A Signaller's Life on the Northern Stations
by Vince Cavanagh (WO II Retd.)
I was raised on a farm three miles from the town of Hardisty Alberta. In 1938 we were still in the grip of the Great Depression. The farm was all work and no reward, nor any promising future. Elmer Leslie, a friend who was teaching at a nearby one-room school, told me of an army organization called the Signals, which had radio stations in northern Canada. I didn't know what a guy in the service would look like but was ready to accept any challenge. Looking back I can say with certainty that I have no regrets about my career with the Sigs - and telecoms became my life.
I made application to join the Signal Corps not knowing what it was all about. I was accepted and posted to Kingston, Ontario, the Corps' home base. I was joined at the Kingston railway station by another chap bound for the same place: Steve Chisholm from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. We were picked up by a young fellow driving a smart roadster. He was wearing a forage cap, khaki shirt and shorts, and below-the-knee socks. I thought he must be someone important. On the way to Vimy Barracks he would occasionally toot his horn - dit-dit-dit-dah-dit - at someone he knew.
To skip ahead quickly, there were various classes being trained. We learned to march well, trained to be faster and faster in the Morse code and encouraged to learn how to type. During the summer of 1939 we heard Mr. Hitler ranting on the radio. Suddenly in late August, eight of us, on two hours notice, were posted to the Corps' Ottawa radio station, VER, where the small staff was overloaded around the clock.
We took our turns on the radio circuits. A straight telegraph key was not fast and it was tiring. I learned to use a bug with automatic dots and after that I could move traffic better. My mind was saturated - street noises sounded like code. All eight of us lived together in a boarding house. Three of the best of us were assigned to a different building and they were not allowed to say a word about what they were doing. I learned years after the war, after the secrecy was lifted, that they were copying enemy radio transmissions and these were sent to England to be decoded by experts.
In June 1940 Art O'Ray and I were sent to Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories. Dave Patrick was sent further downriver. We travelled by train from Edmonton to McMurray, from there on the Radium Queen which pushed three or four barges as far as Fort Fitzgerald. All freight for further downriver was transhipped on trucks to Fort Smith, about 16 miles away, thus by-passing the Rapids of the Drowned.
Art and I joined the staff at Ft. Smith, which was comprised of Staff Sgt. Jack Reid, Sgt. Jack Miller and Pat Coombs who was the WO II in charge of the station. I was there for three years as an operator and doing my share of the many chores necessary to keep the station going - everything from putting firewood into the buildings to doing the station accounting. It was an adventure. We worked as a team and we respected each other. I was eager to learn and to accept each new responsibility. After a year or so Pat Coombes spoke to me privately. For the first time in my life someone was assessing my performance. His words on my performance report were, "He does his best at whatever he sets out to do. When he gets more experience he will be a valuable man." I didn't know whether that was a good or bad report and I remember being very embarrassed.
For a year or two I had a small dog team of three dogs. One was not much good, always looking back over his shoulder when on the trail. Whenever I approached him he cringed. He must have been terribly mistreated before he came to me. The other two were happy in their work. One time Jack Miller and I took the sleigh and toboggan and rifles and sleeping bags and went out several miles looking for caribou. Running ahead I got a glimpse of about 15 lying down. I tried to alert Jack that there was something ahead but the animals detected us and were quickly up and away. I was told later by a hunter the he would have fired at the leader to create confusion and perhaps knock down more than one animal. To us this was only an adventure and not important. Later we did kill and gut one caribou.
In 1942, following Pearl Harbour, the Americans got the idea that the Japanese could attack Alaska and stop any shipping on the coast. They decided they could supply all Alaska with oil from Norman Wells across the mountains by building a pipeline. So the Canol Project was born. While I was still at Ft. Smith they sent in a crew of 500 black soldiers and many support personnel. The 4-inch pipe was shipped and re-shipped as required. The road between Fitzgerald and Smith was very sandy, so they brought in tank trucks to pick up water and spray the sand to make a satisfactory roadbed. The Project, which employed thousands of men and cost between 133 and 144 million dollars, was abandoned and the equipment was left to litter the route. It was assessed by the Harry S. Truman committee and judged to be a very bad mistake.
My memories of Ft. Smith are pleasant. Those before us had built a good station. We were busy, skilled and respected. In addition to their store the Bay had a small hotel. When off duty on Sundays the staff generally had dinner there. As the North got busier the hotel was occasionally overcrowded and so they sent business people to sleep overnight in our quarters. Ft. Smith was also headquarters for the RCMP. Inspector Birch had an NCO and four constables. Dr. Urquhart, who had been the doctor at Aklavik during the Mad Trapper problem, was now at Smith, with several government administrative titles. At one time he conducted an inquest on the cause of death of a man who had apparently shot himself while lying on his bed. The doctor asked me to probe inside the man's forehead. Sure enough there was something hard there - and my duty was done.
