CFS Alert - Stories

by Jim Thoreson

Webmaster's intro: Robert Peary (May 6, 1856 – February 20, 1920) was an American explorer who claimed to have been the first person, on April 6, 1909, to reach the geographic North Pole. Peary made several attempts to reach the North Pole between 1898 and 1905. For his final assault on the pole, he and 23 men set off from New York City aboard the Roosevelt under the command of Captain Robert Bartlett on July 6, 1908. They wintered near Cape Sheridan on Ellesmere Island and from there departed for the pole on March 1, 1909. The last support party turned back on April 1, 1909 at latitude 87°47' N. On the final stage of the journey to the North Pole only five of his men, Matthew Henson, Ootah, Egigingwah, Seegloo and Ooqueah, remained. On April 6, he established Camp Jesup near the pole. In his diary for April 7 (but actually written up much later when preparing his journals for publication), Peary wrote "The Pole at last!!! The prize of 3 centuries, my dream and ambition for 23 years. Mine at last..."


While I was stationed in Alert, someone got the bright idea to follow Admiral Peary's track as he ventured to the North Pole in 1909. A number of us got together and departed Alert in a pair of Bombardier B12 all-terrain vehicles. The group of 8 included Alert's CO, which I believe was RC Sigs Major Berry at the time, Taffy Baynam and myself representing the RCAF, Navy hands, Sigs types to represent all three services as well as the Officer in Charge of DOT Aeroradio.

Our group continued to Markham Inlet where one B-12 remained while the other continued on to Cape Sheridan, the starting point of Peary's expedition. We headed north along the coast and eventually came upon remains of Admiral Peary's camps. There were numerous fuel cans, hard tack, wooden boxes, and broken sled runners.On the return trip, several artifacts were retrieved and taken back to Alert where they were put on display. As far as I know they might still be on display. I can't remember the duration of the trip because of the 24 our daylight  but I do know that it was extremely rough bouncing all day in those snow machines.

#NT1 - The members of Northern Trek. Some of Peary's "cache" is visible in the upper left corner of the picture.  See photo NT-5 for more detail. (Photo by Jim Thoreson)
NT#2  - Time to refuel the B12's. Note the date of 3/60 on the fuel drum. (Photo by Jim Thoreson)
NT#3 - Hey! We're supposed to go that way. (Photo by Jim Thoreson)
NT#4 - The Bombardier B12 in its native realm. (Photo by Jim Thoreson)
NT#5 - Markham Inlet. The Arctic has a beauty all of its own. (Photo by Jim Thoreson)
NT#6 -  The first signs of Admiral Peary's expedition. (Photo by Jim Thoreson)
NT#7 -  More evidence from the expedition. (Photo source unknown)
NT#8 - Some of the artifacts were retrieved and brought back to Alert. (Photo source unknown)
NT#9 - Sign post.  This signpost was put up by someone at the point of land at Cape Sheridan
where the pole trekers leave land and strike off across the ice pack for the pole. (Photo source unknown)

By Jim Thoreson

alert_kite.gif Our shift was really bored on a set of "days off" in the summer months so we decided that since there was so much wind up at Alert, we should build a large kite. Our group managed to built one about seven feet high. It was the old style kite with a long tail on it. Once finished, we got a couple of balls of twine from stores and away we went.

There was about four or five of us there. We got the kite airborne and away it went. We kept paying out the twine until one ball was all used up. We tied on the second ball and continued. By this time, the kite could barely be seen high over the pack ice. As the second ball of twine was paid out, the man  holding the string missed the end as it slipped through his fingers. By the time he yelled, it slipped through the rest of our hands as well. So the kite was off on it's own.

The weight of the twine kept it flying and upright to a certain degree, but in any case, it dragged the twine along the ground and the kite continued its flight due north, out over the ocean. Since it was summer, there was a small piece of water between the pack ice and the shoreline. As the kite continued its northerly route, the twine hit this stretch of water which created additional drag and caused the kite to gain altitude. As the wet string left the water and slid over the ice pack, it picked up snow which started to coat the twine. This too created more drag, causing the kite to continue rising. Soon it was out of sight, still travelling north and at a high altitude. It was never seen again. In retrospect, we were sorry we didn't put a bunch of tinfoil on it, and maybe it would have caused the Russians to scramble their jets if spotted on their radar.

by Maurice Drew

I don't recall the date but it was 1965 and we were on our way to Edmonton via Resolute when a bad storm came up. Our flight could not land at any of the alternates, including Thule and it didn't have sufficient fuel to return to Edmonton. I'm sure F/L Nurse was the pilot. I was in the cockpit jump seat when he declared an emergency. Although Thule was closed it was the only field with ground control radar. I was in my early twenties and remember it being an adventure. What I didn't know until we were safely on the ground and a few miles from the terminal in a howling gale was that we actually landed without the gear down!  When we made it to the mess in the early morning, as in about 2 AM, I started to shake uncontrollably. The USAF cook gave me a glass of orange juice laced with sugar. I guess he knew how to treat diabetic shock, even though I am not diabetic. It worked!

