A Trip to the Northland by W.A. Birtles

In 1947, Mr. Birtles was an employee of the Telephone Division, Northern Electric Company.

THIS is the story of my trip north of latitude 55° on the Saskatchewan and Manitoba borders, 650 miles N.N.W. of Winnipeg.

The job was to install a No. 25 type P.A.X. for the Churchill River Power Company at Island Falls, Saskatchewan. Why a power plant so far north? — to supply power for several mines, chiefly that of the Hudson's Bay Mining and Smelting Company at Flin Flon, the fourth largest town in Manitoba. The mine is in Saskatchewan, the mill and most of the town in Manitoba. This is the most northerly copper and zinc producing mine in the British Empire. Here 1,200 people derive a livelihood from the activities of the Hudson's Bay Mining and Smelting Company who mine and mill 6,000 tons of ore per day. The mine was discovered in 1915 by Tom Creighton, one of Canada's best known prospectors.

On my arrival at Flin Flon, the Mine staff houses were overcrowded with auditors, etc., and planes were grounded so I had no option but to continue my journey from the rail head to Island Falls in the best way the Mine Company could provide. This was in steps. I assembled my baggage at the warehouse where an electric locomotive, drawing 5 cars with 5 big dump trucks loaded on flat cars, took 12 truck drivers and myself to Camp 3. Imagine 14 of us inside one locomotive! When she developed a hot box it was a question of who was standing on the "squirrel juice" can. I thought it was the village blacksmith's shop with the smoke and stench coming through the floor, but after a few applications of "juice", we made the trip,17 miles, to Camp 3 which is the beginning of the summer and winter trails. The winter trail is across the ice of the lakes, some 7 in number, and the rough hilly terrain of the portages. Summer transport is by boat to the portages and by truck across these.

An Electric Locomotive.

At Camp 3 the 5 trucks were unloaded and made ready to proceed north some 60 miles to haul sand for an extension to the Power House at Island Falls. The 5 trucks each have two drivers, one to drive at night and one during the day. These trucks never cease to run and have water in the radiators at 40° below zero.

The sole inhabitant of Camp 3 is 'Enry, the genial host who feeds weary travellers like the truck drivers and myself. Here I was met by "Slim" Woods, the pilot of the "Magic Carpet" — a 1936 Ford Van converted into a snowmobile, (20 miles per hour), similar to the "Bombardier" in the picture which makes 40 miles per hour. It was dark ere I climbed in beside "Slim". There were six drivers in the van, with the tools and test equipment. After much chugging at 30° below the lights of Island Falls were a welcome sight towards midnight. Here the Churchill River flows north through Manitoba to Hudson's Bay and is utilized to make 105,000 H.P. This plant is automatic in that the slightest increased load opens the penstocks to increase the flow of water.

A Bombardier. Speed - 40 miles per hour.

The No. 25 P.A.X. will serve as a link in the Power Company's communications systems for the 1,200 people of British and Scandinavian origin who reside there. Other links consist of a metallic line to Flin Flon and a 1,000 watt transmitter. The Companyis now installing a Carrier Current Telephone System on the 112,000 volt power line.

The line to Flin Flon serves as a reporting medium for the various caterpillar trains to give their location and weather information. The 1,000 watt transmitter goes on the air twice a day to check with other stations on weather conditions, and the location of trains and travellers. These trains usually consist of a caterpillar drawing three sleighs and a caboose. All supplies except fruit and fresh vegetables are hauled over the winter road to serve the Falls community for one whole year. The "train" carries a caboose for the second driver and brakeman. An average trip from Camp 3 to Island Falls takes 16 hours by "Cat". The brakeman's usefulness comes in at the portages.

Open Pit

Mine at

Flin Flon.

There are at Island Falls a two room school with 29 pupils and two teachers, a nurse, and movies two nights a week. The winter sports include curling and skating and caribou hunting. It was a thrill for me to accompany some of the men on a caribou hunt. The weather was 28° below zero, the ice two feet thick. I'm sure I chopped 28 inches getting water to make tea at the Chalet where we had the best sport of all—eating. Our party got two caribou. Superintendent Davis later told me his men went out at 52° below and got five, so there is magic in temperature numbers.

Power for

the Mines.

"A" Dam at

Island Falls,


In summer these thousands of lakes are a sportsman's paradise.

Some of the many Indians in this part of the country live across the bay one and a half miles from the power plant. Some of their names intrigued me — Angus Bear and Neil McDonald probably remembering some "Scottish" friend.

One of the mines in this district — 60 miles away, is Sherritt Gordon. In June 1939 I installed a No. 25 P.A.X. there and they were advised of my presence in the district this time. It is a credit to the Northern Electric Company's products to say that Sherritt Gordon had had so much satisfaction and trouble-free operation that they declined the invitation to use a service man.

Saskatchewan Archives Board file A465 VIII.146