Life in the Yukon

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Northwest Staging Route, 1943

In the early months of 1943 I responded to a call for volunteers to go to the “Northwest Staging Route’ to staff new stations being opened along that route from Edmonton to Alaska. What was this new route?

The “Northwest Staging Route” was a new air route from Edmonton to Fairbanks, Alaska, to facilitate the ferrying of aircraft from the USA to Russia for the ‘lend-lease’ program, to help the Russians repel the German invasion. This required air navigation facilities, with air-ground communications, and associated airfields, every hundred miles or so along the route. With other volunteers I went to Edmonton by train, in February, for a period of training in traffic handling, using CW [morse code] radio signals. This training took place in a mock-up of radio operating positions in a warehouse, where we sent and received messages to each other, with experienced operators supervising, to learn the procedures and codes in use. We also attended at Edmonton airport, downtown, where we learned Meteorological observing requirements, and the coding of weather reports. In April a small group of us flew north to Whitehorse via Canadian Pacific Air, where two of us were assigned to go to Aishihik, YT, and two others to Teslin, YT. Supplies for Aishihik were flown in by RCAF Norseman aircraft, when weather permitted, and food and mail took priority over passengers. Thus we missed two or three possible flights before we were taken aboard, to ride on top of the piles of food and mail – no seats or seat belts – to Aishihik Airport, about 100 miles NW of Whitehorse.

Aishihik Airport was a gravel strip in a clearing in the stunted bush of the Yukon. The clearing was about two or three miles north of the end of Aishihik Lake, which itself is 35 miles long and it southern end is several miles from the route of the Alaska Highway, under construction at that time. There was a two-story log operations building, a single story barrack building, a power house with diesel generators, and a construction camp beside the airstrip. There was a Radio Operator, Officer in Charge, already there, who was an experienced operator formerly at Kapuskasing, ON, and a pre-war amateur operator as I learned later. Two other inexperienced operators were also on hand. We each got a room in the log barracks building, and at first it was very hard to get to sleep, lying on a canvas cot in a bare room, with no curtain on the window, in the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’. The sun did not shine all night, but it did not get dark at that time of year. The buildings were constructed with locally cut spruce logs, roughly 8 inches in diameter, squared on three sides to 6 inches, and assembled with the round side outward. The inside was covered with ten-test, a compressed fibreboard of that era. The logs were caulked with oakum from the outside, so the building was quite cozy. The kitchen and dining area were not yet finished, so our crew took meals in the dining hall of the construction company – the ‘Whitepass and Yukon Construction Co.’, who were building the airport and local roads, and the permanent log buildings. Their own accommodation was in tents, and shacks of rough lumber covered with tarpaper.

The radio equipment for the Airfield was not yet installed, but we had a portable, battery-powered radio to keep schedules with Whitehorse, to pass weather reports and messages. Department of Transport technicians were on the site installing the Radio Range Low Frequency Navigation facility in a building about 5 miles off the north end of the runway. Communications transmitters [RCA AT3] were being installed at a transmitter site roughly half way to the Radio Range transmitter site. Radio receivers were also being installed in the upper floor of the operations building, along with the control equipment for both the Radio Range, and the communications transmitters. Receiving equipment was RCA single frequency sets, for 3105Hz and 6210Hz, which were the day and night air ground channels used by all aircraft at that time. Communications receivers were HRO, for the point-to-point communications with Whitehorse – and I do not recall the frequencies in use, but assume they were in the 40 to 80 meter bands. During this installation phase we were the ‘helpers’ wherever needed by the technicians, including work with the lineman installing the remote control cable from the airport to the transmitter sites.