Another time we lost our rear elevator trim on our way into Resolute in a Herc. I think I hold a record for being stranded in various places throughout the Arctic. We were returning form Alert and an International Geophysical Science excursion into the Canadian Arctic. Many of the scientists, a few from the Defence Research Board  here in Ottawa, had their delicate instruments in cardboard boxes and canvas sacks. The RCMP officer at Resolute Bay decided to kick each of them to be sure there was no contraband (such as liquor from Thule). There was hell to pay for the damage and the kerfuffle caused a two day delay in getting the flight back on schedule! I often wonder what happened to the RCMP officer. He was the same man who drove me to visit the Indian village a few miles west of the military base and left me there to walk back!

Also, I have a photo slide somewhere of a ship caught in the ice at Thule. The ship contained several months' supply of booze, cigarettes and other goods that were too tempting for some to just leave there. So the US military brought out a gun and blew the ship to pieces!

by Gord Walker

Our flight originated in Edmonton and already had some civilian carpenters and labourers onboard when it stopped in Inuvik to pick up about a half dozen of us Navy types.  It was August and passengers on the Herc flights at that time of year were secondary to the cargo and supplies heading north.  In our case the load was roof trusses which were lashed down in the centre of the hold while the passengers were seated along the sides of the fuselage facing inward.  As we boarded, the cargomaster , a seasoned RCAF Master Corporal, told us that the roof trusses were an awkward load that could shift despite their being lashed down and instructed us to keep our feet braced solidly against the trusses throughout the flight. It was especially important during take-offs and landings, so they wouldn't shift and crush us against the fuselage.  At the time it seemed like a valid request, but in hindsight I think it was the cargomaster's little joke on the naive passengers.

Our Herc was one of two that left Edmonton enroute to Alert, the second carrying only crew and supplies.  Both were scheduled to stop overnight in Thule before making the final leg of the journey to Alert, and both were to reach Thule within minutes of each other, just in time for dinner.

The other Herc landed first and we came in only minutes behind, but rather than getting a warm American welcome we were met with jeeps and a personnel carrier carrying a platoon of armed Marines, rifles at the ready.  They stormed onboard the aircraft and ordered everyone, including the pilot and crew, to get out and stand beside the plane facing it, arms outstretched over our heads and hands resting against the side of the fuselage.  Apparently there had been a mix-up in landing clearances and only one Herc was expected, hence the panic when a second one arrived onscene.
  It had become quite warm and stuffy inside the Herc and most of us had stripped off our jackets and were dressed only in bells and gunshirts when ordered off the plane.  It was quite chilly despite it being August and we were kept alongside the plane for about 45 minutes, although the Marines did permit us to stand at ease after the first 15 minutes or so, but still facing the aircraft.  They still kept their rifles trained on us too.

Finally the paperwork got straightened out and we were permitted to get what we needed off the plane and directed to our quarters for the night.  Of course by now the kitchen was closed so we had to make do without supper, at least one that consisted of food.  The flight to Alert the next morning was a bit rough, or seemed to be, and the noise inside the aircraft certainly did nothing to help the headaches which many of us were sporting as a result of the previous evening's "socializing" with our American friends in Thule.

by Maurice Drew.

I knew a pilot who set up a race among Herc's C01, C02 and C03 during Operation Boxtop in Alert, circa 1964. The prize was bragging rights. The pilot's name was Max, for Maxwell. I don't know who the other three were. but he also went by the nickname "The Silver Fox" because his hair was bright white. One day, he nailed a red flag on the corner of the generating shack next to the runway and challenged other pilots to knock it off during a fly-by. During a race he would fly just a few feet above the ground, gear up, with the tailgate open while the crew yanked on a chain releasing the oil drums. The drums bounced around the runway and created a mess for the ground crew to mop up  Just imagine if anyone had been hit by a flying oil drum! On one of these races he was in such a hurry that when he arrived Thule and approached a hanger, he rotated too late and knocked the tip off a wing. He was grounded, of course but he was a hell of a pilot.

