They Beat the Arctic
RONALD A. KEITH
THE AFTERNOON sun slanted through the green tangle of subarctic spruce, casting a dark fretwork of shadows across the deep snow of the trail. Our 18 Huskies, crouching in their sleigh harness near the embers of the campfire, heard the noise first. They pricked up their ears, as if listening to something far off, then whimpered with excitement.
Minutes later the sound came to us too—the muffled rumble and growl of laboring engines. Then over a hump of the trail—just a wide clear swath bulldozed through the forest—burst a cloud of exhaust fog and swirling snow. From its shroud emerged the blunt black snout of the lead snow'mobile of Operation Muskox, most spectacular peacetime adventure in Canadian Army history.
We four men, with our dogs, watched more of the snorting tanklike vehicles follow the first out of the self-made fog—three, four, six, nine, ten of them. The missionary from Fort Norman, 20 miles along the trail behind us, seemed calm. The two blue-overalled Indians, black hair spilling from under their caps, were bug-eyed. I couldn’t analyze my feelings but there was something in the bucking power, the tattered ribbons of a Union Jack streaming back from the lead vehicle, that made me feel as excited as the Indians.
I’d travelled 3,174 miles from Toronto by airliner, military transport plane, cargo glider, bush plane and dog team to meet Muskox, and here it was. These men and machines had been pushing through Canada’s northland wilderness for 56 days—nearly two months of blizzards, 40-below temperatures and treeless tundra. They’d travelled 1,790 miles from Churchill, sleeping in tents pitched on the open snow, eating food dropped to them from the air, fighting white blindness, cold, boredom and monotony to find out for Canada and the world that a military force with air support could live in the Arctic.
Now the lead vehicle—“Penguins,” the Army called them—was only a few yards away, its stubby fenders and glass-panelled aluminum turret tossing and yawing as it slowed. The paddle-wheel action of its revolving rubber treads stopped, the metal cleats settled only slightly into the snow.
There was a flash of crimson as the red-bellied roof hatch flew up. A tall dark-bearded man emerged from the turret, swung over the superstructure and stood on the narrow deck. He wore white canvas mukluks nearly to the knees, baggy brown slacks with flap-andbutton patch pockets a foot square, battle dress tunic, a deep-visored Army cap. It was Col. P. D. Baird, Muskox Force Commander.
“Where are you from?” he called.
I stepped forward and told him we’d come from Fort Norman, and what my business was. As we talked I noticed the Indians and Father Dnis, the missionary, untangling the three six-dog teams and reversing the Indian batchenas (toboggans) on the trail. Col. Baird saw them too.
“You can ride in with us,” he said. He waved me into No. 5 vehicle. Then, because it was near dusk and there was hot food waiting at Fort Norman, he swung
back toward his turret. “I’ll see you when we get there.”
I scrambled onto No. 5’s tread and over the fender to the roof, then down through the open hatch into a shallow compartment about five feet square and rimmed on three sides by a brown leathered bench. There were five of us crouched in the turret cubicle, it was crowded (a normal crew was four) but warm. Even in my parka and fur-lined boots I’d been beginning to feel the cold. It was mid-April, and in the East, the prairies and the Far West the grass would be green in the new spring. But here it was still winter.
Corporal Ed Brownrigg was in the driver’s seat, peering through the broad windshield and pumping two upright tiller bars which, 1 learned, steered the vehicle by braking the treads.
The turret’s brown beaverboard lining had two small windows on each side, Continued on page 76
In Muskox 40 Canadians proved that a military expedition can operate in the Arctic . . . but only with first-class air support
Continued from page. 13
behind the triple-faced windshield. The cab was blind to the rear, however, and periodically the commander, Lieut. Nasmyth, raised the hatch to look back along the trail.
I looked forward, and saw the dog teams scooting along ahead of us, going all out. Then I concentrated on clinging to the leather bench as the Penguin lurched over the rough trail at the normal cruising speed of about 10 miles an hour. It had a rolling motion not unlike one of the more eccentric midway rides.
It was nearly dark by now. Someone flicked a switch and the powerful beam of a turret head lamp probed ahead of uá. As w'e bumped along the beam dipped and swerved, brushing a sparkling pattern against the riffled snow, shooting skyward on the inclines and sometimes penetrating the forest wall.
Travelling on top of the snow rather than through it—the wide rubber treads did the work snowshoes do for a man—we were skirting Plane Lake, the
landing area for Fort Norman, and on the snow-covered ice we could see the blobs of fuel drums and ration packs —a supply cache which the RCAF’s No. 1 Air Supply Unit had dropped by parachute to carry the expedition for the next stretch of the journey.
