August 23, 2012

The Whirlwind Tour of Northern Ontario

I departed from Carp, Ontario at ~0100hrs on Saturday August 18th, and headed through North Bay to Kempis Mountain, my first stop.  There had been a troposcatter repeater at the top of Kempis Mountain to feed the signal from the Mid Canada Line (MCL) to North Bay.  After the MCL was shut down, the site was derelict, but other peaks of the mountain still had antennas on them - so the entire mountain wasn't shut down.  In 2009, as part of an environmental cleanup, the entire troposcatter site was dug up, and nothing at all was left behind, except a brass plaque on the cliff.  I wasn't expecting anything there, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found a fire tower on one hilltop, and an old Microwave repeater on another - the microwave repeater, from the architecture of the tower and the adjoining buildings, are surely military circa 1950s.  This makes sense, as all the pinetree line sites were joined by microwave towers which communicated hilltop to hilltop between each other and (I presume) down to hard wired locations further south.

CFS Ramore
From Kempis Mountain I travelled North on HWY11 just a little further to the former Ramore AS / RCAF Station Ramore / CFS Ramore.  Ramore had been built by the USAF in the 1950s, and it's architecture was subtly different than the Canadian built RCAF Station Parent I visited last year (and again this spring).  Ramore was sold to a private interest after it was shut down, so it wasn't demolished by the Canadian government as some of the sites were.  Some of the buildings have been razed to the ground, but a significant part of the operational site on top of the mountain still stands today.  I was very excited to see it, as I'd seen pictures of the derelict buildings taken by previous urban explorers.  The highlight of Ramore is the asbestos "Canada Tile" clad generator building, which doesn't have any windows left, but does show where the 5 massive Diesel generators powered the complex from.  It's an impressive warehouse-sized building.  Parts of the operations building and some kind of transformer building are also intact, as well as one of the radome buildings which now has an antenna on the top (purpose unknown).  Taking my truck where only ATVs should go, I also found the former COMMs building, hidden on another hilltop - but visible to the discerning eye using Google Maps sat imagry.  Some of the buildings at the base of the mountain have been re-purposed by local interests and seem inhabited; I didn't scour the entire area, I was on a short timeline.  I headed North (West) on HWY11 to stop next at Moonbeam to get a picture of the UFO, then on to Lowther.
CFS Lowther
Lowther AS / RCAF Station Lowther / CFS Lowther, as had been pictured in other people's photos online, was totally scraped off the face of the planet after it was decommissioned.  The only thing left is asphalt and concrete foundations, and even some of them seem to have been dug up.  I went to the highest point and got a few pictures, but there isn't much to see.  It felt good to know I'd seen it, but I was disappointed I couldn't see more of what had been.  I did notice across HWY11 there was an antenna tower, perhaps a microwave antenna tower... and sure enough there was a rusting microwave dish toward the top, and a 2nd one that had fallen off (!) the tower, and lay on the ground below.  The Steelox equipment building matches the dimensions and construction of the others, so I will assume it is a microwave repeater of military origin.  The day was getting late - I headed off towards Oba, but I had to give my exploring partner RH a call... but there was no Cell signal...  I visited the next LCBO I could find and asked for directions to the closest Phone Booth (SEE, I ASKED FOR DIRECTIONS!!) - it was a couple of blocks away... and after getting even more change from the corner store I was able to afford the long distance charges (HIGHWAY ROBBERY!)  RH was on her way, and I was on my way, to Hornepayne Ontario to meet up.
As I made my way to Hornepayne, which I would get to via HWY631, I passed Constance Lake.  Constance Lake is a native reserve ~100-150 miles south of where an F-102 crashed and it's pilot went missing on December 17th 1959, and is still missing to this day.  I suspect I'll be back there another day, looking for information.  HWY11 by this time was sparsely populated with trucking traffic, and once I turned off on HWY631 all that dropped off, and I saw very few cars or trucks.  Hornepayne was about an hour to an hour and half from Lowther, and after driving through town I eventually found the Esso (the meeting spot) and waited for RH. ...I might have indulged and grabbed a nap...
RH had found a hitchiker along the way who was headed up the 631, after saying our goodbyes to him, we packed up the truck, parked her little SUV, and headed to find food.  I wont say where we went for food, but it was in Hornepayne, and the food was... lacking.  
Probably not a good idea in a 2WD truck without a winch
We headed off toward Oba at 2100hrs on August 18th, as the darkness was falling.  Oba was only supposed to be an hour away, and setting up camp there, or at Hornepayne, was going to be equally challenging; so why not get closer to where we wanted to be?  After two hours on the dirt and grass covered back roads of rural-middle-of-nowhere Ontario I saw a berm ahead and hammered the brakes.  Getting out and investigating we found a dirt covered culvert (that was the berm), and some marshy ground past the culvert - then the road continued ahead... RH, who didn't want to be called a "Debbie Downer" for mentioning it, said she'd rather wait till morning and re-assess the situation.  She was right, getting stuck 2hrs by car away from Hornepayne would really suck.  My truck is a 1999 Dodge Ram 1500 Sport 2WD with Posi and the 5.9L Magnum engine.  It's heavy, and it can haul ass - but when it gets stuck, it's stuck for good.  I'd brought straps and a come-along, but none the less, getting stuck at 2300hrs in the middle of nowhere, in a swamp, would have been bad. 
We set up camp and waited till morning.
That's as close as we got to the Oba Gap Filler Site. ~2Km away
Can't you see the fire tower over the trees?
The next morning I was up and checking out the location at 0645.  RH had been right, it was mushy for about 50ft past the culvert, and I couldn't tell how deep the mud was.  There had clearly been someone with a truck-width vehicle through here, the tracks were evident - but I couldn't tell if they went through in 4WD, or if 4WD would be necessary.  We turned around and found an alternate route, the Oba Cutoff was a marked road half way back to Hornepayne - we'd missed it in the dark.  The Oba cutoff wasn't a short route, it took us across a scary looking bridge (the route actually took us across at least 3 or 4 scary bridges) and eventually dumped us at Oba.  By now I was beginning to have doubts of the Garmin, Google, Topo, Satellite photos, and provincial maps I'd consulted before the trip.  Many of the roads which were marked on the topo map as a solid red lines (driveable) had deteriorated to a condition that would barely allow ATV traffic.  After circling Oba, we headed East along what I thought was a road that would take us to a logging road, which would take us within 1km of the Oba Gap Filler Site.  Unfortunately, I now know the road on the topo map isn't the same as the road I'd seen on the satellite view, a road which isn't on the topographic map at all.  The road we took became impassable, covered by swamp.  At one time it was a passable road, so said the topo map, but today it no longer supports vehicular traffic.  There were large areas along the road which have been clearcut and now have no trespassing & pesticide use signs - we tried to head south through them, but none of those would let us all the way through either.  We had pretty much given up by the time we headed back toward Hearst, when we saw a little back road... it turns out that was the road I'd been trying to get to before, and we were then on the road I'd thought we'd been on all along...  Once we were along a couple of kilometres, road conditions blocked us, with a bridge that had fallen apart, so we walked the last three kilometres to a place where we could see the fire tower, where the Gap Filler Steelox buildings should be... 2.1km away (we were standing at 48.99823, -83.93338).  It was getting late and we had to head back to Hornepayne, via Hearst - a significant distance, so we called it quits and turned around.
I don't know when we got to Hornepayne, but it was really late - after seeing RH to her vehicle, I headed to the rail yard in Hornepayne to watch the trains and see if I could get some pictures of the night operations... however, without a tripod, my plan was foiled.  I did witness a change of train engineers around 0500 - and I had a nap before heading toward The Sault.  My route back would be along the 17, with frequent stops for bio breaks, stretching, and some napping.  
By 1730 I was in Sudbury, checking out CFS Falconbridge.  Unfortunately, the gate had just been closed - I spoke to one of the employees, and he thought if I talked to the owner who runs the place I would be able to get permission to ascend the mountain while the facility was open (a nine to five operation)  I have his number, and will give him a call before I go back the next time.
I was home by 0100 on Tuesday August 21st.  That's ~2300km in 72hrs - not bad!

