August 29, 2013

Mike Milinkovich's stories of the Mid-Canada Line

Last year I visited the former Troposcatter receiver site at Kempis Mountain for the first time, where the signal from Relay was received from the Mid-Canada Line farther north, and shunted to North Bay via land-line.  Realistically, I don't know how many other Mid-Canada Line related sites I'll be able to reach.  Hopfully Relay Ontario (MCL Site 060) next year, we'll see.
However, I've made contact with someone who worked on the Mid-Canada Line, is local to Ramore, and who's been able to pinpoint for me where the Ramore GATR Site was.  Mike has lots of stories about his time on the Mid-Canada Line.  The more stories I hear of the Mid-Canada Line and Pinetree Line, the more I realize there are vast volumes of untold Canadian stories that are waiting to become books, biographies, and screenplays.
Originally published on Larry Wilson's Mid-Canada Line "War Stories" page on his web site here and here I've reposted Mike Milinkovich's stories below, with Mike's permission.
I opened the MCL “War Stories” to read and was struck by how many people wrote of their experiences at 309 DDS! I’m not superstitious, but I really wonder if there were “spirits” other than those found in a bottle that made 309 DDS their home?
I was the first 309 DDS “tech” or the “Installation & Maintenance Representative” as Ma Bell called us. After graduating from the third wave from the MCL School in Montreal as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 20-year old I arrived on site in the early fall of 1956.
I lived in a tent for the first 3-4 months while the living quarters and equipment/power rooms were being built. After 53 years I would like to relate some of my experiences, events and occurrences that some may find interesting.
  • The first time I ever flew in a single engine fixed wing aircraft was the flight from Knob Lake to 309 DDS lake head. The pilot seemed crazy to me. I got in the plane, sat right beside the pilot and we took off. In a few minutes he reached into his jacket pocket and took out a pocket book that he propped up somehow between his knees and the joy stick and we bounced along on what I thought was a rough flight until we floated down to land on the lake. He never said a word to me the whole time up in the air but just read his damn book, landed, came to a stop at the dock then told me to get my bags and get out of his plane!
  • We had no water on site; water was brought in by two pails hanging down from a yoke carried by one of our Portuguese labourers from a lake about one mile downhill and one mile back up. I bet he developed the strongest legs in Canada as he did this for many hours every day!
  • That lake was also full of speckled trout. I had a few artificial lures that never worked well so I got the idea of tying a small hook to a wooden match stick that I had shaved back to create “curls”. The first cast, a trout took it within seconds. I used those wooden match sticks as “trout flies” from then on!
  • Washing clothes was a problem until we decided to use our cement mixer. It worked fine but it sure beat the heck out of our clothes!
  • We had a burly looking cook who spent about 4 months at 309 DDS; he was a nice enough guy, especially as he was always mildly drunk and in good humour with the home brew he made from tomato juice. One day a helicopter dropped in with two Mounties on board. They took our cook away. He was wanted for multiple murders in Montreal!
  • We had a “cookie” that was mildly mentally handicapped but a very good worker. Three “Newfy” steel riggers came and spent a little over a month erecting towers. From almost the first day that they arrived they teased the cookie mercilessly. The final morning when the Newfies were leaving and waiting for the helicopter, one of them apologized to the cookie and said they were sorry for teasing him and hoped he would forgive them. The cookie accepted their apology, said he forgave them, and also said from then on he would stop pissing in their coffee pot!
  • The bush pilots flying supplies into our site were unbelievable. That first winter we had very heavy winds blowing day after day for weeks. This caused snow drifts at least 3 to 4 feet high that looked like waves on the lake where the planes normally landed. We were running really short of food and fuel so one of the pilots said he would try to land. He did, miraculously, without crashing and with a full load.
  • 309 DDS was located in an area that was surrounded by a number of lakes, some fairly large. All of them had fantastic fishing. One spot I always wanted to try and fish was the Caniapiscau River. Although you could see the river from our site it was too far away to walk through the rough bush and up and down some fairly steep hills. At a guess, I think the river was about 8 to 10 miles from our site.
  • One of the best fishing spots I used to go to quite often was to a large lake about 4 – 5 miles South West of our DDS site. My favourite spot was also the favourite spot of black bears. A narrow but deep creek ran into the lake at the location I usually fished. On both sides of the creek, foot paths were worn quite deep into the soil over the years by bears fishing in the spring for spawning suckers. When the ice started to melt off the lake and there was about 50 – 75 feet of open water you could catch beautiful lake trout each weighing anywhere from 10 to 25 pounds with almost every cast. Most of these I just let go and only brought back one or two because the 4 – 5 mile walk back to camp was uphill all the way!
  • I had heard a story that one of the Installation & Maintenance reps that came after me, who was Australian, was killed by a black bear at 309 DDS. I often wondered if he was killed at “my” fishing spot. There certainly were a lot of bears around there but I never actually saw one; just their tracks, paths and claw marks where they marked their territory on trees.
  • One of the very few times that I flew into Knob Lake I bought a shotgun. There were a lot of ptarmigans around the site that I wanted to hunt so I bought a Winchester pump action .410 shotgun. I had never seen a .410 pump action before. It was a beautiful little shotgun. Soon after I bought it I went hunting. It was really cold, at a guess about -30 with a pretty stiff breeze that probably created a wind chill of around -40. I quickly came upon a covey of ptarmigan, about 4 or 5. I released the safety, drew a bead and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened! I thought the shell must be bad so I tried to pump in another. The pump action was jammed! I couldn’t do a darn thing. The birds all flew away. Ptarmigan are not afraid of humans and you can usually get close to them but eventually they do move away. I was so disgusted with my pretty little shotgun that I traded it for a short wave radio a week or so later to one of the construction crew. That was a dumb thing to do but I was young and could be considered “unworldly” if not downright stupid. The problem with the shotgun was that I had used ordinary gun grease. I should have used graphite gun grease! The grease I did use simply froze in the extremely low temperature and completely jammed the shotgun. I have never seen a .410 pump action Winchester shotgun since that time way back in 1956. It was an unusual shotgun that I wished I had today as I now live in the country with a lot of good partridge hunting close by.

