Memories of The North
by W.L. (Bill) Rogers
Approximately April 1950, I returned from annual leave to my Regiment, the Lord Strathcona Horse Artillery, in Calgary, Alta. While settling in to my routine my friend from basic training, Bert Rupple, came to my room and was full of excitement, he had volunteered to go north with the NWT&Y RS and was leaving soon for Edmonton for a weather course then a posting north, he urged me to do the same. I thought about it for a few minutes and decided to do it, which I did the next day. Soon my request was accepted and in a few weeks I was in Edmonton on the same weather course with Bert.
While in Edmonton we were put on shifts to learn some of the tasks we were expected to do when northern postings came through and until our WX course was to start. I was to work on WOII Gordie Drinnan's shift and I had the honour of working with the likes of Sgt. Jack Chestnut, Cpl. Ted Allen, Signalman Don Ward and others I have since forgotten. One of the first things I was delegated to do was to do a station identification on the CBC (?) northern station every 15 minutes starting on the hour, I think a few times it was done a little late or completely forgotten. At times I was given a desk to send a few messages in an attempt to learn the routine; it must have been very painful for the operator on the other end whoever he was.
After completing the WX course and working shift, on a Monday morning in August I was told to "clear" for my posting to Hay River and Bert was posted to Providence. After getting a few signatures on the clearance sheet I went to get the dentist clearance at about 1530hrs, the Capt. advised me I would have to wait for a few days because of the amount of work to be done but after calling Calder to advise them of the situation the dentist was told I was booked for a flight the next morning on CPA and the work was to be done now. That was the worst two hours of my life, the dentist and staff were not happy working until 1800 hrs. but I was clear to catch the flight next day and did.
My greeting party to Hay River I think was WOII Niel Wiberg and Cpl Steve Ropchan (SR) in Steve's 1949 Studebaker. It took a few days to settle in and meet everyone starting with Bill McCarthy (Y), Peter George Engler (PG), Dave Allison, Jack Curtiss, Geoff Ellwood, Lou Harris and Bill Geddes the cook. I was very meek and mild in those days but soon learned how to blend in with all the WWII Vets.
The single quarters were in need of repair, for example the basement had cracked in the middle and sloped into a bit of a water hole mixed with fuel oil that was leaking underground from our fuel tanks it was later learned. The rations were stored there but were mostly high enough that we could still eat them. The first floor was the kitchen-dining room, living room, Signal Office and a fairly large room for the NCO i/c and the station book-keeper who at the time was Bill McCarthy. Next to the Radio room was a small waiting room for customers, and which also served as our entrance to the quarters.
My room-mate was Geoff Ellwood and we worked different shifts so didn't interfere with each others sleep. Later in about October 1950 Eddie McGee was posted to VEO. When Jack Curtiss heard Ed was posted to Hay River he remarked "Oh good we now have him on our side" - Ed apparently had a shaky hand when sending morse code and it worsened after one or two ales.
When McGee arrived at VEO he was billeted next door with his Budgie bird "George", who squawked loudly every night at 2200 hrs. for Ed to put a sheet over the cage to keep the light out for sleeping - usually Ed had a few ales and would entertain us talking to "George" and chastising him for hauling him out of the bar early. Jack Curtiss was Ed's room-mate and Bill McCarthy had a rented shack at the back of the station.
Every morning we ate breakfast at 0715hrs, Shredded Wheat covered with canned peaches and canned milk was my regular, it was Lou Harris's recipe. During breakfast Niel would give everyone the chores to be done for the day and we all had good intentions of carrying them out until we saw Niel walking south behind the station with the ubiquitous manila envelope, to go visit his friend Bill Clark, the Imperial Oil Agent. Some of us made attempts to do the work but then the Hay River Hotel had opened and lured some of us away.
I wasn't doing to well as an operator and was unable to work a shift by myself until Neil Wiberg was posted to Kingston and his replacement WOI R. A. (Red) McLeod arrived. For the first few days Red watched to see how things were going at the station before he made his move. My first real meeting of my new boss was when I was just leaving the Hay River hotel before noon a few days after Red's arrival to VEO. He approached me and started poking his fore-finger at my chest telling me how things would be - such as going on permanent graveyard shift until I had mastered the necessary operating skills, WX observations and being able to figure out how the telegraph rates worked, etc.
