How It All Began - RCSigs in the North
© Rex Terpening 2002
Rex Terpening was raised in the Canadian north and spent a large part of his career as a flight mechanic for the bush planes that serviced the exploration companies and the small communities that were scattered througout this huge territory. He has fond memories of the RCSigs people who operated the stations of the NWT & Y Radio System.
The Royal Canadian Corps of Signals In The North: How It All Began.
In the early days of the fur trade industry in the North, news and messages were almost entirely verbal affairs, carried from trading posts to cabins, and cabins to camps, by word-of-mouth-and often transferred from individual to individual enroute. And as the travellers were, for most part, mocassin-clad, then this informal message relay system became known as the "mocassin telegraph". Where urgency was not a factor, this served admirably - ack of alternates was also a consideration, of course. The need for something more efficient became apparent, however, when the early aircraft made their first exploratory flights into the north during the 1920s.
The Imperial Oil Co. flights of 1921, with the present-day Norman Wells as a goal, were the first airborne venture "north of 60°. Their misadventures were well-publicized as was the extreme isolation of the entire NWT during the winter months. Many people in other parts of Canada were realizing, for the first time, that vast areas of our Dominion were completely out-of-touch with civilization for much of the year.
During the period of the Twenties (and for a couple of centuries prior to that) the north was fur trade country - nothing else mattered. Surface communications were provided by the boats of the Hudson's Bay Co. in summer and by the occasional dog team in winter. Law & order was the responsibility of the RCMP, from widely scattered posts across the north. The only other Federal Government representatives were doctors, four in number, provided because of treaty agreements with the native bands. Sovereignty was also a factor. The earlier presence of the American whaling fleet, based at Herschel Island, was a long-standing concern of Ottawa's. Herschel was presumed to be in Canadian territory but we had only a lone (and usually out-of-touch) RCMP Detachment to enforce our claim. Communications between Ottawa and their representatives in the north were confined to the brief, open-water period of the summer.
Partially as a result of the publicity generated by the IOL flights, plus their own obvious needs, the Federal Government then took action. A chain of radio transmitting/receiving stations was planned, to link Edmonton with the small settlements along the length of the Mackenzie River System. But this was the mid-Twenties- radio transmission by voice was in its infancy. The electronics needed for the transmission of text and morse-coded messages were less demanding, however, both as to cost and power requirements. Such equipment had been developed for commercial applications and was readily available. The program started in 1924 with the construction of stations at Edmonton, Ft. Smith (the then capital of the NWT) and Ft. Simpson. The following year saw the addition of Aklavik, thus completing the year-round communications link between Government Administrative Offices in Edmonton and their counterparts in the north. Problems were experienced however in reliably bridging the roughly 800 mile gap between Aklavik and Ft. Simpson. An additional relay station was needed-Ft. Norman was then added in August, 1930.
Air exploration of the NWT by mining companies began in the summer of 1927, to be followed by commercial flying down the Mackenzie the following year. Winter flying began in 1929-the first winter airmail flight left McMurray on January 27 with mail for Ft. Simpson and intermediate points. Problems soon appeared, however, emphasizing the need for better communications. On Jan.29 this same aircraft suffered structural damage while landing at Ft. Resolution. Repairs and assistance were needed from Edmonton but the nearest radio station was at Ft. Smith, far to the south. The mocassin telegraph then came to the rescue-in the form of a man on snowshoes. I'll quote now from other sources:
Word of the plane's mishap had to be sent out. The nearest wireless was at Ft. Smith, some 180 miles away through bush, muskeg and untravelled wilderness. Jim Balsillie, a young northerner, took the message, travelling through heavy snows in temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. He travelled the 180 miles in 50 hours-a record that will forever stand. The reply came that night over Edmonton's CJCA radio broadcast: "Relief plane enroute Thursday (signed) Western Canada Airways."
This was at a time when few aircraft existed-many Canadians had yet to see this new form of travel. The drama of a damaged aircraft, somewhere in the wilds of the north, and a rescue message delivered by snowshoe, made headlines across Canada. That Government awareness of this need was influenced by the publicity there can be little doubt. Approval quickly came for another station - at Ft. Resolution.
The existence of the Signals Stations, at trading posts throughout the NWT, had a considerable, and favourable, effect upon the everyday life of the residents of those frontier settlements. The Operators at the Stations provided a daily (though unofficial) news link with the Outside. The physical needs of the stations (water, fuel plus a measure of casual labour) added a few precious dollars to the meagre local economies. And the local craft-ladies did a thriving business in richly-ornamented mukluks & moccasins, mitts & parkas. Most of all, though, the Operators, at all stations, became very much a part of the local population. They became involved in whatever small-scale social activities existed - making life more bearable, and enjoyable, for the others who shared their lonely life.
