October 28, 2012

Investigating CFS Val D'Or

On the (extended) weekend of October 19th to 22nd 2012, CE and I went for a trip in my new 1999 GMC Suburban 2500 6.5L Diesel to do some Cold War sight-seeing.  Here is how things went.

Setting the stage; CFS Val D'Or was operational from 1954 to 1976, and essentially a forward operations base for ten years where AIR-2 nuclear air-to-air missiles were kept and at the ready for Canadian CF-101 fighter interceptors to use against Soviet bombers coming over the pole. 

It was October 19th, and by the time we had everything together we on the highway at ~0945-1000hrs, and had missed most of rush hour.  We took turns driving and made it to Val D'Or in ~5hrs.  We still had lots of light, so we set out to find where I thought the USAF stored the AIR-2 1.8KT nuclear air-to-air rocket between 1964-1974 for use by the RCAF in a time of immanent war to shoot down Soviet nuclear armed bombers.

We parked in the parking lot of what looked to be a shipping/receiving company at the NE end of the runway, near the Northern alert apron and went to the eastern end of a fence that at one time may have surrounded some warehouse-looking buildings in that corner of the property.  The fence now stops, and allows easy access to the outside of the airport perimeter fence.  If that sounded odd, you read it right - there were two fences, the "inner" barbed wire fence surrounding the current municipal airport of Val D'Or is still very much intact, but the outside fence reaches East and "ends".  Going east from where we parked, we found a manhole and stack coming out of the ground, in the direction the fence was pointing.  It looked like it might be for water, drainage or septic.  There was no smell, so if it was an underground septic, it wasn't active.  By referring to the satellite pictures and topo maps we could see a cut in the trees heading South which looked like a road.  Perhaps at one time there was a road beside and along the hydro poles which stretched South, but the terrain is now moist, full of weeds and weed-trees, and very difficult to pass through.  We discovered that following the barbed wire Airport perimeter fence, on the grass, was much easier, and reached the East-West road that went to where I believed the bunker was, since it was in a remote location on the base far from prying eyes, as I'd read that was how the USAF positioned such installations.  Much to my surprise we didn't discover a nuclear bunker, and as it turns out, the building I saw on the satellite pictures may be a partially above ground/partially below ground septic flush tank made by the Pacific Flush Tank Company.  The jury is still out on what it was and what it was used for, but if I recall correctly, they are used to flush sewer lines or perhaps it was a septic digester.  I'm really not sure.  I hope someone can identify what the unit was from the pictures.  Nearby (to the North) there was what looked like a cement septic tank with a manhole cover on the top, partially filled with what I assume was rain water.  Nearby to the North and East of that there is a derelict fence that has at least partially fallen over.  For future explorers it is absolutely best to park at the NE end of the air strip where we parked, and walk southward along the barbed wire fence along the Eastern side of the airport to reach the "flush tank" or whatever it is.

After finishing off exploring on the East side of the runway around the flush tank, we walked back to the GMC Suburban (which we have nick-named Angry) and headed around the North end of the runway by road, and went South on the West side of the runway.  We passed several buildings on the West and East side of the road which were clearly 1950s vintage; hangers, a garage, some residential buildings, etc.  At the SW end of the runway there is another Alert apron, which is now filled with parked float planes (and some regular planes).  There is a large steel hanger located at the end of the alert apron, exactly where I would have expected a military hanger would be to house fueled and armed CF-101 Voodoos.  25B and 25C were the two hangers' designations, I'm unsure if they were always called by those designations.  We discovered that we could go no further south than those two hangers due to a perimeter fence.  On our way back, we took the road heading west towards the current gun range, and found quite a bit of asphalt dug up and dumped in the woods, a wooden guard post discarded in the woods, and some unexplained clearings.  Could the current gun range have been where the nuclear weapons were stored?  The road is relatively direct, to go from there to the hangers to the gun ramge, so it could make sense.  I'd rather something more than a wild guess, as my track record for those isn't very good!