I began that evening at 2330 hrs and if any problems arose that were too difficult to handle I would get Bill McCarthy to haul me out of the mire, which he did with a minimum amount of grumbling. After three months of graveyard with NO days off and practicing morse code with my newly purchased Vibroplex bug, sending page after page from the Readers Digest over the airwaves on 5760 kcs(?), After three or so months Red came to me and said I would be working evening shift the next day and onto dayshift when I mastered the evening routine. After a week of evenings, he was pleased with my performance and then advised me I was good enough to do regular shift work. It was pretty scary to start doing the different shifts and coping with the busy hours, early A.M. and early evenings but McCarthy and others helped me pull through. The toughest part was staying awake on graveyard and not being able to attend the great parties we had at the station while I was working. After a while I developed a system to ensure I was awake on the hour to start the WX observation. I would stand up leaning on the bookcase in the hallway and fall asleep, after 50 minutes my legs would cave in and wake me - never missed a WX after that.
VEO was an out-station to Fort Simpson (VEC), they had a great deal of patience to work with me at first, especially Mickie Walkington (MW), Bill Brownlee (B) and I think Hank Hoiland but not sure. One operator was very difficult to work with and would hold the key down making long dashes so it was impossible to understand exactly what his complaint was - there weren't any problems when the other operators were working with me. Before years end I had become proficient enough to hold my own as a wireless Op.
VEO had a fair amount of traffic in and out in a day; most messages were dealing with the fisheries, Menzies, Gateway Etc., RCMP, other Government agencies and civilian messages along with weather Obs. And "opns" sent and received concerning aircraft movements. Skeds with Simpson were at 10 minutes after every hour.
Every six hours we had to do a synoptic report. If a "rush" message came in during graveyard and it appeared to be of an urgent matter, the operator had to make the delivery, usually it would be a death in the family or medical info to assist Mrs. Wright the local RN.
Hay River had a Waukesha (?) 4 cylinder power plant that was very inadequate for the load it had on it. Early in the spring of 1951 a D-315 Caterpillar engine was purchased from a chap who bought all the Canol pipeline equipment. It was so powerful Red McLeod made deals with some of the local businesses , they got power and the station got from the baker bread (when he was sober), deals on meat from the butcher and free rent for McCarthy's shack from Stan Dean.
1950-1951 was a very cold winter I thought, and spring break-up came late in April. The Hay River was frozen at the mouth and everything from up river overflowed into the town. Cst. Jack Hunter and I were sitting on the front steps of the station just at dusk when we noticed the laundry lady's shack was moving down stream between the trees and we realized the water was taking it away, so the two of us grabbed the station row boat and went to the rescue of the lady and her husband. After that we cruised around the town picking up anyone who thought they were stranded, it was a little scary at times seeing water rushing down the main street and huge chunks of ice floating toward you. Finally the ice broke away around noon on May 6th, just as the RCAF arrived with a DC3 to drop a "bomb" at the request of the NCO I/c. Most of the town was flooded and the airport had water and a sheet of ice sitting on it.
The Y.T.C.L., "Yellowknife Expeditor", a ship used for passengers and freight to Yellowknife, was washed up on the river bank and was left high and dry when the water receded. The ship was skillfully winched back into the water later with the use of several pullies and a D8 Caterpillar under the supervision of Earl Harcourt manager of Y.T.C.L. One life was lost, Bill Greer, he was employed at Bond Construction and was crossing the road in a boat when it capsized. It took ten days to locate the body and was found by the baker, Percy (I forget his last name). Greer was the first person to be buried at a location opposite the Signals transmitter site out of town, the next burial was a little girl who had been killed by a sleigh dog tied up in some grass. Her family name was Daoust. In 1992 on a visit I tried to locate both graves but could not find any sign of them.
For transportation we had a Dodge 4X4, the usual Army type and it got a lot of use delivering messages and some recreational trips. At one time the steering got so we could only make left hand turns, it was a little tricky at times backing up several times to finally get around the turn. Finally Red McLeod decided Peter George Engler should take it apart to see what needed replacement. It turned out to be only a lack of lubrication, after that it was able to turn either way without worry.
