by J.P. Croal

(Note: Mr. JP. Croal's first associations with the Canadian Arctic were during Exercise Muskox when he represented the RCN(R). During this Exercise he was in charge of advance bridging and rafting. He holds the distinction of being nominally the first DRB appointment to the Defence Research Board's establishment at Fort Churchill. He commenced his services there in August 1947 and resigned to re-join the RCN in 1949. Although he returned to the Navy environment, he did not lose contact with DRB or the Arctic and until 1958 was closely associated with the Board's Arctic operations in many ways, particularly in the voyages of "HMCS Labrador" and as liaison officer and co-ordinator for the Lake Hazen Operation. In 1965 he retired from the RCN to private business in Ottawa.)

My time at Fort Churchill actually started during the winter of 1945-46 when the men of Exercise Muskox assembled under the leadership of Colonel PD Baird for six weeks of training prior to starting off on this historic expedition.

It was therefore just like going home when in late August 1947 I arrived at Churchill with a BB X-Ray diamond drill to become the first DRB employee at the base. My first mission was to commence a drilling program for temperature recording of the permanently frozen ground and in general to find out as much as possible about permafrost.

The spirit of adventure and the joy of being a part of the scientific program in the north was so strong in some of us in those days that, speaking for myself, I headed north as a grade 4 technician without inquiring what my salary was to be. My wife, Barbara, and children, Bonnie and Jamie, were to remain in Port Hope, Ont., until I could establish a home in Churchill, houses and married quarters were just not available in those early days.

My first problems on arriving at Churchill were to procure some sort of building in which to store the drilling machinery and to serve as headquarters, and also to procure some means of transportation. DRB plans at Churchill were not too well known to the local Army authorities at the time and it took a good deal of talking to convince the Commandant that I was the first of a group of scientists who would be arriving to set up a permanent base.

The first building I managed to scrounge was an old searchlight platform on skids with an enclosed generator space about 6' x 8' x8'. This was DRB Headquarters at Fort Churchill in 1947. With the issue of a Canadian Army jeep a short time later I was in business and could tow my headquarters to the various drill sites.

Running a diamond drill in permafrost is a ticklish matter at best. Without a helper, as I was for the first few months, it was a bit difficult. After much trial and error the first series of holes was completed on the rock outcrop behind the hospital.

It was not long before the value of the drill was realized in this area, then I had steady requests for holes for radio ground leads and exploration drilling for future buildings by the Army and the National Harbors Board.

I missed a few meals in those days for once a hole was started it couldn't be stopped until cased because of re-freezing of the permafrost.

There were not many officers with wives and families on the base in 1947 and we bachelors lived in part of the old hospital wing in the "Bull Pen". The mess and bar were quite primitive, the bar consisting of some planks topped with masonite, but in many respects a much warmer and friendlier place than in later years when all modern conveniences were installed. I think the early pioneer spirit at Fort Churchill contributed greatly to the success of this base; everyone pitched in to help one another and it was not long before my drill and I teamed up with Captain Bill Crumlish of the US Corps of Engineers engaged in similar permafrost studies. From then on there was never any shortage of trucks, tractors or manpower.

The big problem of course was to get re-established with wives and children. I solved my problem by building a shack, for this is all it could be called, in the town of Churchill. This was built mainly out of scrap lumber from an old dump, started in November 1947 it was ready for the family about a week before Christmas. The work was done on weekends and at night. There was no shortage of volunteer labor when it became known that Jim was building a house. An old friend of Exercise Muskox days, Mr. AA Anderson, local storekeeper, gave many hours of his time quite freely and was the chief architect during construction. Major Bob Faylor, US Army, and Captain Bill Crumlish, US Army, contributed long hours and useful service with trucks and a tractor. From across the Churchill River where he lived came master ship builder (then a trapper) Ed Borge with his tools to repay a service I had done him when he was sick, also another old trapper, Ole Sanden, spent many hours hammering at "Jim's" house. At one time or another nearly all the townspeople of Churchill hammered a few nails into the house and so it was built, and I became one of them, and this is the secret of the North - the people.

As long as I live I will never forget the stormy night the train arrived at Churchill with my wife and children and we were escorted back to out home by the townspeople for the housewarming.