Early aviation service in the north, and particularly for those of us who provided it, received substantial assistance from the Signals operators. This was of particular importance during the long, dark months of winter when so many of our flights operated under the most difficult of winter conditions. The official duties of the operators consisted only of the transmission of commercial messages, but the duties they performed went far beyond that. They provided an unofficial safety-net for our day-to-day operations. Our early aircraft were not equipped with 2-way radio facilities but, though lacking these contacts, the Signals boys made it their personal business to keep track of our movements. They passed along the word, from station to station, of our planned destinations, our enroute stops at smaller posts or trappers cabins, and the approximate arrival time at our destination. It was always comforting to know that an alert would quickly be sounded if our aircraft failed to arrive - if we were forced down due to weather or mechanical problems.
I can well-remember a typical incident that took place in the winter of 1937. We were southbound from Ft. Norman, caught in bad weather and forced-landed, off-course and far to the east of Ft. Simpson. We had our tent and emergency rations. Oerations such as this were not uncommon in the Thirties. We did carry tiny, battery-operated radio transmitter/receivers, for emergency use. During the evening I strung-up an antenna and switched on the set. Using a hand-key I sent a brief message on our fixed-frequency, advising of our location & situation. I repeated this several times, hoping that some station might hear our tiny, weak signal. I did not expect a reply as the RCCS transmitters were on long-wave, far above our frequency. Much to my surprise I received a reply from Simpson. They acknowledged our message, advised of their weather conditions - and they would pass the word of our situation along to the other stations. We reached Simpson in the morning without incident, gassed-up and proceeded southbound. I never did determine the source of the Ft. Simpson transmission, and I have since learned that the transmitters in use in 1937 might have been tune-able to our frequency. There is also the possibility that the Simpson operators might have constructed a "ham" transmitter, crystal-controlled, to our frequency.
In retrospect our situation was far from ideal. We were a considerable distance off the "beaten-path" - that being the Mackenzie River. Our fuel supply was marginal. If the weather was "down"-and we burned extra fuel by "wandering"... well, the "wandering" might become walking. I will never forget the warm feelings that message exchange gave me - that the Simpson boys would spend the evening, glued to their set, wondering and worrying about us. And I have no doubt that this situation was repeated at Ft. Norman and Ft. Resolution - that operators at those stations were also listening on our frequency, on the off-chance that our weak signal might be picked up. And as a final (and most important) comment: hotels were few & far between in those early days in the north. We were always welcome guests at any of the Signals Stations.
I'll speak now of Aklavik. Because of its key location-adjacent to the Arctic Coast and near the mouth of the great Mackenzie River, the trading post of Aklavik was of key importance, both for transportation and for communications. A considerable number of traders and trappers, both white and native, populated the vast delta of the Mackenzie. This included the posts at Ft. McPherson, farther upstream on the Peel River, and Arctic Red River Post, south on the Mackenzie. The tiny settlements at Herschel Island, and Tuktoyaktuk on the near Arctic Coast, were also dependant upon Aklavik for support, summer and winter.
Aklavik was important as the distribution point for all cargo along the Arctic Coast by boat in summer. There was only a single winter exchange of first-class mail along the coast each winter. These were carried out by members of the RCMP Detachments, with the Cambridge Bay detachment making the round-trip one year and Aklavik performing the duty the following year. Battery-operated radio receivers were then on the market and the Signals staff at Aklavik constructed and operated a small broadcasting station. This provided a news and message service to the trading posts, to RCMP detachments, to the boats in summer, and to isolated posts along the coast of the Western Arctic, summer & winter. The life of the residents of the Mackenzie Delta was immeasurably brightened, and often made safer, by the presence and actions of the RCCS staff at Aklavik.
Because of it's prominence as the largest settlement in the western Canadian Arctic, Aklavik attracted a number of notable visitors. Celebrities such as such the Lindbergs stopped by during the flight that provided the material for Anne Lindberg's book, North to the Orient. The famous duo of Wiley Post, of round-the-world flying fame, and the well-loved American humorist, Will Rogers, spent a few days at Aklavik. Though none would have realized it, their farewells at Aklavik were final. They were killed in a crash later on the day of their departure. The search for the Russian Trans-Polar flier, Levanevsky, was centered at Aklavik for part of one summer and all of the following winter. One of our Governor-Generals, Lord Tweedsmuir, also included Aklavik in his schedule. With little in the way of hotel accommodation at Aklavik, the Signals Station also played host to some of those illustrious visitors. This function was unplanned but greatly appreciated, both by the recipients and the hosts. A few photos are included to serve as a partial, though typical, record of the life of the Signals operators at Aklavik in the Thirties. These have been posted in this website under the Aklavik Station heading.
For the records I should add a few words concerning my own past experiences - to validate, as it were, some of the statements that I have made. My folks were Hudson's Bay people and I grew up in the Ft. McMurray area. After learning the craft of an aircraft mechanic (Air Engineer Licence # 1106) I was then employed by Canadian Airways Ltd. Working from our operational base at Ft. McMurray we provided service to all of the trading posts in the NWT and the Western Arctic, winter and summer. I had many interesting experiences during those several years and still retain warm memories of the Signals operators we knew. They were always concerned for our safety and welfare - ever ready to lend a helping hand. Wish we could go back and do it all over again, chaps!
With kindest regards,
- Rex Terpening