There are many more stories and pleasant memories of Hay River but maybe another time. Bill Rogers (WR)
In 1951, after two failed attempts to get to Ennadai Lake from Fort Churchill by RCAF Canso, I arrived at there on September 13th. The Canso Captain was very anxious to get in and out fast because there was some freezing rain and he didn't want to be frozen in Ennadai for the next 3 months or so.
Chuck Owens (?) and Tommy Harper (TH) rowed a 14ft. rowboat out to meet the aircraft, they boarded the Canso and helped unload a 300cu ft freezer into the boat along with Mike Carter (MC) and me plus our gear. The wind was blowing and pelting down rain as we were rowing ashore and the Canso was taxiing out wasting no time for take-off for Churchill. Stan Elder (NCO i/c) and I believe the cook, Jim Pitre, greeted us and hauled our load back to camp with the D6 Caterpillar tractor.
During my stay Greg Lamb made many trips to Ennadai hauling freight for the Geological Survey of Canada with a Norseman (CF-BHS) and I drove the D6 to and from the aircraft, he was a great guy to work and chat with - he still owes me a ride in the Norseman! I Also met his dad, the legendary Tom Lamb. Whenever Lamb Airways came from the "outside" they ALWAYS picked up our mail and sometimes brought extras such as strawberries and cream. Once when Tom visited us the NCO i/c was going to charge him for his meals but I think the rest of us convinced the him to forget it - hope so anyway.
In February, 1952 Mike Carter was posted to Korea, Stan Elder was replaced by Alex Burgess - that left two wireless operators and one cook, I worked the 2100hrs - 0900hrs shift and Alex worked the other 12 hours with no days off for seven months plus assisting the Survey crew hauling supplies. During April and May, Smokey Gray airlifted fuel, rations, etc. with the Bristol Freighter (CF-GBT) for the Survey camp.
Our quarters were always cold in the winter, the furnace was fixed at floor level and the heat went straight up so we had to sit near the grate to keep warm. My bedroom was not heated and during a big storm the snow and sand would come in where we hadn't caulked it, without exageration there would be a pile of sand and snow on my sleeping bag where my feet were.
Our diesel fuel was hauled in to Ennadai in one wing of the Canso and we would siphon it into 45 gal. barrels. When winter came, when we needed fuel for the furnace or bulldozer, we would use a "wobble pump" but it would only go to about halfway into the barrel because of the ice from what we thought was a great deal of condensation and we never questioned it. Many years later while living in Ladner, B.C. I finally put two and two to-gether - in the late forties and early fifties a Cpl. in Churchill was charged with stealing fuel and selling it and was sending Ennadai Lake half water and half diesel. During the spring I got a barrel that had thawed and pumped some of the water into the fuel tank of the D6 Cat. and had to spend the morning draining and flushing the tank and changed filters several times before the engine began to run smooth again.
Ennadai Lake was a very isolated station with a compliment of three operators (one being the NCO i/c) and a cook. For some months there were only two operators, including the NCO i/c plus the cook. If anyone wanted entertainment they would have to invent their own or develop some other interest.
Even though the station was required to do three hourly synoptic reports 365 days a year, we were also expected to do hourly weather reports on request, plus the dreaded month-end stats for DOT. It kept us reasonably busy.
At night, we would usually play hearts, and I did learn to play bridge. During the day, I bulldozed anything I could find with the D6 Caterpillar, hauled water or met aircraft and sometimes had to level a landing strip on the ice for them.
Hunting caribou with the Eskimos was another pastime that consumed quite a few hours. Occasionally, there would be a requirement to assist others in our capacity as radio operators or as interested bystanders. One such incident occurred during the Geological Survey of Canada operation in the Keewatin district, N.W.T. in 1952. The following is the story, to the best of my recollection and information, as told to me by the late Jack Godsy, the Kenting Aviation Helicopter pilot from "Dainver" Colorado (as he pronounced it).