We took turns sleeping overnight at the transmitter building, with the duty to start a diesel and put the generator on line when buzzed at 0430 to begin a new day. One morning the man at the office buzzed, the generator was started and he transmitted his weather report, which was always the first message. Then the lights dimmed and he buzzed the transmitter site again. The operator there found oil on the floor and the diesel was labouring. It turned out that one of us liked to remove an inspection plate and observe the inside of the diesel. He forgot to replace the plate, which resulted in all the oil being thrown out of the motor. It took Pat Coombs four days to fit new bearings. This had proved to be a very serious error.
On the Slave River between Waterways and Ft. Fitzgerald the Northern Transportation Co. Ltd. (NTCL) operated the motor vessel Radium Queen and some others. The Bay's boats were called the Hudson's Bay Transport. They had tugs plus the Northland Echo, a paddle-wheeler, pushing barges and carrying some passengers. From Ft. Smith north to Tuktoyaktuk and beyond, the Radium King and paddle-wheeler Distributor operated. A regular summer passenger was H.H. (Bill) Free who sold insurance and I still have a policy from him.The boat pilots were usually natives of the North. Johnnie Berens who lived at Ft. Smith was one. During my short time on the river I tried to understand how the boat pilots read the water but I was quite unsuccessful. The boats and barges drew a maximum of four feet of water.
In June 1943 I was given responsibility to open a new station at Fort Providence. I was given new people: Sigmn. Darlinson, Brownlee, a Royal Canadian Service Corps cook by the name of Martin, and was joined at Providence by Yves Matte from Fort Resolution. Crossing Great Slave Lake on one of the barges tethered to the Radium King, a storm came up. The procedure was to separate the barges one behind another joined with ropes. It was three days before we got back to normal after which the cook made us a dandy dinner. We weren't very hungry. I presume the crew deduced we had got into the supplies for stations being hauled downriver.
At Providence we took possession of a small house owned by the Signals and was to be our office and living quarters. After a bit I wrote a report in longhand that we had received no equipment as yet. I learned later that Major Pearson, the OC, laughed and remarked that if we had received no rations it would have been different. Supplies did eventually arrive. It was a busy summer. Some of my operators apparently hadn't been trained. Years later when I was again in contact with one, his words were, "I didn't know a dit from a daw." But there was much other work to do. The mosquitoes, noseums and bulldogs were awful. I figured if I opened my mouth to swear I would let a noseum enter. The poor dogs, chained to stakes suffered from noseums living in their ears. Jean Watts has written superbly about Providence
I had a short hiatus at station VED in Edmonton but then, back to the North, this time to Aklavik, which had been very much understaffed. The RCMP detachment there was under command of Inspector Kirk. Although a graduate of Royal Military College (RMC) it had taken him eight years to receive a commission. But the last time I heard of him, his rank was Assistant Commissioner. He also had a corporal and four constables in his detachment. The general store was owned by a man named Peffer. He had his own coins, and he employed a manager who was a real character. This gentleman told me of taking furs to Edmonton, leaving them spread out on his hotel bed with the door open to wait for the word to spread around, and he would have many people come to ohh and ahh. In a restaurant he would place a five dollar bill under his coffee cup, some of it exposed, to watch the waitress give him great service. This man later took his own life.
As Government employees we were allowed to take $25.00 worth of furs. Aklavik has a huge delta area and there were lots of muskrats. Two of us went out with a canoe and kicker and 22 rifles. We shot our quota with no difficulty. I was rather ashamed of my skill at cleaning and stretching the furs. Above the Hudson's Bay store area was a huge room. I had a look at it, in awe. These furs, by what seemed thousands, were simply heaped and the ones near the edge of the pile were sloped down as there as nothing to hold them in position.
One of our outstations - Reindeer Station - was not far away. I seem to remember that years earlier, from Russia, reindeer had been herded (loosely I'm sure) over a period of five years and this herd of old and new animals was sort of kept in position, and occasionally culled. We purchased meat from there, in quarters. To store it we dropped it into a cellar with loose ice in the bottom. Memory again - the hole was perhaps eight feet deep and eight feet square with a ladder down the side. If we needed meat we descended, brought up a quarter and used it. It interested me, when was the hole dug, and by what Sigs personnel? We had the benefit of their work. For drinking water we cut and hauled ice, using dogs, from the river to an ice house with lots of sawdust inside. We had a steel barrel in the kitchen and gradually that ice melted. Years later, living on the "outside", I marvelled that when we put up that ice in late October it was already probably six or eight inches thick. That cellar owed its existence to the permafrost. Below about two or three feet nothing melts. I don't know how deep this permafrost extends at Aklavik, but I believe at Resolute it is one thousand feet deep. It was because of the permafrost that the new settlement of Inuvik was created.
In 1946 the war in Europe ended. I felt it was time to move on so I left the army with the rank of WO II. Hundreds of returning soldiers were already in University. So, as an alternative I decided to go to the Radio College of Canada in Toronto for a year, and kept abreast of improvements in telecommunications with increasing responsibility.
In my civilian career I worked for C. N. Telecommunications, Air Canada and Nordair. In 1983 I retired for good.