August 22, 2011

Visit to the former site of RCAF Station Parent

I had a lot of people ask "WHY?" make a trip to "the middle of nowhere". Ultimately it was part adventurer, part treasure-hunter, and in part to honour the men and women of the Royal Canadian Air Force who for ten years manned the station, to defend the country, in an isolated and harsh environment. I believe this is a mostly forgotten port of Canadian history, which is a shame, because of the tens of thousands of enlisted personnel who invested sizable chunks of their lives, and the lives in their families who were stationed with them, at dozens of similar bases across the country. At some level I just wanted to stand on the top of the mountain where the base stood, and see what they saw.

Prior to travelling to Parent, QC I researched the commanding officer's logs from the inception of the base in 1950 to it's closure in the 1960s, found all the recent satellite photos that were available, some air photos, and searched for any pictures of the base that I could find; present and past. In so doing, I found an incredible number of photos taken by the men and women stationed at the station. Unfortunately, most of the pictures give no credit to the photographer nor those in the pictures, so I will be re-posting them (unfortunately) as such.

As a bit of background, there were several sites of significance which I wanted to see. Several of the names of these sites change between sources which I have found them mentioned in, therefore I am not sure if some are actually the same.

- The Dam (unknown location)
- The septic processing facility (at "Disposal Lake")
- The "Domestic Site" (residences of the stationed personnel of RCAF Station Parent)
- The "Operational Site" (the radar station at the top of the mountain)
- The back-up site (separate from the main site?)
- The VHF transmitter site / COMM Site  (not the same as the back-up site?)
- The airfield (just outside of town)

The trip to Parent took far less time than originally expected. 2hrs from Ottawa to Mont Saint Michel, and 3hrs from Mont Saint Michel to Parent, QC. Along the way we stopped 3 times for bio-breaks, and snacks. Janet had provided wonderful home made sandwiches (made with love, xoxo)

(NB, I am writing this first draft to the tune of a pack of wolves howling and getting some local dogs very riled up.)

Between Mont Saint Michel and Parent, QC (on the dirt road) we hit a torrential downpour, the dirt road turned to slop since the water had nowhere to go, and I became religious ("oh god! oh god!)... as we almost spun out. I regained control and pointed the car in the correct direction making good time to get to Parent, despite the weather.

"Tower Road"
On Sunday August 21st 2011, we visited the main site. The main road up to the top (then called "Tower Road", now "Chemin de la Tour") was dirt, with some wash outs at the sides, but the sedan was able to make it all the way to the top without difficulty. I had worried that I'd need a 4WD vehicle to make it to the summit, and that with the 2WD sedan we'd have to walk - luckily that wasn't the case.

"Upper Lake"
We found the "Upper Lake" half way up the mountain without any issue. I believe this is the lake which the main site drew water from.  The domestic site drew water from a well.  I'm not sure if the water drawn from the upper lake was for toilet facilities, cooling, or for some processing to become drinkable water.  I believe there was a pumping station, which we assumed would have been somewhere around the lake on the North side. I had read that they had to blast through a significant amount of rock to run the pipe, so I was sure something was around the lake.  We gave up looking after inspecting what we could from the roadside.  In hindsight, from the 1961 air photo, it looks like there is a cut in the treeline which corresponds to the gap in the trees we could see - but we hadn't seen any buildings... the building could be located on the domestic-site side of the lake rather than the operational site side, and then have run the pipe around the lake and back up the hill. Either way, we missed that one.

The tetanus shot hole
Once at the top we found there wasn't much left of the "operational site", which was expected.  Short of using a concrete saw to open up a hole in the leftmost concrete structure (which is hollow) or the main site (to see if there is a partial basement), there is only one way into any of the structures, which required a rope ladder and a tetanus shot.  The hole into the building's floor is a man-sized entrance, large enough to fit yourself into the basement. There is metal and concrete debris, and an unknown quantity of water in the bottom. I didn't and wouldn't go down there myself. I do not think a ladder would be realistic, but a rope ladder would likely work. Have your best ninja skills handy and a hard hat if you try this!  I suggested a hammer drill from the outside would be a nice bonus - as you could let the water out before entering from the top. Smart eh?

concrete lid, to nowhere?
Down a path, we found a circular/octagonal concrete platform which looked like a foundation. However, there is a "lid" of concrete on it, which made us wonder if this was a reservoir or other entrance below. We did not have sufficient equipment to move the concrete, nor put it back, and left it alone.

no shortage of scrap metal
There is no shortage of steel ducting and wreckage, which I don't quite understand, as the vast majority of the base was clearly demolished and carted away. Why would they leave so much junk on the top of the hill, but cart so much away?