Things I shoulda coulda woulda done differently...
  1. Build a Fire   
    I hadn't anticipated making a fire, didn't have a bucket for water, didn't really know where we were camping, and didn't want to attract the attention of the locals if they were fire-sensitive/paranoid.  I should have built one anyway.
  2. Bring different maps and satellite imagery
    Someone somewhere must have better maps of the area.
  3. Get a handheld GPS with a screen
    It would have been hugely beneficial to have a proper LCD screened GPS while we were hiking to the location of the gap filler site, pre-loaded with all significant waypoints and points of interest.
  4. Blow some shit up
    We should have shot some cans at the sandpit we found on Sunday.
    In hindsight, there was nobody around for a hundred kilometres in every direction.
  5. Carry a compass at all times
    After the last unexpected stop that took us within 2km of the gap filler site, I was disoriented and couldn't tell if the direction we were pointing was in fact the correct direction of the gap filler site.  This was partially because I didn't have the Google Map Satellite image that I'd familiarized myself with, and partially because I didn't have a handheld GPS or compass with me - they were in the truck.  I was going off of memory as to what the fuzzy Google satellite image looked like.
  6. Satellite imagery trumps MNR Topographic Maps.
    Lesson learned
  7. Know when to hold them.  Know when to fold them.
    We didn't give up on the Gap Filler site early enough, and RH was late getting back to her vehicle - my fault for poor judgment regarding time, speed, road quality and distance. 
    I'll know better for next time.
Next Time?

Yes, next time.  Going in that same direction there are still several gap filler sites to see, and a few Pinetree Line stations too.  

View Points of Interest Aug 18-19 2012 in a larger map

The trip, minus all the driving between Hornepayne and Oba

View Larger Map


  1. hi this look like realy cool ! wish i could to the same thing one day !

    and i got an iltis too haha ! i'm from quebec near of montreal. may be we could to a trip some day. that should realy nice to be place of our past.

    1. Thanks JF! My Iltis' rear differential needs work at the moment, so I've been using (abusing) my Dodge truck instead :) North of Mont Laurier, around Parent and Casey, the roads and environment are great for the Iltis - I'd highly recommend a visit! The locals are friendly and Parent has at least a couple of places to get good food. I hear they have a great ATV festival in the summer too!