View Larger Map

View Larger Map

Cold War Camping - Val D'Or, Senneterre, Ramore, North Bay

To update you on what I've been up to... The Val D'Or/Senneterre/Belleterre trip happened (October 19th - 22nd)!  But without Belleterre... There were a few on-the-fly changes to the camping trip; we couldn't get to the Senneterre GATR, and scratched Belleterre off the list after a major brake failure on the Suburban.  Both will need to be re-attempted in coming trips.

Here (below) is (more or less) where we went; I'm going to break out stories of the trip into multiple blog entries so they can be easily searched for down the road.

View Larger Map

Overall my impression of Val D'Or was much better than I expected.  It is clearly a booming town.  There is clearly money being spent there by the local workers, the local companies, and the local municipal government who's getting the taxes from everyone.  Good for you Val D'Or, you're not the armpit town I was expecting!  I mean that as a complement, honestly; from all the mining I was expecting a very dirty run down town - it was anything but!  Another surprising thing, to me, being from Montreal, Quebec - I was expecting at least some of the people in customer service to sneer, look down their nose, or otherwise be indignant to my traveling partner who spoke mainly English.  However, at no time anywhere in Val D'Or (or Senneterre) were we treated poorly, or given anything but welcoming smiles, when speaking English we were replied to in their best English.  I felt very much welcome.  Val D'Or was a picturesque town, with a busy main street, lots of parking, and clearly hopping with a booming economy driven by the local mining operations.  I'd go back again and again, I was very impressed with Val D'Or.  It surpassed all my expectations... and the food was *fantastic*.

As we failed to get to Belleterre, we headed to Ramore, and took a lot of pictures of what is left of Ramore AS / RCAF Station Ramore / CFS Ramore.  It was my first time checking out some of the domestic site, as the last time I concentrated on the operations site.

CFS Senneterre's buildings have has some holes punched in them, but generally they are intact, minus the Radomes, and provide a good idea of the footprint of a base.  The sloppy fence line allowed us to take pictures of things we shouldn't have on Telebec property.  No harm, no foul, I say...

On the way past North Bay (with 50% of the Suburban's brakes blown...) we stopped at CFB North Bay's BOMARC site to take pictures.  If we'd had more time, I would have talked to the owner and gone through the front door, but as it was I approached from the back and took pictures through the fence.

Here are all the pictures I have, I haven't excluded any, they are not very artsy, they are meant to document the trip :)

The loss of CF-101 Voodoo #17480 in March of 1968

CF-101 Voodoos on the ground at RCAF Station Val D'Or

On March 15th, 1968 the RCAF lost a CF-101B Voodoo flying with 425 Squadron, from Bagotville... or was it?
You see, CFS Val D'Or didn't have it's own planes; planes from several squadrons flew out of CFS Val D'Or on rotation, and logistical support was provided from the nearby CFS Senneterre.  So, while researching CFS Val D'Or I found mention that a CF-101 Voodoo crashed in 1968, with a tail number of 17480 (previously USAF F-101B-120-MC s/n 59-480), but some sources say Val D'Or, others Bagotville - easy, I went looking for an "authoritative" source; there are many air plane crash databases online.  Unfortunately, there's a lack of info on that one.  How... Interesting.  I can't find the names of the pilots or any details at all.  That's weird, as I can find the names of everyone else who's ever used the ejection seat.  The accident is documented as a "Category A", which I believe means a complete write off - but that was only ascertained a month after the accident.  Isn't that odd?  Maybe they had to wait for an "official" assessment, which took time for someone to do, or be flown in.  Operations out of CFS Val D'Or are at least partially shrouded in secrecy because it was one of the few sites where "Canadian" nuclear arms were stored, and those "special weapons" were meant to be used by CF-101 Voodoos.  Nuclear accidents are very well documented, as far as I can tell, whenever they happen and no matter how minor, so I don't really expect that there was a nuke-armed-crash, at Val D'Or, of a CF-101, armed with nuclear AIR-2 missiles... but as the base was shrouded in secrecy, it is interesting to contemplate.

I think I need to consult the Archives and Air Photo Library again...