Greg Lamb, of Lamb Airways was in the process of moving the Survey camp from an area near Ferguson Lake to Ennadai Lake with their Norseman aircraft (CF-BHS) At about 1600hrs Gerry Turner, chief pilot of Kenting Aviation Helicopters, arrived at Ennadai with Dr. C.S. Lord, who was leading the Survey, and asked if we had heard from Greg Lamb. Greg was supposed to have arrived at Ennadai by mid-afternoon. After receiving a negative reply, Turner requested an RT call to the Survey camp operator, Lorne Shea. Contact was made and we were informed CF-BHS had departed hours earlier and should have arrived at Ennadai long before. Jack Godsy requested Turner to go out and fly the route BHS was to have taken but Turner replied that he would have to do the search in the A.M. as he had flown all day and was concerned he could also be a casualty as he was extremely exhausted. Godsy stated he, himself, could possibly get his unserviceable helicopter going to attempt to locate the Norseman and personnel. Turner advised him NOT to fly the helicopter. We later learned that in order to get the helicopter airborne Godsy's mechanic removed the unserviceable "fan" and cut a "fin" off the opposite side to balance it, otherwise it would have shattered at high speed. Godsy and the mechanic then went off in search of the overdue aircraft.
Later that evening Godsy called to say the plane had been located on a small lake midway between Ennadai and Ferguson Lake area. There were no injuries but the cook was shaken up and should be airlifted out. We then sent a message to the R.C.A.F. requesting their assistance. Sometime later, possibly early the next day, the Air Force sent a Norseman in to airlift the cook to Churchill (I believe). Some of this info is a bit hazy for this senior to recall. We later learned that the Lamb Norseman had blown a "pot" - if I recall the term correctly - and Greg Lamb landed on the ice, but it was a small lake and the ice had started to melt from around the edges. He was unable to stop the aircraft before it went into the water.
Later Greg was flown to Ennadai by the R.C.A.F. and he contacted his father, Tom, advising what equipment and assistance he needed to get the plane out of the water before the wooden frame started to warp. As time went by, Tom Lamb flew over the Ennadai campsite and dropped a message tied to a rock, as he had been instructed; advising where he would land and have a helicopter pick up equipment to make repairs to BHS. Godsy described the landing site as a "crooked, shallow river" and one of the floats got a rock puncture, which Tom plugged with a pound of butter to keep the aircraft afloat while he and a native from Le Pas, along with Greg, his mechanic and Godsy proceeded to salvage and repair BHS.
After about five days of inclement weather and using make-shift repair equipment, the crew managed to get BHS out of the water and running. By this time the ice had melted making a lake take-off impossible. The next thing was to taxi the aircraft over huge rocks, with the aid of a pry-bar and Greg's piloting skills, to a marshy area which had a half inch covering of fresh snow, and take off from there. After a few hours of hard labour they finally reached the end of the grassy area.
The plan, as related by Godsy, was for the mechanic and their native helper to hold a rope looped through a tie-down point, while Greg gunned the motor for a quick acceleration. Tom Lamb would station himself half way down the "strip" to wave if he saw it was necessary to abort. Godsy was to position himself at the estimated take-off point to pick up the pieces if necessary. When ready Greg opened the throttle but the tie-down rope didn't hold, and away he went, lumbering down the strip. Tom saw that the aircraft couldn't get up enough speed and was waving for Greg to abort the take-off. But Greg couldn't see him and kept on going and wobbled into the air with just enough fuel to make a 20 minute flight to Ennadai Lake.
Due to the damage done to the strut during the forced landing, Greg was only able to make right-hand turns. Landing at Ennadai had to be done in the middle of the lake because it was nearing the end of June and the ice was "candling" making it dangerous to come to close to shore. Greg then walked to our station, dodging the candled ice, and sent a "rush" message to DOT Ottawa requesting permission to ferry the aircraft to Prince Albert for repairs along with his mechanic. He stated the damage and advised he would change skis for wheels, and with no brakes he would be using the tail ski for a brake. DOT gave permission and BHS departed for Prince Albert via Churchill shortly thereafter.
Following repairs, Greg and BHS returned to Ennadai just after break-up and went to work completing the Geological Survey supply for October 1952.
There are many more stories and pleasant memories of Ennadai but maybe more of that later. -- Bill Rogers (WR)