Every day that first winter was a battle for survival. There was no such thing as a day off, for such a luxury would put you one day behind the elements. With the arrival of Mr. AV Hannam late in 1947 to assume command of the DRB establishment things started to look up in a temporary kind of way. Bert's reaction to the 6' x 8' x 8' drill shack which served as the DRB Headquarters Fort Churchill which I proudly presented cannot bear printing and it was not long after that he hot-footed to a meeting with the Camp Commandant to try and procure additional storage space. Several meetings later when Bert's cubicle in the "Bull Pen" overflowed with scientific stores, the Commandant issued two prefabricated "Stout Huts" which became DRB Headquarters, Fort Churchill. Among the first DRB employees at Fort Churchill were JP Croal, AV Hannam, J Ingebritson, G Marier, W Beckel, JD O'Connor.

The original scientific work at Churchill was mainly concentrated on permafrost, problems of Arctic clothing and equipment, fuels and lubricants, nutrition and other medical problems and, in the summer, entomology. In order to venture further afield that first winter I attached myself to the field parties of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals. In charge of these early trials was an old "Muskox" companion, Major Frank Riddell. We were often away hundreds of miles out on the barren lands for 20 days at a stretch. The opportunity to study local environmental conditions in this manner was most valuable and soon I knew every fish hole and caribou migration trail for hundreds of miles around Churchill. I considered that "Uncle" Frank Riddell was one of the most accomplished travelers the Arctic has ever seen. RCEME facilities for repair work were very limited at the Army camp during the early days and so the Signal Corps had nighttime use of the railway roundhouse in the town. It was not unusual to have Frank and a crew of five or more men arrive at our house for a feed of caribou steaks at midnight. These early days at Churchill made very close ties among scientists and military personnel which are maintained today.

Recreation in the early days at Churchill was quite impromptu, the very nature of our work was recreation, for in the course of traveling over the country there was always an opportunity for goose and duck hunting in season. Caribou migrated in thousands often right through the town and the fishing was fabulous.

Quite a lively little beer drinking fraternity was formed in 1947 called the MacClusky Clan. The initiation usually consisted of performing a Highland Fling with a rug for a kilt and a vacuum cleaner under one arm. Very few visiting VIPs escaped becoming members of the MacClusky Clan.

Most visitors experienced the wonderful hospitality of the residents of Churchill Town, who in turn were always included in mixed functions at the Army mess.

The small group of Army nursing sisters will never be forgotten in those early days. Their charm in the mess and hospitality in their small lounge will be remembered by a good many of the early scientists.

The arrival of the entomologists under Mr. AC Jones always announced the start of another summer. They were a lively group covered with evil smelling bug lotion, pith helmets, mosquito netting and with jars, bottles and specimen nets hung on their persons they performed many mysterious gyrations which amazed us all. By this time the Army had begun to realize that the scientists had come to stay. Daily in the summer months there were requests to the Army for vehicles to go out into the muskeg and gas cars to go down the railway to Goose Creek which seemed to be the favorite breeding place of all insects. It is a strange coincidence that it was also a good place to fish.

Somehow we got through the first winter and it was good to see the entomologists arriving in force, for we then knew we had survived the winter.

The spring of 1948 saw many changes although accommodation in Army quarters was very scarce. DRB had added a Jamesway Shelter to its two Stout huts and in addition had an eye on further storage facilities in the lower camp. A brand new Ford car gave us great prestige in Army circles and we were expecting delivery of two Bombardiers in the fall for winter travel. Also in 1948 Mr. AC Jones was appointed Superintendent and saw to the construction of an H-hut shipped from Ottawa and erected by DRB personnel who came especially for the construction job. This hut was put up in one month and provided temporary laboratory space, mess, living quarters, warehouse and garages which served until the new laboratory was completed.

I did not see much of the summer of 1948 at Churchill as I was sent to join the US Naval re-supply mission to Thule and Resolute Bay to carry out drilling at Resolute for a seismic site and to conduct permafrost studies. With me on this task was a student, Mr. Peter Bremner. Construction at Thule was just starting at this time and Resolute had been established only the previous year.

As construction at Resolute in 1948 was still in progress we slept wherever we could find a dry nook to lay out our sleeping bags. Everyone took a turn in cleaning up the mess and galley after meals and all pitched in to help build the ionospheric station and get stores put away against the winter.

Ice was fairly bad at Resolute Bay in 1948 and at one period the USS Wyondot almost dragged her anchor up on the beach.

I remained after the convoy sailed to assist in sample drilling on what is now the aircraft runway. Freezing conditions and snow made this an uncomfortable task and it was common to see polar bear tracks in the snow around the drill in the morning, probably attracted by the smell of tallow and hot grease.

I believe that DRB probably set a record that year in diamond drilling further north in Canada than anyone before.