There is a massive microwave antenna at the top of the hill, as well as some repeater antenna for presumably SQ or other emergency vehicles.  It may also act as a repeater station for telephone service (land line, not cell).  As an aside, there is no cell service, from anyone, at all, for 200km in any direction.  This is the land where CB and SSW reign supreme.  Every truck has one if not two antennas for UHF/VHF/CB radios; and also, all the locals have trucks or big SUVs.  Cars are in the minority, by a long shot.  The giant antenna is set into the centre of the foundation of the Operational Site, and a perimeter fence is set up around it.
clean bathroom!
Funny enough, partly outside the fence is clearly where one of the Operational Site bathrooms were, since the tiled floor and plumbing holes are still visible.  After scouring the main operational site for any trace of anything, and not finding any more than expected, I was slightly disappointed. 60 years since it's construction, and ~50 years since it was decommissioned, I shouldn't expect relics just sitting around.  To have *something* I nabbed a chunk of tile from the bathroom.  What?

Nice view at ~1800ft
We headed back down the mountain, and stopped near the new smaller antenna and generator (Marked NavCan) which seemed to be about where the path to what I believe the COMM site was had been.  The car wouldn't fit down the trail, so we walked. We walked past the antenna, until the well kept maintenance path stopped, and the barely visible path through the woods continued... we followed the trail through the very dense overgrowth, over trees, and under overgrown shrubs until we saw the COMM site - not just a foundation, the whole freakin' thing!

The COMM site - JACKPOT!
The COMM Site (aka VHF Transmitter Site?) was in a severe state of deterioration, and half of the building had already collapsed (I think).  Without clear "before" pictures it is hard for me to say how big the building had been.  A couple of vintage photos may show the COMM site's wing which had already collapsed.  Clearly there was rubble on the far side of the structure, but I couldn't tell if it had been a walled structure or a chassis which additional equipment may have been mounted on top of.

not sure what this room was...
There was a steel building which looked like an outhouse on the far side of the collapsed building as well, I couldn't tell what it had been from where I stood, and couldn't safely get any closer.  Huge chunks of concrete block wall had fallen outward from the building, light streamed in, only some pipes, insulation, and ducting remained of the equipment which was there.  No plumbing fixtures remained.  Only electrical conduit and other building material lay strewn about.

NB: collapsed bldg through the arch
 Channels in the floor showed where thick electrical cables ran under the equipment and underfoot. Of note, not a scrap of garbage or any sign than anyone had been there in 50 years was found, and we left it exactly as we had found it.  I thought the amount of lush foliage around it was extremely impressive considering we were up at an elevation of 556M (1800ft).  Raspberries, blueberries, and all sorts of weed trees has engulfed a site which was once completely devoid of vegetation.  I was also extremely impressed that through our prior research we had successfully found a "lost" site that had missed the wrecking ball.  I don't think this find will be repeated at many other sites, and I feel very lucky to have found this one.  Aside from the bathroom, and maybe the machine room where AC conduit seemed to be plentiful, there were no indications in the other rooms regarding what they were for.

I've never seen concrete block "go"
We also could not find a way into the basement (if there was one - there seemed to be).  The exterior of the building showed how the other walls had crumbled; water damage has been eating away at the concrete with freeze/thaw for 50+ years, it's a good example of the power of nature to reclaim the land; even from a concrete and steel structure.  I've never seen concrete block crumble the way it did there.

"Disposal Lake"
I had read that the effluent from the domestic site flowed into the "disposal lake", which was situated north of the "Domestic Site", so naturally there should be some kind of septic facility on the edge of the lake, no?  Well, we headed to the lake and found it past the town.  We could hear running (trickling) water through two drains that were headed along side the road we were following, so it only made sense that the town's effluent was likely still going in that same direction.  Unfortunately we didn't find the septic facility, but suspect it is located along an ATV trail to the west of where we saw the lake.  There was no smell, no residue, or any sign that the lake was polluted in any fashion.  Mind you, I didn't go for a swim...

"Domestic Site"
The residential part of the base, known as the Domestic Site, had a hospital, mess hall, gym, etc.  All buildings that were not Primary Married Quarters (PMQs) were (sadly) torn town.  The PMQs which remained varied in upkeep wildly.  Some were clearly very well kept, others were burnt out husks.  Most were somewhere in the middle, and clearly not upscale.  The neighbourhood could use with a little urban renewal, but without a new industry coming to town, I think that's highly unlikely.

The Beach, when it was huge
The beach that was once a focal point of the community doesn't look like it's used by anyone anymore.  It's a shame, since so much enjoyment seemed to have been derived from that area when the station was active.

