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. 

MY FIRST?
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!

HOW FAR?
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:
http://www.horizonsunlimited.com/hubb/ride-tales/parent-quebec-50674
D
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.

LODGING
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...
http://www.tourismehsm.qc.ca/thsm_en/index.php/food-and-accomodation/camping/355.html

NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF CANADA

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

WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO THERE?
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.

WHO LIVES THERE?
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.

WILL YOU VISIT ANYTHING ELSE?
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!

WILL YOU SEE IT ALL?
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.

Reference:
"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."
http://www.adastron.com/lockheed/constellation/stones-connie.htm
"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."
http://www.worldaffairsboard.com/ancient-medieval-early-modern-ages/40946-today-canadian-history-2.html

-Stef

5 comments:

  1. Very impressive when you told me about this trip a few weeks ago I was at first thinking to my self WHY ? But now Im thinking why not. Sounds like it would be fun exploring the area. Road trip !!!

    Hell ya I wish I had a hummer i would take us as far as possible. But maybe you need to throw a 4 wheeler in the back of your truck.

    Looks like you have done your research good luck bring back some artifacts

    Happy blogging

    cheers
    Kris L

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sounds like a very interesting trip Stef! I loved that 1950's term "social dislocation" as a euphamism for fighting. I will use that next time I'm in a heated discussion!

    A couple years ago, while visiting a very cool comic book store in Toronto, I picked up this book called "Access All Areas: a user's guide to the art of urban exploration" (it's not a graphic novel though). I should lend it to you sometime - I haven't read it yet but it looks like the kind of thing you'd be interested in. They have it on Amazon.ca too.

    Hope you have a great trip!
    Lara

    ReplyDelete
  3. - I'd love to bring an ATV, but a) it would limit what else I could bring (I only have a short box), and b) I don't have one ;)
    Maybe next time?
    Not sure what artifacts I might find... I think the site has been pretty picked over; it was decommissioned in the 1960's... I will see if there's anything to bring back... I suspect I'll be lucky to find a bolt or screw!

    - Urban Exploration; there are a few good books on the topic and web sites, I'm absolutely interested in the book you picked up Lara! Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I lived on the RCAF base at Parent from @ 1958 to 1960 before my dad (a radar fighter controller) was posted to Metz, France.

    The Commanding Officer
    at the time when we were stationed at Parent was Cy Yarnell.

    Interesting to find a blog about the base 41 years on.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Fantastic :) Glad you found the blog entry!
    I found reference to CS Cy Yarnell in the documents I've been reading; he was the CO from May 14th 1957 (when command was handed over after a parade) to July 6th 1959 (after a formal dance was held in his honour). It was a great trip. Even after this many years, the site is still quite impressive, and still has a great view! I was amazed how overgrown it has all become compared to some of the vintage photos.
    The national archives documents also list the flight controllers of the time, and do have the odd colourful story :)
    I hope you read the next blog entry, with the pictures of the trip.
    Best regards,
    Stef

    ReplyDelete