Winter had set in at Churchill when I arrived to join my family in our shack. It had been a hard task for my wife looking after two small children, keeping two coal stoves burning, hauling water and all the other chores which go with looking after a house with no conveniences. Without good friends in town, Colonel AJ Tedlie the Camp Commandant, and Mr. Bert Hannam, to keep an eye on her situation it would have been a most trying period for her.

The winter of 1948 was very busy as usual, operating out of the H-hut made us more or less independent and with our own mess we were free to arrive and depart on missions out on the barrens at any time of the day or night.

We were the first to use Bombardiers in this part of the north and our two machines were kept constantly on the go. One of the machines I kept permanently loaded with several week's provisions and camping gear and could take off at a moment's notice.

We made good use of the winter trail which Major Frank Riddell and his Signal Corps trials unit broke through to South Knife Lake, a distance of approximately 150 miles. Along the trail we studied river and lake ice formation, permafrost, clothing and equipment, rations and at times carried scientists who were interested in studying the effects of cold and isolation on the soldiers in Major Riddell's team who had camps at various intervals along the trail. These were most comfortable camps, well sheltered in the scrub timber of the barrens.

Apart from the vehicles of Major Riddell's team, the DRB Bombardier was the only vehicle which made the full trip into South Knife Lake and back. Many experimental American and Canadian test vehicles tried to make the trip but due to mechanical failures and other difficulties none succeeded. Great improvements were made to the Canadian manufactured Bombardier as a result of DRB suggestions during these early trials and today we are using this vehicle throughout the entire Arctic.

Having no radio communication installed in the Bombardier at this period great care had to be taken to avoid trouble spots along the trail such as flooding at the river crossings, bogging down in deep snow and bad ice on lakes. Sometimes we had to wait at river crossings which had flooded over the old ice, until they re-froze. This might take several days. It was during periods such as this that one learns patience which is one of the secrets of good traveling in the North.

Quite often Mr. AC Jones would send out groups of visiting scientists with us in the Bombardier so they could be indoctrinated in camping out in cold conditions. These were welcome breaks in our lives for we met many distinguished scientists on a man-to-man basis and found them all to be quite human. Sometimes we were asked how we managed to keep warm and still get our work done under the cold winter conditions. Our stock reply was, we eat, sleep and work and when cold we work a little harder.

As time went on we gained the respect of the Canadian and American military personnel, for unlike the first winter when we were dependent entirely on the help of the Army, the second winter we looked after a good many visiting military personnel and assisted them with their trials. I have discovered in 20 years of Arctic operations that Servicemen and scientists can work and live together in perfect harmony.

The first two years at Churchill were a period of learning and working with the local conditions. There were growing pains which were overcome and on the whole most of us were so busy we didn't have time to be unhappy. Furthermore we had youth on our side, the oldest member of our team was Mr. Bert Hannam. His mature influence and very king nature overcame many obstacles.

Sometimes the Army nursing sisters would be invited out to one of the winter camps of the Signal Corps trials unit. The poor girls were completely clothed in the men's cold weather gear including string vests worn next to the skin. Needless to say, a woman's anatomy is not designed to carry a string mesh vest and there was much squirming and agitated female comment.

Mess dinners with the Army when entertaining visiting VIPs were usually hilarious events. Col. AJ Tedlie was probably one of the most colorful of the early Commandants. Outdoor hockey organized by him, at -40 F was an invigorating event. Winter or summer he always met visiting aircraft dressed in his kilt.

We had two Army Commandants at Fort Churchill during the two years I spent on the base. The first was Colonel Cameron and then Colonel Tedlie. They were patient, excellent officers who bent over backwards to help the scientist and in those days they had plenty to do keeping their camp in operation without having to worry about groups of "long hairs". The Army was very wise in itsselection of these officers to this early Command.

I left Fort Churchill mid-way through 1949 and rejoined the permanent force Royal Canadian Navy and so had little to do with the new Laboratory except as a visitor during later expeditions.

I consider the two years I spent with DRB at Fort Churchill among the happiest and most rewarding of my Arctic career. The associations with scientists of these early years are maintained today. The Arctic, as a result of some of our early trials, is today a comfortable place in which to live. Great strides have been made in bettering all the military techniques of Arctic operations, which in turn have benefited the civilian population of the country.

It is sad news to learn of the closing of DRNL. To many of us this was home. I always felt sorry seeing visiting scientists depart by train or aircraft for their homes in the South, for I knew they could not take with them the peace and contentment of the North.

Ed. Note:. We wish to express our thanks to Peter Croal, son of J.P. Croal, for permission to reproduce this article.


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