If you were wondering why it's called Rainbow Lake (Lac Rainbow), I am too.  I presume it is because of the lake trout which they sewed in ~1954, after poisoning and wiping out all indigenous fish the previous year.  It was a different time.  Did I mention the DDT fogging and oiling of the local swamps within a 3 mile radius to control the insect population?  Again, it was a different time, and that's what you did to control insect pests.

1961 Air Photo
It was a great trip (and had good company - Thanks D.A.!) and I believe I'll need to visit the site again, to capture the sites which I missed, and better document what I've seen. :)


Rainbow Lake, and the Operational Site
I don't recall if this tree is still there...

Operational Site, from the Domestic Site side

Operational site, viewed from COMM Site

COMM Site, viewed from Operational Site


Operational Site viewed from COMM Site

Operational Site, from the air

The view from the Domestic Site

The view from the Domestic Site

Operational Site before Radome install


Undated Topographic Map

View Larger Map

August 16, 2011

Road Trip to RCAF Station Parent (Parent, QC)

For the past decade or so I've wanted to do a cold war road trip through the southern states and west coast; hitting most of the national labs, test sites, aircraft graveyards, and other historically significant places to do with the cold war and nuclear weapons programs. Unfortunately, due to the increased level of paranoia in the US, I don't think a foreign national coming into the country to take pictures of missile bases and such would be terribly popular, and might even end me up in jail. So, what's a guy to do? Well, what do we have IN Canada that's interested? Beavers, Moose... we have the Diefenbunker! But... the Diefenbunker is a hop skip and a jump away from my house, there's no fun in that. What about the radar stations from the 1950's which protected CAN/US interests from the Soviet bomber fleet? I knew there was one in Foymount ( a nice day trip if I went there ) but I didn't know how many other sites there were across Canada. According to Wikipedia, 44! Then I found out about the BOMARC program, that adds at least another two sites. With a little digging I found the locations of all these sites; they stretch from coast to coast, and then up the coasts! I don't know that this idea is quite the same as the cold war road trip that I'd originally went looking for, but it sure started to look interesting.
Looking for information regarding the current state of these sites, I quickly discovered something. Some of these sites have been razed to the ground and totally wiped off the planet. Others have been re-purposed and are inhabited ...But many were re-purposed, then abandoned - and the radar sites that are the most remote, are the most intact. Radar stations which are close to urban centers (I'm looking at you Montreal) have been burned out, grafiti'd, and generally abused. The bases I'm most interested in are those which look as they did, or even if the buildings were razed, I'd like the area to look as they did. I realized that I wanted to get up there, and take a lot of pictures. I wanted to chronicle what it looked like today, and by being there, understand some of what the people went through when they were stationed to these remote stations. I want to get to the top of each hill, stand where the radar station was, and take pictures of the view - as the first people stationed there would have 60 years ago. 

I settled on a radar station that was located near Parent, Quebec; RCAF Station Parent (1950-1963).
By doing my research, I found many family pictures of people who were stationed there, the winter carnivals, halloween, christmas parties... you name it. The bonus; many of the pictures had the station or it's buildings behind those who were posing!

Looking at how far this trip would be, I didn't think ~400Km would take *that* long, and I'd pack a lunch, and probably a sleeping bag. Google suggested that the trip would take ~9hrs. WHAT? Well, after the first two hours of travel gets you to Mont Saint Michel, the road quality drops off. What's the good news? I found pictures of the roads around there:
irt road, yes, but not so bad! Google has no idea how quickly people can travel on an unpaved road, so I hope it's just a very conservative 9hrs. Also, the road is *THE* road and realistically should be beaten down by the trucks, as it is the ONLY road that heads south from town, and there is a heavy lumber industry in the area.

I was kicking around the idea of camping vs. Motel, but once I found out that only one of four motels in town gave you your own bathroom (all 1 star I might add), I figured camping sounded pretty good. With the bears... Sleeping with a shotgun... The camp site also has toilets and showers; civilization! I tried calling ahead to reserve a spot; they were quite surprised I even called, and insisted they would have lots of space.
I get the idea nobody in their right mind goes to Parent, Quebec to camp...