These are just some of the stories from a time in my life when every day was a wonderful challenge and every experienced was relished. I felt so lucky that I was able to travel to the far north and see a part of Canada that few Canadians ever have a chance to see. After the Mid Canada line, I worked on the DEW line on Baffin Island and Winisk and finally on the Pine tree line where I visited each military radar site in Canada from Holberg on the tip of Vancouver Island to Newfoundland. I was on loan to the DND Inspection Services on the Pine tree line. It was during one of my Mid Canada assignments South of Matheson Ontario at site 070, Kempis Mountain, that I met and married the most beautiful and wonderful girl in the world and we are still together. Below is a picture of her at 68 years old as the “BRM Belles” Red Hat Queen at the Matheson Fall Fair.

Mike also happens to be the Mayor of the township surrounding Ramore; The Township of Black River-Matheson.  Since Mike worked along the Mid-Canada Line and at Kempis Mountain, it seemed appropriate that in 2009 when the site was shut down, he was involved, and wrote this.

The Final Chapter for Mid Canada Line Site 070
By: Mike Milinkovich
Mike Milinkovich August 28th 2013 @ Kempis Mountain

November 12, 2009 is the day that the final chapter was written about the “Cold War” that began just after WW II between the Soviet Union and the Western allies. I began work at Kempis Mountain in the late 1950’s and participated in the ceremony on November 12th that signalled the final chapter in the history of “Mid-Canada Line site 070” in the Township of Black River-Matheson.

The establishment of the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) coincided with the flight of Russia’s Sputnik I (the first man-made object shot into space orbit) and the successful launch of the first Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The Canadian and American government’s agreement to create NORAD to counter a Soviet nuclear-armed bomber threat was reached in August 1957 and formally signed in May 1958.

Subsequently the three early warning radar detection systems built in the late 1950’s, the U.S.-built Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, the Canadian built and manned Mid-Canada Line (MCL), and the jointly erected Pinetree Line became critical NORAD components.