Working with the lineman one day I had an unforgettable adventure. He was up the pole working on a cable splice, which involved matching up the colour coded wires of the multi-conductor cable, stripping insulation and twisting the matching ends together, slip on a cotton sleeve, and when all ends had been matched and twisted together, to ladle hot paraffin over the splice, to saturate and insulate every junction with their cotton sleeve covers. The next step was to slide a lead sleeve, previously slipped over one of the cable ends, over the junction, and then to tap the ends of the sleeve bending it in to make contact with the lead sleeve of the cable all around. When both ends were ready the lineman wanted the pot of molten solder sent up on his rope, and he ladled the hot solder onto a large pad he would hold under the joint, and carefully mould the cooling solder around the cable to achieve a weatherproof, tapered, solder joint. My job was tending the gas burner with the pots of paraffin and the solder, to have them both melted and ready when he needed them. On this occasion I let the pot of paraffin get too hot and it burst into flame! I lifted it off the burner with the tongs, but how to put out the flame? Put a lid on it – but the only lid around was my fedora hat. I put it on the pot and waited a moment till it began to curl, then took it off – the flames were out but my hat was a goner. The splice was completed successfully.

Travel on the road to the transmitter sites was a daily adventure in the first few months, as the trail had not been improved with gravel. Swampy parts were ‘improved’ with spruce poles laid across the road, but they did not always help. Getting stuck in the mud was a regular occurrence; it was common practice to take all available off-duty operators along for the ride, to augment the manpower needed to get out of the mud. By the end of the summer, sufficient gravel had been hauled and spread to keep the road passable most of the time. After freeze-up in the fall, the road was good until the snowbanks provided another challenge.

In a matter of weeks the radio installations were complete, and 24 hour watchkeeping began in the operations building. We listened to our own radio range signal continuously, as we had to call the OIC immediately if the signal failed. We listened to the adjacent stations, Whitehorse and Snag, at intervals to confirm they were on the air and the correct signal, normally a steady ‘on course’ tone, being heard. If we did not hear the correct signal, we had to contact the station as soon as possible. Weather observations were provided to us now by a Meteorological staff who took the observations and provided the coded report, which we would broadcast for any aircraft flying over our station. The weather observations were provided every hour on the half-hour, and any time there was a change in conditions. The weather reports were relayed to adjacent stations on schedule, with Snag sending their report, which we copied, then our report was sent, then Whitehorse which we copied, then followed by Teslin, Watson Lake, and other stations down the route. We would not always hear the stations beyond Whitehorse, but copied any reports we could hear.

Air – ground channels were monitored continuously, and any aircraft flying overhead reported the time they passed over our station. Following our radio range signal, they would notice a moment of silence as they passed directly over the station, and reported that to us. That ‘position report’ would be entered in the station log, and forwarded to Whitehorse, and to Snag. A brief description of the Radio Range system may be useful to anyone not familiar with that navigational aid, which is now relegated to history, along with the regular use of CW communications. The range transmitters fed radio-frequency energy to two sets of tower antennas set at the corners of a large square. The towers were 125 feet tall, and were fitted with obstruction lights at the top and about the 80 foot level. When lights burned out, we had to climb the tower and replace the bulbs. Radio frequency energy was fed to the tower pairs alternately, the letter A [dot dash] being fed to one pair of opposite towers, and the letter N [dash dot] to the other. The radiation pattern of each pair of towers is a figure 8, and the combined pattern is another figure 8 overlaid at right angles to the first. At a distance from the station, an aircraft will hear the letter A if they are in the line of one pair of towers, or the letter N if in line with the other pair. If they are midway between those two signals, they will hear a continuous tone, which is the combined N A signals [dash dot dot dash] [without spacing]. This is the ‘on-course’ signal, and the transmitter site, and the tower positions at each station, are chosen so that these ‘on course’ signals will point directly to the adjacent stations on the airway, and one course would normally point to the local runway. This was the primary navigational aid on our airways for many years.

