injured area. They were quite aware what the iodine was and how it would sting but the sister endured the pain. The older sister wrapped the area with bandages and I provided extra bandages and a bottle of Iodine in case they were needed later. I checked at the camp in a couple of days and was told that the wound was healing. They left in a couple of days for their hunting grounds near Indian House Lake. On their return in the spring I checked with the girls again and found that the wound had healed without a problem. The kids in the group didnít look very healthy so we provided them with powder milk, juice, molasses and canned fruit.

 

In June 1960 before they headed south for the summer the girls and their family came to the radio shack and presented me with a pair of mukluks, a pair of mitts and a toque.

 

Life had been proceeding well and just when I thought that any major problems were behind me a staff member advised me that he hadnít had a bowel movement for over two weeks. He said that he normally only had a movement every seven or eight days. What scared me was that he had continued to eat and had not reported the problem. I advised him to stop eating and immediately sent an urgent message to the medical officer in Ottawa and a copy to the regional office. The region arranged for a plane out of Roberval and advised the hospital that an emergency would be arriving from Nitchequon but before they could leave another major storm disrupted all plans. It snowed for at least four days. Each day was a living hell as he started having stomach cramps and the thought was that his bowels would burst and he would die. Finally the weather cleared, the plane arrived and they returned to Roberval ok. The hospital found that he had a knot in his bowel which he had been living with all his life. After spending a month in the Roberval hospital he returned to Nitchequon. I saw him in Moncton in the 1970s, where he was assigned after leaving Nitchequom.

 

When I left Nitchequon all equipment was operating. A new OIC someone from Sherbrook was supposed to relieve me, however, something happened and he advised the Montreal office. I received a message that they had selected operator Bob Flynn to take over when I left. When I visited the office on my way our they told me that the regulator on the diesel had failed two days after I left and the station had been off the air for several days. About six months later when Flynn returned he had some stories of the problems he encountered.

 

During my year at Nitchequon we saw only one person from the regional office and he was a diesel mechanic. He followed me around for a week and according to him the diesel was being maintained properly.

 

In the spring I was notified that a  contract radio operator would be removed as scheduled on the last trip out before break up. When I conveyed this information to him he was upset and said he didnít want to leave. He was really scared that he would contract polio which was making the rounds in Montreal. His sister lived in Montreal and had been feeding him the information on the disease. He was really agitated to the point where he could not sit quietly. My concern was that he would have a nervous breakdown after the ice started to melt and we would be unable to get him evacuated. I had a long talk with him and told him if he insisted on staying we would have the police come and remove him on the last flight. After a few more discussions he settled down and agreed to go as scheduled.  When he arrived in Montreal he took a taxi to his sisterís place and stayed inside until he could receive his inoculations, he then resigned from the Department.

 

I arrived back in Montreal around July 9th, 1960 and went to the regional office to see personnel and receive my next posting. I met with St Germain who was the personnel manager and was advised that I was being posted to Anticosti Island. There were problems there with the staff and one member had thrown a can of milk at another and split his forehead open. They would like me to clean up the problem.

 

St Germain stated that he was aware that I was getting married in September and that my fiancťe was from Gaspe just across from Anticosti. I hastened to advise St Germain that I had just come from an isolated site and in my estimation Anticosti was semi isolation, furthermore I had more isolation time than most of the other regional staff. I told him that I would report to Montreal International Radio in a week and would appreciate having the problem resolved by that time.

 

I then went to see Ed Lipinski who was responsible for all the regional radio operators and technical personnel and related my conversation with St Germain. He assured me that I would be assigned as requested as I had seniority and they needed technicians at Montreal.

 

A week later I reported to Montreal and my posting had been confirmed and the two operators from Anticosti had been removed to Montreal and ended up on my shift.

 

Edward J. (Ed) Harvey

19 January 2016

 

Related Links

Click here to see Al Daly's Nitchequon Photo Album

 

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