The Whitesand Radio Adventure by Neil Rutherford

This story is taken from Neil Rutherford's personal recollections, which he called "Times of My Life".

The water to operate the powerhouse came down from two sources, the Churchill River (main source) and the Reindeer River. The flow of water in both cases was just what Nature established. We had no control over it. In summer when the flow got too high, all we could do was open up the spillway gates at A dam, and let her go. Then, during the winter low water season, we would sometimes have to ask the mine people to go easy on the usage of power.

This situation continued until about 1940 at which time the Company set up a project to build a small dam at the south end of Reindeer Lake. This would raise the lake elevation about 4 or 5 feet. With the lake area being about 2500 square miles, this was a way to control a LOT of water, saving it up in summer, then using it to augment the Churchill flow in winter by opening the Reindeer dam.

This little dam was at “Rocky Falls” and was unusual in that ALL the steel pieces were made short enough to fit in a Norseman plane and were flown up and assembled on site. The stop-logs were cut in the bush and hand hewn into square logs with a broad axe and adze by a French-Canadian axeman, Joe Pineault. These logs fit well enough in the dam sections to hold water with surprisingly little leakage! Of course, there had to be a resident dam attendant, and a local man was hired, Olav (Alf) Olson. He build a residence on the lake shore with his wife Charlotte (a Métis) and 7 kids. They were the dam attendants as well as maintenance crew.

I became involved because I was the only man on the staff who had had radio experience. I was a licensed amateur radio operator, VE 4 RG. I assembled and installed a radio station in the same house. It was CZ 2N and was for the sole purpose of communicating with Island Falls for the control of water through the dam, by positioning the stop-logs. This radio station was, of necessity, battery operated. There was a wind-charger mounted on a tower beside the house. And it proved to be completely satisfactory in keeping the station in operation.

The dam was a great help, and was in operation until 1941, when they decided to build another dam about 5 miles downstream where the Reindeer River emptied into Fafard lake. This was to be a BIG dam, and the project was named “Whitesand.”

The radio station had done a lot of work, and Mr. Davis suggested that I go up and give it a real good overhaul. It was to be moved to the new dam site and would have to be ultra-reliable and able to provide 100% continuity of service for a crew of 50 men for a year at least. I went up and gave the equipment a good look-over, and decided that it needed so much cleaning and repair that it should go down to my shop where I could give it the works. So I gathered EVERYTHING up, loaded it in the plane and took it away home. This would have been in early December.

A couple of weeks later, the first of MANY freight hauls went up through Island Falls on the way to Whitesand. It was a Linn tractor train with a load of equipment to set up camp and a crew of 15 men for a start. Then the weather got into the act. Fog, fog, and continual fog. Planes were all grounded and there was NO communication with Whitesand.

Then, on the day before Christmas, Mr. Davis called me in and asked if I could undertake a snowmobile trip to Whitesand with the radio and some Christmas supplies for the men. Doug Russell and Garnet Jeffrey would drive. I said, “Of course I’ll go. When do we leave?” He replied, “Right now.” So we were committed. I loaded up all the radio equipment, the Company put in a load of food supplies and Xmas goodies for the men, and away we went. We left the Falls at about 5:00 p.m., NOT in a Bombardier, but in the old Ford Snowbird, which was just a Ford van modified with a track assembly in place of the rear wheels and skis in front. That’s all we had in those days.

Mr. Davis said he would start listening for us on the radio at 7:00 a.m., assuming that we would have had time to reach Whitesand, and get set up. It happened that this was a bit optimistic!!

Before we even reached Flanagan Lake, it had become obvious that we were in for an ordeal. There wasn’t much snow, and not nearly enough to cover the fallen logs, stumps etc. with which the portages were fully littered. So it just became a case of go SLOWLY and HANG ON. The small lakes were fine, so we made good time on them. In any case it was no joy ride. Fortunately I had worn my big old Buffalo coat, and the heater was working, so we were able to keep reasonably warm. Unbelievably, I actually fell asleep several times. I left the driving and navigation strictly to the experts, so we progressed.

I was quite oblivious of our location most of the time, and it must have been around three o’clock when I was awakened by a gut-wrenching CRASH as the van came to a complete stop; and silence. We knew from experience that this was bad news for us. So we all just sat quietly for a while. I just happened to have a bottle of rye in my pack, and the occasion seemed appropriate, so we had a couple all around.

Then Garnet said, “Well I better take a look.” He did and then closed his window saying, “The track assembly is gone.” It was turned crosswise and was completely destroyed. The temperature was -40 degrees!

The Linn tractor, when it passed there two weeks before, had broken through the ice and had made an awful mess getting out of it. They had stuck a small spruce tree in the hole as a warning, However, Garnet had either not seen the tree, or didn’t realize it was a warning of broken ice. We were going at full speed, when without any warning we hit a large block of ice, possibly several ice chunks. They were all around us, and we hadn’t made any detour.

My first thought was “what are we going to do now”. In any case, both Garnet and Doug seemed unperturbed. At least if they were, it didn’t show. This attitude was reassuring to me, know that both of them had probably been in similar situations before. Anyway, something had to be done. The ball was now in my court. I had thought of this possibility, so the first order of business was to have another all around. And believe me, this helped a lot!

Then I proceeded to take an inventory of the situation and the equipment. It seemed that quite possibly I could devise an operational communication link of sorts with the equipment on hand. Fortunately I had included a large roll of wire. I found that it would just reach from the van to the warning tree, so I hung it up, and we had an antenna. Then we just dumped all the other freight out onto the ice, and I proceeded to set up the radio in the back of the van. By the time it was ready, it was approaching 7 o’clock, and the sky was CAVU [pilot talk for ceiling and visibility unlimited]. Doug and Garnet went ashore and had a big fire going, and a couple of cans of beans warming for our breakfast.

By the end of breakfast, it was 7 o’clock, so I turned on the radios and, with fingers crossed, called CZ 2M, Island Falls. I could hardly believe my ears when I heard CZ 2M loud and clear coming right back to my call. Mr. Davis said, “Well I see you’ve had a good trip and have the radio going on sked.”

I hated to disillusion him, but I had to report of course that we weren’t there at all, but were guessing that we were on Bowman lake and completely broken down. I told him the sky had cleared. He stated that it was the same there too, and that he would call Alex More [chief pilot for Hudson Bay Air Transport in Flin Flon] and see if he would like to spend his Christmas morning on a rescue mission. In a few minutes he said that Alex was agreeable to that suggestion, and would be up shortly.

In about an hour, BFT landed right alongside. Then we simply loaded him up and took off for Whitesand. In only a few minutes we were there and the crew were off-loading the freight.