The aircraft being ferried to Alaska did not all have navigation receivers and air-ground communications equipment to use our radio range stations. For example, the fighter aircraft would have their air to air communication sets, and could communicate with their own control station, but were not equipped for cross-country navigation. So one aircraft of a group would be fitted with the necessary radios to use our facilities, and three or four other aircraft would follow that leader. That worked well most of the time, but if weather closed in on them they had to land at the nearest airport. There was a wrecked Beechcraft in the trees near the airport, which had crashed there before I had arrived. In midsummer a flight of P38 fighters was coming our way, and because cloud was closing in, they had decided to land until weather improved. Unfortunately their leader mistook the gravel shoulder for the runway, instead of the compacted gravel along the centre of the graveled area. As he touched down his nose wheel dug into the soft gravel and his airplane was severely bent. The other three planes of his flight landed successfully on the proper strip, and then had to wait several days for another plane to come to lead them on to Fairbanks. The damaged plane was later loaded on a trailer and transferred to the barge to take it out to Whitehorse.

When an aircraft would fail to report passing the next station, or failed to arrive at Fairbanks, a search would begin, when weather permitted, starting from its last reported position. The search aircraft would be looking for broken trees, or possibly parts of the airplane, and extra eyes were welcome aboard as observers. One such ride was more than enough for me, as the Norseman was flying low, and in and out of valleys, with tight turns to avoid the hills themselves. With no barf bag in sight I used my hat, and then dropped it out the side door. I had no wish to fly as an observer again.

By late summer of 1943 our barracks were furnished with a single bed, a dresser, and a desk and chair for each, and blinds on the windows; and we each improvised shelves with scrounged materials. A wood-burning hot air heating plant was installed in the middle of the building, with air ducts under the floor along the hallways. We were quite comfortable as winter approached. Spare time was spent at softball in the summer, hiking on local native trails, boating when a boat was available, and arguing. The latter was kept going by one chap who could always come up with “Now just supposing —–”. In winter there were lots of frozen ponds for skating. The highlight of any week would be the day mail came in – letters would be read and reread, and they meant a lot to us. Our OIC, Otto, also encouraged us to study the station equipment, to prepare for our ‘barrier’ exams, which were prerequisite to any promotion at that time. To him goes the credit for the fact that I passed my ‘barriers’ as soon as I became eligible. He also kindled an interest in the poems of Robert Service, and the ‘Spell of the Yukon’; and in addition introduced me to the music of the “Midnight Concert Hour” from KIRO Seattle, which came in very clearly on winter nights, and was tuned in every night that I was not on duty. Otto also liked to have fun, and led us in building a boat with scrounged, green lumber, which we kept in one of the small lakes not far from the airfield.

There were low hills to the west of the airfield, which were a favourite climb when we wished, and to the southwest we could see mountains. One peak stood out, and I have never identified which peak in Kluane Park that would be. In the fall and winter its snow-capped peak was clearly visible, even in moonlight, and at times we could clearly see the stream of drifting snow flying from its peak. Like smoke from a distant chimney.

While most of our supplies came in by air, usually in the RCAF Norseman, in the summer a barge towed by a motor boat would bring heavy loads from the south end of Aishihik Lake, where trucks could come in from the Alaska Highway. The man running the motor boat would troll during his run up the lake, and would take his catch to the cook, so we would have a meal of fresh Whitefish whenever he had a good catch. With the onset of winter, the RCAF built a winter road beside the lake, through the bush and swamps, but they had difficulty keeping it clear of drifting snow in winter. It was not passable in summer.

When I arrived at Aishihik I was bothered with corns on my toes, from tight fitting shoes. We had all decided to get moose-hide mukluks made by local Indians as more appropriate foot-wear for that place. The unanticipated benefit was the disappearance of my corns, and with properly fitting shoes, the corns are a thing of the past!

I have many pleasant memories of my time in Aishihik, and friendships made there lasted many years. This sojourn in the Yukon came to an unexpected end in June 1944, when I was called home, due to the illness of my Mother. While I was at home, the Edmonton Region ‘traded me off’ to the Winnipeg Region, and I was assigned to Swift Current, SK, as relief operator. The staff at Aishihik had to pack up my personal effects, and shipped them out to me, packed in a salvaged transmitter crate.

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