The trail wddened, then spread into a clearing. The shaft of our head lamp swept past a clutter of dog kennels, roved over the green-gabled wall of a building and swerved across the open field. We could see the slender pinnacles of radio towers and a web of aerial wires against the sky—the Government signals station. Muskox had arrived in Fort Norman, on the Mackenzie River, 370 miles from the Arctic.
Sleep on a Real Floor
As the Penguins pulled up and the men began clambering out, stretching stiffly and looking around them at the settlement’s lights, I thought I could feel what this meant to them. It was one of the three or four times in the last .56 days when they’d been able to look forward to a real meal, the luxury of pitching a bedroll on a floor of wood instead of snow, the knowledge that
another lap in the 3,200-mile journey was behind them. Here they would be for two days, then would begin the last 1,400-mile stretch—with Edmonton, a huge welcome, and civilization waiting at the end of the trail.
I thought I could catch something of that in the 40 tired faces as they got their billeting instructions. Some were to sleep on the floor of the Hudson’s Bay factor’s living room, others in the RCMP and signal station quarters, but the biggest available building in Fort Norman was the mission’s heavybeamed meeting hall, so that it would be home to most of them.
Watching them get settled there, I decided I couldn’t do much about my story that night. Sometime before they pushed on I wanted to find out about their trip, how they’d lived, the troubles they’d had, and what they’d discovered. But this wasn’t the time, as they unfurled eiderdown bedrolls and relaxed with cigarettes and beer on the wooden floor—painted bloodred in keeping with the spectacular yellow, blue and green color scheme the missionaries had used to please their Indian flock.
While they rested, the missionary’s assistant—known simply as “The Brother”—piled the table with tender, juicy caribou steaks, smothered in onion sauce, fat slabs of fresh bread, tins of butter, great pitchers of hot coffee, condensed milk, marmalade and tinned peaches.
It didn’t take them long to clean it up. Then they relaxed again—some to sleep immediately, tired from their 14 hours on the trail that day. Others sat and talked, but one by one they fell off to sleep, leaving finally only one shaggy-bearded philosopher who, eyes half-closed, mumbled reflectively the first general comment I’d heard on the expedition: “If they ever find some place to sell snow,” he said, “Canadians’ll sure be rich!”
But during the next two days I got the story of their trip that far—really the most important part of the trip, because it was made through country far tougher than any they’d see in the last 1,400 miles. I can’t name all the people who contributed to this report, because they were everyone from Col. Baird and the American colonel, who was along as an observer, down to wisecracking privates.
Life in a Penguin
But Capt. Vaughan Stewart of Riviere du Loup, Que., was one of my main sources. He was the operation’s intelligence officer. While others kept records of geological, geographical and meteorological features of the trip, this great black-bearded man in a redand-green checked shirt, one of nine children, an officer in the North Nova Scotia regiment during the war, had kept its diary. From his notes and from the nightly gab fests and mealtime reminiscing the story began to emerge.
The first lap was 520 miles (not as the crow flies) long—Churchill to Baker Lake, alternating between the rough ice of Hudson Bay and the hard-drifted snow of the shore line. Then the moving force cut to the northwest, across the unmapped, trackless Barren Lands to Perry River, on the Arctic. Sea ice, smooth after what they’d been travelling, took them north to Cambridge Bay (540 miles from Baker Lake) and west to Coppermine. And then it was time to cut back down across the Arctic’s western hinterland to Port Radium (465 miles from Cambridge Bay) and then across the ice of Great Bear Lake to Fort Norman, 265 miles away.
They soon learned how to make
themselves fairly comfortable in the six - man, nylon - lined tents they pitched in the snow at the end of each day’s run. In temperatures ranging to 57 below you’d think a tent would be cold. The men told me, slightly surprised themselves that they weren’t— one said it was no colder than some boardinghouses he’d lived in. They packed the sides of the tents with snow to keep out the wind, laid cocoa matting and strips of caribou hide on the floor to insulate their eiderdown bedrolls.
Each night, soon after the tent was up, they’d have a hot fire in the black, two-burner oilstove. A hissing gas lamp threw a white light against the close walls of the tent. They’d do their cooking on that stove—warming up, it was, rather than cooking. They carried the American Ten - in - One ration (familiar to most soldiers during the European war) and the Canadian Army’s special Arctic Monopac. The food was warmed in its tins which were then opened and passed around— corned beef, string beans, maybe pork and applesauce. Biscuits and butter and chocolate bars were the common dessert.
