August 23, 2012

The Whirlwind Tour of Northern Ontario

I departed from Carp, Ontario at ~0100hrs on Saturday August 18th, and headed through North Bay to Kempis Mountain, my first stop.  There had been a troposcatter repeater at the top of Kempis Mountain to feed the signal from the Mid Canada Line (MCL) to North Bay.  After the MCL was shut down, the site was derelict, but other peaks of the mountain still had antennas on them - so the entire mountain wasn't shut down.  In 2009, as part of an environmental cleanup, the entire troposcatter site was dug up, and nothing at all was left behind, except a brass plaque on the cliff.  I wasn't expecting anything there, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found a fire tower on one hilltop, and an old Microwave repeater on another - the microwave repeater, from the architecture of the tower and the adjoining buildings, are surely military circa 1950s.  This makes sense, as all the pinetree line sites were joined by microwave towers which communicated hilltop to hilltop between each other and (I presume) down to hard wired locations further south.

CFS Ramore
From Kempis Mountain I travelled North on HWY11 just a little further to the former Ramore AS / RCAF Station Ramore / CFS Ramore.  Ramore had been built by the USAF in the 1950s, and it's architecture was subtly different than the Canadian built RCAF Station Parent I visited last year (and again this spring).  Ramore was sold to a private interest after it was shut down, so it wasn't demolished by the Canadian government as some of the sites were.  Some of the buildings have been razed to the ground, but a significant part of the operational site on top of the mountain still stands today.  I was very excited to see it, as I'd seen pictures of the derelict buildings taken by previous urban explorers.  The highlight of Ramore is the asbestos "Canada Tile" clad generator building, which doesn't have any windows left, but does show where the 5 massive Diesel generators powered the complex from.  It's an impressive warehouse-sized building.  Parts of the operations building and some kind of transformer building are also intact, as well as one of the radome buildings which now has an antenna on the top (purpose unknown).  Taking my truck where only ATVs should go, I also found the former COMMs building, hidden on another hilltop - but visible to the discerning eye using Google Maps sat imagry.  Some of the buildings at the base of the mountain have been re-purposed by local interests and seem inhabited; I didn't scour the entire area, I was on a short timeline.  I headed North (West) on HWY11 to stop next at Moonbeam to get a picture of the UFO, then on to Lowther.
CFS Lowther
Lowther AS / RCAF Station Lowther / CFS Lowther, as had been pictured in other people's photos online, was totally scraped off the face of the planet after it was decommissioned.  The only thing left is asphalt and concrete foundations, and even some of them seem to have been dug up.  I went to the highest point and got a few pictures, but there isn't much to see.  It felt good to know I'd seen it, but I was disappointed I couldn't see more of what had been.  I did notice across HWY11 there was an antenna tower, perhaps a microwave antenna tower... and sure enough there was a rusting microwave dish toward the top, and a 2nd one that had fallen off (!) the tower, and lay on the ground below.  The Steelox equipment building matches the dimensions and construction of the others, so I will assume it is a microwave repeater of military origin.  The day was getting late - I headed off towards Oba, but I had to give my exploring partner RH a call... but there was no Cell signal...  I visited the next LCBO I could find and asked for directions to the closest Phone Booth (SEE, I ASKED FOR DIRECTIONS!!) - it was a couple of blocks away... and after getting even more change from the corner store I was able to afford the long distance charges (HIGHWAY ROBBERY!)  RH was on her way, and I was on my way, to Hornepayne Ontario to meet up.
As I made my way to Hornepayne, which I would get to via HWY631, I passed Constance Lake.  Constance Lake is a native reserve ~100-150 miles south of where an F-102 crashed and it's pilot went missing on December 17th 1959, and is still missing to this day.  I suspect I'll be back there another day, looking for information.  HWY11 by this time was sparsely populated with trucking traffic, and once I turned off on HWY631 all that dropped off, and I saw very few cars or trucks.  Hornepayne was about an hour to an hour and half from Lowther, and after driving through town I eventually found the Esso (the meeting spot) and waited for RH. ...I might have indulged and grabbed a nap...