In 1955-56, Kempis Mountain, also known as Mid-Canada Line site 070 was built. Site 070 was the last link of a chain of Mid-Canada Line communications sites that stretched north to Hudson Bay. Site 070 was not a radar site but a communication site linked to similar sites at site 060 (also called Relay and located 80 miles North of Cochrane), site 050 at Ft. Albany and finally to site 415 located at Cape Henrietta Maria on the western shore of James Bay.

Data that was collected by the Mid-Canada Line Doppler Detection Sites (Radar sites) was transmitted south from site 070 by land line to the “Hole” in North Bay. The “Hole”, as it was called, was the co-located headquarters for the northern region of NORAD. The other NORAD headquarters site was located in the Cheyenne Mountains in Colorado. Together, these two sites controlled North American defences against potential threats from the air by analyzing data and information from the northern radar lines to determine if jets had to be scrambled to meet potential threats from attacking forces.

During the construction of site 070 and during the years it was manned, people from the Township of Black River-Matheson played a big part. The road up Kempis Mountain and the levelling of the site for construction was done primarily by the late Vic Hembruff’s company now called R. J. Lougheed Trucking Ltd. and currently owned by Bob Lindsay. Much of the concrete work and construction was completed by a company called H & D Construction and owned at the time by the late Ernie Dambrowitz and Floyd Hembruff. Sadly this company no longer exists. Many people from the towns of Holtyre, Matheson, Ramore, Shillington and Val Gagne also worked for years at various occupations at the site.

Unfortunately one of the dangerous legacies left behind at all the sites across Canada including site 070 is an organic chemical compound called “Polychlorinated biphenyl” or as commonly known, PCBs. This chemical was commonly used for many years in various types of electronic equipment installed at all the sites. In addition, tests were conducted to identify Hydrocarbons and metals and when found were removed.

You may ask, “So what’s the big deal?” The big deal is that PCBs are classified as “persistent organic pollutants” meaning PCBs never degrade or disappear but persist in the environment and accumulate in human and animal tissue. The only way to get rid of it from the environment is to remove it and destroy it by various methods at specially designed facilities. PCBs can cause serious health problems in humans and other mammals such as lowering of the immune system, birth defects, health problems such as cancer and diabetes or a failure by males to reproduce.

The team that successfully completed the cleanup operation over a relatively short timeframe began work on site August 26, 2009 and completed the project in November 2009. The team included representatives from the Matachewan First Nation (MFN), SNC-Lavalin Inc. (SLI), Golder Associates Innovative Application (GAIA), an affiliate of GAIA’s called Golder Associates Limited (GAL), AirZOne One (OZO), and the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR).

By the end of the project the team had removed over 17,000 tons of material from Kempis Mountain. This material was trucked to sites in Quebec and other locations in Ontario for proper disposal. In total 2342 samples of soil, leachate, hydrocarbons, concrete, bedrock, PCB wipe tests for non-porous materials and water were tested for contaminates.

As Mayor, I was honoured to be asked to participate in the closing ceremonies to represent the Township of Black River-Matheson and also from a personal perspective as one of the “survivors” whose site 070 story began over 50 years ago. From 1956 to 1961 it was my privilege to have worked on all three Radar lines; MCL, DEW and Pinetree. I worked in every Province in Canada from the tip of Vancouver Island at Holdberg to Newfoundland and Labrador, in the Northwest Territories and further north above the Arctic Circle on Baffin Island. This experience profoundly cemented my deep love and appreciation of this wonderful country of ours at an early age.

We should all be thankful that the Federal and Provincial governments have agreed to work together to fund the cleanup of this cold war era mess so future generations of Canadians will be protected. In particular the Ontario government’s Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and Minister Donna Cansfield should be congratulated for becoming the lead agency in coordinating the cleanup efforts.

I wish them luck and God speed in cleaning up all the other sites in Northern Ontario.

Mike Milinkovich, Mayor
Township of Black River-Matheson

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