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






COMM 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

2 comments:

  1. The "Upper Lake" is called "Beaver Lake". And no, this was not the potable water source, and the Domestic water doesn't drew water from a well, but from the the Raimbow lake, just below the domestic site (where was the beach). The RCAF cleaned that lake sometimes with some chemical products... lets imagine...

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  2. From my understanding the military did use chemicals on the lake, but not as much to "clean" it, as to kill all the native fish, then populate it with Rainbow Trout. If later, after the base closed, the lake was chemically treated to make the water potable, that's possible, but I don't have any documentation to back it up.

    "One of the biggest ventures by the Recreation Committee has been conducted by their Fish &
    Game sub-committee in clearing Lower Lake of the two various species of fish therein with a
    view to re-stocking with trout in the spring of 1954. This project was done with the
    assistance of the Quebec Provincial Fish and Game Department at a cost of $1,300.00, of which
    Station Fund contributed $300.00 and the balance was carried by the Quebec Government"
    - Commanding Officer's Log, 1953

    "26 May, saw the culmination of a project which had found great interest in the squadron,
    which was the original clearing of Lower Lake in the previous fall, and the stocking by air
    on this date of 1,500 rainbow trout. The appearance of Beaver aircraft making low passes
    over the camp for the fishing drop brought everyone to the lakeshore to witness the event."
    - Commanding Officer's Log, 1954

    "although the ice on the surface of Lower Lake did not leave until 30 April.
    Fishing gear was examined and made ready for the hoped for battle with home grown trout in
    Lower Lake. FS Gendron an enthusiastic angler and also one of the original advance party
    members was transferred to Chatham where he could cast a legal line into the lake, as were
    LACs Gouvremont and Eman, two more original members."
    - Commanding Officer's Log, April 1955

    "The lake in the
    centre of the unit has been poisoned and will be restocked with 10,000 speckled trout. Many
    organized fishing and hunting trips to the surrounding lakes and bushy areas, took place
    over the entire season."
    - Commanding Officer's Log, November 1957

    "A Fishing Derby was held in Rainbow Lake to determine whether the re-stocking of fish last
    fall had been successful. A 6 inch speckled trout was caught."
    - Commanding Officer's Log, May 1962

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