RH had found a hitchiker along the way who was headed up the 631, after saying our goodbyes to him, we packed up the truck, parked her little SUV, and headed to find food.  I wont say where we went for food, but it was in Hornepayne, and the food was... lacking.  
Probably not a good idea in a 2WD truck without a winch
We headed off toward Oba at 2100hrs on August 18th, as the darkness was falling.  Oba was only supposed to be an hour away, and setting up camp there, or at Hornepayne, was going to be equally challenging; so why not get closer to where we wanted to be?  After two hours on the dirt and grass covered back roads of rural-middle-of-nowhere Ontario I saw a berm ahead and hammered the brakes.  Getting out and investigating we found a dirt covered culvert (that was the berm), and some marshy ground past the culvert - then the road continued ahead... RH, who didn't want to be called a "Debbie Downer" for mentioning it, said she'd rather wait till morning and re-assess the situation.  She was right, getting stuck 2hrs by car away from Hornepayne would really suck.  My truck is a 1999 Dodge Ram 1500 Sport 2WD with Posi and the 5.9L Magnum engine.  It's heavy, and it can haul ass - but when it gets stuck, it's stuck for good.  I'd brought straps and a come-along, but none the less, getting stuck at 2300hrs in the middle of nowhere, in a swamp, would have been bad. 
We set up camp and waited till morning.
That's as close as we got to the Oba Gap Filler Site. ~2Km away
Can't you see the fire tower over the trees?
The next morning I was up and checking out the location at 0645.  RH had been right, it was mushy for about 50ft past the culvert, and I couldn't tell how deep the mud was.  There had clearly been someone with a truck-width vehicle through here, the tracks were evident - but I couldn't tell if they went through in 4WD, or if 4WD would be necessary.  We turned around and found an alternate route, the Oba Cutoff was a marked road half way back to Hornepayne - we'd missed it in the dark.  The Oba cutoff wasn't a short route, it took us across a scary looking bridge (the route actually took us across at least 3 or 4 scary bridges) and eventually dumped us at Oba.  By now I was beginning to have doubts of the Garmin, Google, Topo, Satellite photos, and provincial maps I'd consulted before the trip.  Many of the roads which were marked on the topo map as a solid red lines (driveable) had deteriorated to a condition that would barely allow ATV traffic.  After circling Oba, we headed East along what I thought was a road that would take us to a logging road, which would take us within 1km of the Oba Gap Filler Site.  Unfortunately, I now know the road on the topo map isn't the same as the road I'd seen on the satellite view, a road which isn't on the topographic map at all.  The road we took became impassable, covered by swamp.  At one time it was a passable road, so said the topo map, but today it no longer supports vehicular traffic.  There were large areas along the road which have been clearcut and now have no trespassing & pesticide use signs - we tried to head south through them, but none of those would let us all the way through either.  We had pretty much given up by the time we headed back toward Hearst, when we saw a little back road... it turns out that was the road I'd been trying to get to before, and we were then on the road I'd thought we'd been on all along...  Once we were along a couple of kilometres, road conditions blocked us, with a bridge that had fallen apart, so we walked the last three kilometres to a place where we could see the fire tower, where the Gap Filler Steelox buildings should be... 2.1km away (we were standing at 48.99823, -83.93338).  It was getting late and we had to head back to Hornepayne, via Hearst - a significant distance, so we called it quits and turned around.
I don't know when we got to Hornepayne, but it was really late - after seeing RH to her vehicle, I headed to the rail yard in Hornepayne to watch the trains and see if I could get some pictures of the night operations... however, without a tripod, my plan was foiled.  I did witness a change of train engineers around 0500 - and I had a nap before heading toward The Sault.  My route back would be along the 17, with frequent stops for bio breaks, stretching, and some napping.  
By 1730 I was in Sudbury, checking out CFS Falconbridge.  Unfortunately, the gate had just been closed - I spoke to one of the employees, and he thought if I talked to the owner who runs the place I would be able to get permission to ascend the mountain while the facility was open (a nine to five operation)  I have his number, and will give him a call before I go back the next time.
I was home by 0100 on Tuesday August 21st.  That's ~2300km in 72hrs - not bad!