The national archives have copies of all the commanding officer's logs from the ten year period the station was in service, as well as the years preceding that when it was being built. It is incredible how much information is contained with them, including reference to the Cuban missile crisis and elevating their threat level to DEFCON 3A!
I have lots of stories from the commanding officer's log regarding the very interesting and colourful beginnings of the base (including Canada Goose and UFO stories...) but here are two of my favourites:

"the combined mess building was taken over by the RCAF and to relieve the boredom for those on the scene, a combined canteen was organized on 18 Mar 53. To mark the opening of the canteen and also as it presented the first opportunity for those present to reciprocate for the hospitality extended by the local inhabitants, a party was arranged for the night of Saturday, 21 March. This party was intended as only an informal "do" and would be by written invitation. However, the local inhabitants, isolated as they are from what is going on in the "outside world", let their imaginations run wild as to what an Air Force function would be. As a result, the number of people invited steadily grew in order not to offend anyone and word came back to the RCAF personnel of elaborate purchases of evening dresses, etc. Rather than disillusion those who were going to such great lengths, the small party of RCAF personnel kept adding to the programme for the evening. As a result, the final party and the free dinner that went with it would have done justice to any of the large messes in the RCAF. The food for the party was prepared and given free by the firm of Crawley & McCracken, who were mentioned earlier as catering contractor for the project. The company spared no expenses in preparing a wonderful spread. The next morning a great deal of food remained and all the members of the RCAF Detachment dined on it rather than the rugged bill of fare they were accustomed to daily in the camp cook house. Afterwards a quantity of food still remained, and so it was decided to parcel it up and donate it to an encampment of Cree Indians situated halfway to Parent. This was probably the best food the Indians had had in many a moon as they had been scavenging the garbage dump for food from the contractor’s camp. From that time on until the Indians broke camp with the coming spring, the RCAF vehicles passing through their camp were treated as "the great white fathers" and received the joyous shouting and waving of all the "braves". This one episode has been recounted in some detail as it can serve as a criterion of the many pleasant experiences enjoyed by the Detachment in the early stages of 14 ACW Squadron."
    - CC Underhill, Wing Commander, Commanding Officer, 14 ACW Squadron
        November 30th, 1953

"of interest for the record to note the social and economic side effects that the construction of the radar station invoked. Prices of commodities and services in the town of Parent immediately soared, especially those services catering to entertainment and relaxation of a large body of construction workers. The peak work force was in the neighbourhood of 1,000 men and with the high rate of pay and a cost plus project, money was plentiful. The purveyors of alcohol and hotel operators in particular, found their income exceeding their fondest expectations. In a town where previously only one ancient taxi cab operated, now a fleet of thirty modern taxis roared uninhibited on the gravel roads making a small fortune for their operators. Under such conditions it was inevitable that social dislocations would occur and the writers of this chronicle have heard the stories of impromptu battles when gangs of lumberjacks and construction workers met head-on in the town of Parent. The high point of this episode was the night in Parent when a hundred men were involved simultaneously in one huge free-for-all on the main street."
    - CC Underhill, Wing Commander, Commanding Officer, 14 ACW Squadron
        November 30th, 1953

I get a lot of people asking what I want to do up there. Well, it's like a treasure hunt really. To the casual observer, the base is a bunch of razed buildings, and some Primary Married Quarters buildings still stand. To the treasure hunter and amateur historian (um, me) I have found out where the pipes run, how much rock had to be blasted, where the septic facility was, that there was a 100,000 Gallon reservoir buried at the top of the hill, and potentially a 2nd 10,000 Gallon reservoir. Those holes weren't filled in, so they're still there - vast caverns buried underground. The basements of the facilities are likely still intact as well, although some deterioration of the concrete can be expected and has been photographed by previous adventurers. Someone mentioned welded doors leading to a tunnel, where are they, and where do they go? No, I'm not going up there to break and enter, but I will photograph the entire area and try and put together an idea of how the base was laid out, back in the day.

The Village of Parent has a large lumber mill which employs at least 150 locals. The village is (at most) 250 people, so it's a one industry village; but they have a gas station, corner store, post office, churches, etc. They are a hub of outfitting come hunting season, as they are in the middle of nowhere Quebec - I bet the hunting is pretty darn good up there (too bad I don't hunt). I just hope the locals are as friendly in person as they have been on the phone. I suspect they'll like a little influx of cash at the local resto/bar.

As well as the Main Site (at the top of the hill) and the Domestic Site (at the bottom of the hill, where they slept), there is a small landing strip, an antenna I'd like to check out (for the view), a derelict hydro electric dam somewhere which looks very creepy, and a fire station which is begging for me to photograph it!