Even the Doughnuts Froze
The ration staples also included cereal, beans, bacon, jam, coffee, milk, sugar and plum pudding. It was dull fare, even with occasional fresh eggs, soups, fruit juices and fresh bread dropped by parachute. And while the men ate, there’d be doughnuts:—also via parachute—thawing on a line strung inside the tent. Any fresh food not eaten immediately was kept in the snowmobiles to avoid freezing.
The men told me they usually crawled into their bedrolls immediately after eating. Sleep was precious to them, after 12 to 17 hours on the trail. And there was little to do besides sleep, and morning came early.
The morning reveille was at 5 a.m., before dawn. After breakfast striking camp was quick routine—one of the things they’d got down pat from long weeks of training at Camp Shilo and later at Churchill. It took 90 minutes to two hours. Then they’d pile into the machines—four (one of them a mechanic) to a Penguin. By seven they’d be off, the Penguins starting easily even in the coldest mornings, because by diluting their oil with gasoline the most dangerous cold weather starting hazard—clogged oil—was hurdled.
The worst weather of the whole trip was met on this first stage, before they crossed the Arctic circle. The temperature ranged from 40 to 50 below zero—so cold that ink froze in pens and snowballs formed in gasoline filters. Winds up to 60 miles an hour whipped snow into smothering, blinding clouds. Once such a storm stopped the entire expedition for three days. Later the expedition drove almost without stopping for 36 hours to make up the lost time.
It was during that period they first fully realized that in a storm there could be danger in a simple walk from one tent to another, because with visibility at zero a man could get lost in 50 feet. They found that even in the settlements a white man never moved in bad weather without an Eskimo guide.
The Eskimos could navigate through a storm by determining exactly where the wind hit their bodies, taking a mental bearing on the known object they wanted to reach, then setting out. But to make sure they always carried snow knives to build shelters if they got lost. Incidentally, although the Muskox men learned at Churchill how to make igloos, they never had to use that knowledge.
It took two weeks to reach Baker Continued on page 79
Continued from page 77 Lake. A landing strip had been cleared on the ice to make it an advance base, and the air supply unit’s six Dakotas had been there with tons of supplies— fuel, food, spare parts, clothing.
Over the Arctic Desert
The bad weather ended there, but the terrain got worse—Arctic tundra, wave after wave of frozen snow and ice flecked with huge boulders and outcropping of rock. Then the rough, rocky country gradually changed to a desert of snow, completely barren, so flat it was shadowless. This white sameness merged snow and sky, eliminated the horizon, produced a sensation the men squinting from the windshields of the Penguins came to know as white blindness. This was a country where few white men had been, where even caribou tracks seemed friendly. To break the dreadful monotony, the men learned to sleep on the leather benches in the heaving, pitching Penguins.
They camped at Chester Bay, at the mouth of the Perry River, then struck on over the smooth sea ice to Cambridge Bay, on Victoria Island. There they found the RCMP’s Arctic vessel, “St. Roch,” wintering in the ice, and saw the skeleton of one of Amundsen’s vessels. Part of the force travelled across the island to Denmark Bay, where no Eskimos live because it is the home of the “little people” who cause winds to blow.
On March 23 they left Cambridge Bay, headed south across the ice of Dease Strait, passed Turnagain Point, named in 1821 by Franklin on his first expedition, and struck the high, rocky Arctic coast line near Coppermine. From there they travelled through passes 2,000 feet above sea level, ran into a blizzard—the first bad weather since leaving Baker Lake—then camped on Dismal Lake. It was the edge of the tree line. At last they had something to look at besides themselves, ice and snow.
Next stop was Port Radium, on the east shore of Great Bear Lake. There they had the expedition’s first and only tragedy. When a vehicle became lodged in a pressure crack in lake ice, a man
from the radium mine, driving to the rescue in a tractor, went through the ice and drowned.
During the stopover at Port Radium, every Penguin was given a complete checkover. Many of them needed complete new sets of tread cleats. Two engines were replaced—one dropped by parachute, another delivered by glider. Many other moving parts were renewed, and one officer estimated later that by the time the expedition reached Edmonton almost every moving part in every vehicle would have been replaced.