Things I shoulda coulda woulda done differently...
  1. Build a Fire   
    I hadn't anticipated making a fire, didn't have a bucket for water, didn't really know where we were camping, and didn't want to attract the attention of the locals if they were fire-sensitive/paranoid.  I should have built one anyway.
  2. Bring different maps and satellite imagery
    Someone somewhere must have better maps of the area.
  3. Get a handheld GPS with a screen
    It would have been hugely beneficial to have a proper LCD screened GPS while we were hiking to the location of the gap filler site, pre-loaded with all significant waypoints and points of interest.
  4. Blow some shit up
    We should have shot some cans at the sandpit we found on Sunday.
    In hindsight, there was nobody around for a hundred kilometres in every direction.
  5. Carry a compass at all times
    After the last unexpected stop that took us within 2km of the gap filler site, I was disoriented and couldn't tell if the direction we were pointing was in fact the correct direction of the gap filler site.  This was partially because I didn't have the Google Map Satellite image that I'd familiarized myself with, and partially because I didn't have a handheld GPS or compass with me - they were in the truck.  I was going off of memory as to what the fuzzy Google satellite image looked like.
  6. Satellite imagery trumps MNR Topographic Maps.
    Lesson learned
  7. Know when to hold them.  Know when to fold them.
    We didn't give up on the Gap Filler site early enough, and RH was late getting back to her vehicle - my fault for poor judgment regarding time, speed, road quality and distance. 
    I'll know better for next time.
Next Time?

Yes, next time.  Going in that same direction there are still several gap filler sites to see, and a few Pinetree Line stations too.  

View Points of Interest Aug 18-19 2012 in a larger map

The trip, minus all the driving between Hornepayne and Oba

View Larger Map

August 16, 2012

Gap Filler Site Oba (CG10 / M-119D) - Planning

Just to clarify my last experience, I had no expectation or plan of any sort that the Gap Filler site at Westport would be a home of someone, I fully expected it to be an industrial building or garage of some sort.  I'm bummed that I didn't get any pictures, but it really wasn't a "picture taking" atmosphere.  If I'd had my GoPro2 HD at the time I might have got some "dash cam" footage, which would have been priceless.

I think I've mentioned before that the best Pinetree Line sites, and in this case the best Gap Filler sites, are located in the middle of nowhere - because nobody visits them if they aren't easy to get to.  Well, the location of Gap Filler Site Oba is certainly not easy to get to, and I think that makes it a perfect make-up site for the disappointment of the last one.  South East of the town of Oba, Ontario there is a hill with a fire tower and hopefully two Steelox buildings left over from the Cold War.  The Oba Gap Filler was intended to be under the control of RCAF Station Ramore, until it was decommissioned, then it fell under the control of RCAF Station Lowther, for care and feeding while it changed hands to private interests.  Originally Lowther was being maintained by the USAF, so when Oba was being stood up, having the Yanks maintain it wasn't an option. What I really like about the site is, unless you know it's there, and you're looking for it, there's no way you'd stumble across it - there's no road access - AT ALL!  There have been gold mining exploration to the West of the gap filler, so if anyone has visited the site, I'd guess they had to do with either mining, or logging.  That's right, break out the compass and the GPS, we're going hiking in Northern Ontario!

View Larger Map

 There pictures are air photos from the 1960s and 1970s.  On them you can see the circle of defoliation that was done to build the base, and if you blow up the picture you can see the diesel fuel tank and two rectangular Steelox buildings which would house the accommodations and equipment.  The 2nd early spring picture shows a good contrast with the snow and the roofs of the buildings, they're quite clearly visible.

Cropped Image of Roll A24345 Frame 193- National Air Photo Library

Cropped Image of Roll A18016 Frame 028 - National Air Photo Library

What I find really encouraging is the following memo regarding an inspection done at the end of 1963, showing that the buildings were complete, but the tower was not erected.  This gives be a good degree of hope that there is *something* still standing at the top of the hill.  The satellite images above show the access road which was also mentioned in the documentation. 
Our file ref. 10-36 (SOCE)
St. Hubert PQ
29 Oct 63

Chief of the Air Staff
Dept of National Defence
Ottawa 4, Ontario

Ref: -- CE M966, 31 Jul
Inspection - Oba Gap Filler Site
An inspection visit to the Oba Gap Filler Site was conducted by the SCEO of Station Lowther with the following findings:

Steelox Buildings:
1. Winterized by the construction contractors; windows covered with plywood and caulked.
2. Several condensation stains were noted on the walls and ceilings.
3. Electrical conduit and boxes installed but the buildings were not wired.
4. Several hairline cracks in concrete floor; floor not tiles.
5. Building thoroughly aired during visit, but no apparent moisture problem.