No, sadly I know I will not. There is a cold war airbase east of there with a ~14,000+ foot CONCRETE runway, but inaccessible to a two wheel drive pickup (mine). I need at least a 4WD truck or jeep. Anyone want to lend me an H1 for the weekend? No? Bah.
To the best of my understanding RCAF Station Casey was built (or seriously upgraded) in the 1950s by the American Army Corp of Engineers, who blasted a channel around the airstrip to divert a significant amount of water traveling along a stream/river, and installed the massive runway to service fully laden nuclear bombers, en route to the USSR. B-52 bombers, to be exact, needed that long an airstrip to land/get up to speed with their full payload of ordinance. If there was a B-52 doing maneuvers in Canada's North, the US wanted to make sure they had a few emergency airstrips dotted around to service their planes. Well, that's the official story, so far - I think the base was used for more than that, but I have more digging to do.
I know with certainty that the base was located near the rail line, so any heavy equipment, fluids (gas), or ordinance could be easily shipped in. The airstrip was extremely remote, and invisible from the rail line. I know for a fact the base was capable of refueling planes up to and including the 1970's (as the below plane crashed on takeoff). The RCAF Designated Base was officially closed in 1960.
Since that time, there has been at least one crash (in 1972 killing all three aboard). That crash was a Lockheed L-1049H, the same type of plane that was used by The Rolling Stones, and frequently flown by Air America... you remember them, right? The airfield was also the site of the biggest coke bust in Canadian history, performed by an RCMP interdiction squad, after four CF-18s gave chase. I believe the aerodrome ceased to be operational in the 1980's for anyone's use, but I'm looking into that.

"Captain Jim Carlin and (it is believed) Flight Engineer Rick Riccatelli lost their lives in the crash of another Connie ... On 9 June 1973, Lockheed L-1049H Super Constellation N173W (c/n 4674) was taking-off from Casey, Quebec in Canada when it crashed into trees soon after take-off and was destroyed by explosion and fire. The third crew member, First Officer A. Condey, was also killed in the crash. The aircraft had been modified for spraying pesticides on forests and it was engaged in these operations on the day of the crash. The investigation revealed that the flaps had been retracted prematurely after take-off. N173W was previously owned by Lance Dreyer's Unum Inc."
"1992 Casey Quebec - RCMP seize record 4,323 kilos of cocaine with a street value of $2.7 billion. The Canadian military, with the help of the US DEA, track the plane from South America, then chase it with jet fighters and military helicopters over New Brunswick, forcing it to land at a remote Quebec airstrip; on Nov. 20 they close a processing lab in Laval and arrest 4 Quebeckers, 3 Columbian nationals."


August 04, 2011

Buying the right GPS

It's been easily ten years since I bought my last GPS. The last time I bought a GPS, it was a handheld for route tracking, so I could overlay it on a topographic map and "see" where I'd been when I returned from wherever I was. At the time I didn't know much about the operation of a GPS, or what features I should be looking for. I do remember I was fleeced by the manufacturer by needing to buy proprietary cables and proprietary software to synchronize it to my computer, and remember vowing never to do that again.

This time my requirements are different. I'm going to assume that in my travels I have a laptop or other portable device to do the "heavy lifting", regarding holding the maps and showing the route or if I need to see an "overhead" view, so a handheld GPS with a screen wasn't needed. I opted for Bluetooth over USB for connectivity, to get rid of cord clutter in the car, as well as allow multiple devices to use the same GPS coordinates.

Those features alone didn't narrow down the list very much, so I started to look into the rest of the techno-babble the marketing teams were pumping out. The number of paralell channels kept coming up, and seemed rather amusing; there are ~31 GPS satellites orbiting the earth, so why would you need to track 66 of them, and use it as a selling feature? Well... according to the manufacturer, those 66 channels can always be coming "in" or "out" of sync with satellites as you move around, so while you'll never see more than (say) 10 birds overhead at the same time, it will always be acquiring the next one, and have spare channels to do it with.

That still didn't limit the number of GPSes I was choosing from, but I started to see trends regarding the number of channels, they seemed grouped into 12, 20, 32, 44 and 66 channel models. But why? Well, I discovered the "brains" of the GPS is a chipset, there are few companies in the world that make different chipsets, so the major brands all use the same handful of chips, repackaging them in their own branded fancy GPS units. You'll frequently see the SiRF and MediaTek (MTK) chipsets mentioned, but even those major vendors are always innovating and coming out with more recent chipsets with better features. So which one to choose? Guessing that the latest chipset would use the lowest power, have the most features, and after comparing specifications to make sure the latest chipset wasn't 'trimmed down', I picked the MTK MT3329 chipset. It was the most recently released chip, and seemed to have the best features (on paper.)

Going with that, I had a much smaller pool of GPS units to choose from, and the Holux M-1000C seemed to be the best price with the most features.

It should be here within a week, and after my next trip I'll need to post a proper review of how it actually performs on the road and in the bush.