The original camp at Wrigley
was built as part of the Canol Project by the U.S. Army's Construction Battalion
which was comprised mostly of black soldiers. In order to service the project,
a series of airstrips were built at Ft. Smith, Ft. Providence, Ft. Simpson,
Wrigley and Norman Wells - all about 175 miles apart. The original camp was
at a small river two or three miles north on the MacKenzie River. It was called
Camp 8-Ball. The Airstrip is on a high level bench area above the river bank
which, at this point, is about 250-300 feet high. I am not sure when R.C.
Sigs were first involved but Dick Bullock was there in 1946 when it closed.
That is why he was sent in as NCO i/c in 1948 when it was reopened. The station
was reactivated because the Department of Transport's metrological bureau
needed more weather coverage. The stations at Reliance, Brochet and Ennadai
were opened at the same time.
reopening of Wrigley R.C. Sigs Station. To staff the station Hal Zinn
came down river by boat from Ft. Simpson with Beams and McQueen (our Service
Corps cook). Dick Bullock and I arrived by Canso aircraft from Calder with
WO II Thompson, who was sent in as the System's representative for the handover
from the Department of Transport (DOT). The DOT rep came in from Ft. Simpson
to locate the inventory, some of which were missing - mostly tool kits.
Of the metrological inventory (the barometer and thermometers, etc.) only
the barograph was left.
The DOT rep gave us a short course on airstrip maintenance - summer and
winter - using a road grader and caterpillar tractors, and also the care
and feeding of grader, D4 Cat., D7 Cat., and a three-ton stake-body truck
(right hand drive converted to Marmon Harrington 4-wheel drive. These trucks
were supposedly built for the French army but were never delivered before
France collapsed in 1940. Why France would want right-hand-drive vehicles
was never explained. It sounded more like Britain. These trucks were used
all through the Canol highway project.
thing we quickly learned when winter came was that shaving was a no-no.
Normal temperatures are -25 to -35 degrees Fahrenheit. Sitting high up
on an open Cat, in those temperatures on a windswept airstrip, where you
could not use a parks hood because it interfered with keeping an eye on
the rollers and drags behind you was a quick trip to frostbite. We were
getting frozen patches on our faces and found that one lap of the 4,000
odd feet of airstrip, a circuit that took about 25 minutes, was all we
could do. We would put the D7 in neutral and walk back in to the shelter
with another operator taking over and so on until the airstrip was serviceable.
At one point in the winter of '48/'49 the temperature was below -40 F for
several weeks without let-up.
worked seven days a week - days, evenings and midnight shifts - with a
short drop on the shift change. At the end of each shift the last duty
was to fill eight oil stoves, each one using five gallons of diesel fuel
that had been warmed near a stove then refilled from a fuel dump. Cold
fuel would not flow through the stove filters. Really cold diesel oil looks
like milky ice crystals and is very thick.
the normal met. and radio duties the station required a lot of "housekeeping".
All supplies were landed on the riverbank about a mile away.
POL, building materials, etc., were loaded on stoneboats and hauled uphill
and into camp. Rebuilding the stoneboats seemed a never-ending task.
Heavy loads such as fuel drums (10x45 gal. drums = 2 tons) ground down
the logs quickly. Nothing could be left on the beach for long as you never
knew what the river would do.
the snow came, dragging and rolling the airstrip became a major task. Calder
recognized the workload and allocated an additional operator. Cpl Joe Murree
came in from Ft. Churchill late November. The extra pair of hands made
life a lot easier.
Water Supply. It must have been mid-December when we were ahead enough
water to half fill the washing machine. Hal Zinn was running the washer
with each of us having a little pile equal to ½ load. Joe Murree
had only been on the station a few weeks and watched with apprehension
as the washing water passed grey and was well on the way to black, with
Hal insisting it was good for a couple more loads. The truth was we didn't
even have rinsing water.
was not a problem as long as the beach road was open. One trip a week to
the spring with 8-10 barrels was usually enough. The spring came out of
a gravel bank, was channelled between the bank and the road. Then under
the roadway to a spur road where the water was loaded. the problem came
during freeze-up when the spring water overflowed the road, freezing on
an angle that made it impossible to use the road. that was when we had to
melt snow. Water barrels filled with snow were packed around the Coleman
oil stove in the kitchen. As the snow melted it was decanted and refilled
with fresh snow - preferably crystallized snow from underneath that had
a better water content. The cook had first call on the water with a little
left over for a face wash. Bathing was restricted to a cat wash.
supplies. In the normal daily routine of running the radio station
the operator on the evening shift did camp chores during the day, assisted
by the "mids" operator until lunch. During the open-water transportation
season, if a boat came in it was "all hands" at work until the
stores were off the beach and safe in camp. The river could be quite unpredictable
in its rise and fall, so stores were never safe on the beach.
illustrate that point, the first boat downriver in 1949 was the Yukon
Transport Company boat MV Sandy Jane, carrying building supplies for two
of our station/quarters buildings, warehouses, etc. Lumber, bricks, cement,
wallboard, furnaces and tanks, electrical and plumbing equipment, etc.,
were all dumped on the beach along with two 100 ft. antenna masts.
At that point our beach road was still out, with a huge ice flow jammed
diagonally through it. We at first tried using the bulldozer to move the
ice, but because of the angle the dozer blade deflected upward, so it
was axes against a 7-foot thick barricade of ice.
the river rose!!!
There was no way we were going to move this mountain of supplies before
it floated off or was destroyed. Panic messages went off to System Headquarters
in Edmonton (Calder) for authority to hire local labour to rescue our
supplies. Calder said OK, but at a rate of 90 cents per hour. The local
rates were $1.00 an hour. Leo Kotowich, the local Hudson's Bay Company
factor said "no problem". He was the one who was going to hire
and pay the local help and then bill DND. Leo said to work them nine hours
and pay them for 10. We had a dozen workers appear with Leo and we billeted
and fed them for three days, almost round-the-clock, to move the stores
with the water steadily rising. Steel mast sections, bricks, etc, were
left to go under water, but everything else was saved.
all this happened Scotty McQueen said he was not going to feed a gang
of Indians - and quit. Cpl. Dick Bullock, the NCO i/c sent Scotty back
to Ft. Wrigley with Leo, and I was nominated as cook. This was the second
time I had been drafted into this chore, the first time being when McQueen
got his feet frozen the previous winter.
A few weeks later Howie Crowell and Ken Stewart came in to oversee the
erection of the 100 Ft. LF antenna masts. At this point half the steel
antenna sections were still under water. There was nothing for it but
to strip off and swim to find them. Some were easy - chest deep where
you could feel for them with your feet, duck down and hook in a meat hook,
then haul ashore with a rope. The ones in deeper water were harder to
find, groping around in opaque water, icy cold with a 5-mph current. The
ice had only been gone for a couple of weeks. Everything was found except
for one centre splice (2 ft. x 2 ft. x 3 ft.) which didn't show up until
the water went down. Eventually we got our masts up.
We had a small library left behind by the Yanks. Some books dated from
the 1890s! Our subscriptions were to magazines such as Readers Digest,
Argosy and Aeroplane. Aeroplane had plans to build flying models which
took us back to our teen years. An order to an Edmonton craft store brought
in a large box of balsa wood, glue, dope, etc. and we were in business.
This was a good way to pass the dark time. When weather permitted, the
models were flown on the airstrip. One of the more successful models was
a "Cygnet" that survived many crashes. We lost a sailplane on
the second flight when it kept on climbing and was gone.