1. Concrete foundation installed for tower base appeared in good condition.

Bulk Storage Tank:
1. This 100,000 gallon storage tank was never painted and is in rusting condition. The unit has been requested to arrange the cleaning and painting of this tank in the summer of 1964. Fuel supply lines are not connected.

2100 Gallon Tank:
1. This tank was not installed and is only slightly rusted. Vent outlet covered during inspection to prevent filling with rainwater.

Access Road:
1. This road is approximately two miles in length and is in surprisingly good condition. There were minor washouts, but the road is considered passable for vehicles. No maintenance required before next inspection visit.

1. Several items were left outside with the contractor’s departure. A large electric motor was put in the building during the inspection visit. There is a variety of material on site that could be used for repairs such as plywood, caulking material, asbestos board, etc.
2 In conclusion, the unit advised that it is not considered necessary for a maintenance party to visit the site before the next inspection visit in the spring of 1964. It is to be stressed that to reach the site requires a train from Hearst to Oba and then another train from Oba to Neswaubin (approximately 8 miles). From the tracks to the site is approximately 2 miles by the access road or 1 mile by a path through the bush.

(JW Johnston) S/L
In the coming weeks I hope to have a trip report ready for you to read regarding my experiences near Oba, Ontario - look it up on the map, it doesn't get any more off the beaten path than Oba!

August 05, 2012

Gap Filler Radar Station - Lac Ste Marie (CG7 / C-2D)

On August 4th 2012 I took a short trip to see one of the few mostly-intact, but seldom photographed, Gap Filler Radar Stations.  The Lac Ste Marie Gap Filler site was being built between 1960-1962, and when the project started to get cut ~1962, the equipment building, the accommodation building, a 50,000 gal fuel tank, a 3 season 3+ mile access road, perimeter fence, foundation for the tower, well and toilet facilities were already in place.  The tower was built to increase the value/use to the new owner (Camp Fortune) after the project was already slated to be cut. It was one of less than a dozen sites considered to be 95% complete, so it is a little special.

Gap Filler sites were built at a varied cost, depending if they had to bring in a road, do significant work on levelling the area, or other local issues. One problem was the time which they were able to work on the site, they could only work from June to December due to the weather, and even then the contractors didn't want to bid or go to some of the places the engineers said they had to build a site.

According to previously classified documents the reasoning for deploying these low-altitude radar sites was to cover off the radar coverage that the Pinetree Line stations were missing, below 6000' was sketchy, "Gap Filler" sites were supposed to firm up the net above the 2000' range.  Other declassified documents show that the intent was to extend coverage to 600' above ground level.

If you're planning on visiting; the road to the top would best be navigated with an ATV, motocross, or mountain bike (if you're an athlete).  It's a steep hike, and I wouldn't recommend doing it by foot.  There is no gate at the bottom, despite what the historical record says or the topo map shows.
Easy to locate, just follow the road "Chemin Du Radar"

View Larger Map

View Larger Map

The road to the top is dirt and rock, and meant to be used only three seasons of the year.  I was unaware of that before going, and this is significant because there must be another Steelox building near the paved road where the military would have stored their tracked vehicle(s) for winter transport to the top of the hill.  You see, the plan in 1960 was, for the "Northern" sites to store, locally, a tracked vehicle so the road didn't need to be snow ploughed.  They would store that vehicle somewhere they could get to, right off the local main paved 4 season road.  I have a good idea of where that might have been, and I think I saw what looked like a quonset hut, but didn't think to check it out as it was very far from the gap filler site.  I guess that's something to check out the next time I visit!

View Larger Map

I've added comments to the pictures so it is more evident what they are...