Then, just a short time before we came out from Fort Norman to meet them, they ran into new trouble— blocked trails. The forest had been smashed down by bulldozers to cut this road through the wilderness to the oil at Norman wells, and the way was blocked with logs. The Penguins could climb over, but the two cargo sleds each vehicle towed couldn’t. Most of the day before I climbed into No. 5 Penguin’s turret, those men—tired from weeks of arduous travel—had been out on the trail shifting logs. Hearing that, I could understand even better the way they had pitched into their food and then gone straight to sleep in the mission house that first night.
Air Support Essential
At noon on the second day I pulled a ration box into the sun, sat on it, and shuffled through my notes to see what I could make of all the conversations I’d had. This was what I found:
1. A military expedition into the Arctic shouldn’t travel the whole distance by snowmobile. It would be cheaper and faster to load the vehicles into cargo aircraft and fly them to the scene of operations.
2. The Penguin will need much modification before further Arctic use. It burns too much gasoline—nearly a gallon a mile, as much as a Dakota. Its range is too short, its engine-cooling system inefficient.
3. The Canadian Army’s Arctic clothing is not fully effective. Snow sifted through flap openings and melted. The Muskox men feel that in redesigning, experts should study Eskimo
clothing— it’s warmer and lighter than Army gear.
4. This is the most important: ATo Arctic military expedition could function without major air support. Without the fuel which was delivered regularly by parachute, the moving force would have been limited to a range of about 100 miles.
The air supply unit for Muskox was under Wing Commander Jack Showier, and had six twin-engined Dakotas, cargo carriers which needed reasonably well-prepared landing strips; three single-engined Norseman planes, which could land almost anywhere; three Hadrian gliders. It was stationed at Churchill until the moving force reached Cambridge Bay; then air headquarters moved to Norman Wells.
The air unit’s first major job was setting up an advance supply base at Baker Lake. Between Churchill and Fort Norman 298,527 pounds of supplies were delivered to the moving force—mainly by parachute (they had 1,800 chutes for the job). Fourteen advance caches of fuel and rations were put in, and besides the Standard items the force was liable to radio for odd items—logs to bridge new ice near Port Radium, beer, eggs, sleds, mechanical parts, even engines.
The success of this parachute delivery was one of the expedition’s main surprises. Service was so good that the reply to a letter mailed from Cambridge Bay to Essex, England, was delivered seven days later to Port Radium. Most of the drops were made from about 400 feet up, and most of the chutes were recovered by the expedition and picked up by Norseman for later use. Using a conveyor-belt system and an overhead roof cable for pulling rip cords, nine 400-gallon gasoline drums could be dropped from a plane in 11 seconds.
The unit was particularly proud of one operation: the six Dakotas flew 700 miles from Churchill to Perry River, dropped 18,000 pounds within an hour, and returned to base without a miss or a mishap. Despite 10% losses in early dropping operations, the over-all loss had been cut to 2.4% by the time Muskox got to Fort Norman.
Gliders were used only to a limited extent—an engine, for instance, was
delivered by glider to Coppermine. After unloading, the glider was recovered by a Dakota dragging a hook to pick up the glider’s nylon towrope.
Navigation was difficult, particularly in the eastern Arctic, where the proximity of the Magnetic Pole made ordinary compasses all but useless. Astro compasses filled part of the gap, and the planes took bearings by radio from base stations at Churchill and Norman Wells, and from the moving force radio equipment. These Arctic improvisations worked well.
A Canadian Show
That’s the story of Muskox, except for one thing: the feeling of the men. Everyone I talked to during those two days in Fort Norman was conscious of this operation’s importance; conscious that military attachés the world over were reading every word they could find on Muskox; conscious that in the speculation as to its purpose there were —and would be—many excursions and alarums.
They were conscious, too, that it was a Canadian show. The Americans had supplied one Dakota, three gliders and an amphibious ground vehicle, the Weasel—which couldn’t take the heavy going across the tundras, but was to perform well in its own element crossing northern B. C. rivers during its run from Fort Norman to Edmonton. But nobody had done anything for the operation that Canada couldn’t have done herself, had she wanted. During those two days at Fort Norman, while the expedition shed its Arctic gear and prepared for the last lap, more than one man told me he liked that feeling.
Then, just after dawn on the third morning, thejumbloofactivity straightened itself out. The lead Penguin pulled out in front of the others, the tatters of its ensign flapping over Col. Baird’s head as he looked from the open hatch to watch his ugly ducklings fall in behind him. Dogs barked, Indians stood spellbound, and the white men waved good-by.
The men behind the windshields waved back, then turned their eyes to the rough trail ahead. It was only 1,400 miles to clean sheets.