It was Max at the controls one afternoon while I was aboard his Herc destined for Thule. I was the only passenger and except for the crew, the plane was empty. I was in the cockpit when he asked me if I had ever been to the Pole. He cut the outboard engines and we flew just above ground level. I presume he knew how to find the Pole, a mere 400 miles north of us. In returning south we buzzed a herd of muskoxen. When we got above the Lincoln Sea he re-started the outboard engines and climbed at a rate that glued me to the seat. I was young and confess to having enjoyed the thrill. But in retrospect the guy was cavalier, to say the least, with others' lives.

Max, and others, used to fly into Alert after the Air Force installed GCA (ground radar) by skirting the glacier between Mr. Pullen and Chrystal Mountain. They're not real mountains, just hills. The radar couldn't see the Herc through the terrain. He would roar through the gap and moments later buzz the GCA shack and scare the living daylights out of the radar operators. This was a common occurrence in the early sixties. It was this kind of by-the-seat-of-your-pants flying that caused the C-130 crash in October 1991 and the subject of an amazing book called Death and Deliverance.

By Maurice Drew
In 1964 we had a helicopter at Alert for part of the summer. The pilot took many to the hills for joy rides. We had radio devices on ice floes in the Lincoln Sea for tracking various things. On our way back from one excursion on the ice the pilot decided he needed a cigarette. He rolled his own and while doing this he put the stick between his knees. This may not sound risky until you realize we were only thirty or forty feet above the surface going a hundred miles an hour! Suddenly the helicopter hit the ice ridge at the end of the runway. My front teeth went through my lower lip and I still have a scar on my forehead. The aircraft was repaired but I would never fly with him again. I heard much later that he was out there one day and never came back.
This is the actual Sikorsky 55 helicopter which crashed with Maurice Drew as a passenger. (Photo by Maurice Drew) 
On a different note, I was in Thule in early 1960 when an American DC3 came in from Alert with three Canadians on board. Two were medi-vac's and one was a civilian analyst bringing me some work to do. One of the medi-vac's had an impacted tooth, the other had fallen into a snowbank after having had too much to drink. His shorts got tangled in his groin reducing blood circulation. As if minus forty degrees wouldn't have made a difference. By the time they found him and got the aircraft landed he was in bad shape. As the story goes the American pilot flew around and around our runway trying to determine if it was safe to come in. He did land but used up a lot of fuel in the process. Once under way and almost back to Thule the pilot told the passengers to put on parachutes because it looked as though they were going to run out of gas! The civilian lad told the pilot if they got out of this alive he would kill him. They made it, of course, but I never determined the fate of the army lad. Several months later, the civilian got drunk and decided he was going to walk home. He had to be constrained and watched until a flight came in and took him home the safe way.
By Maurice Drew
Although I was scared out of my wits much of the time in Alert, in retrospect it was damn funny. One afternoon I was on my way back to the base from the runway in a B12 snowmobile. The driver was a young Army lad who drove too fast. A storm blew in before we got safely home (about a mile between the runway and the base camp). In Alert , storms usually last several hours or even days. Visibility was zero and the wind howled but we kept on going until we rolled and clanked against what we thought was a large pack of ice. We had no radio or heater. In time, the young driver knew he was going to die and began praying on his rosary. I wrote my last will and testament on the back of an Export A cigarette package leaving all my worldly goods to my parents. In about twenty minutes the storm let up and we were able to see that we were up against the operations building, less than a foot away from safety!
This was the actual Bombardier B-12 snowmobile in which Maurcie Drew was stranded so close to safety . (Photo by Maurice Drew)

Excerpts From The Diary Of Earle Smith
Published in The Maple Leaf Magazine Vol 11 No 11
by Earle Smith

Earle Smith  was posted to Alert from August 1957 to February 1958. At that time, it was yet to be determined where the main SIGINT station would be established, Alert or Resolute Bay. Throughout his tour in Alert, Earle kept a diary of his daily activities. Here are a few excerpts from that diary.

August 30, 1957: Finally arrived at Alert, on the northeast tip of Ellesmere Island at 1010 hours. Coming over the land, our first view was of snow-covered mountains, small lakes and streams, certainly a forbidding sight from the air. We easily spotted the orange coloured buildings (our home for the next six months or so) of RCAF Det. Alert, and the DOT/JAWS weather station. [Note: The Joint Arctic Weather Stations (JAWS) was a cooperative effort between the Canadian Department of Transport (DOT) and the United States Weather Bureau. Eventually, the weather operations were turned over to the Canadian Department of the Environment (DOE).]

Also spotted a small herd of Muskox in a valley a few miles south west of Alert. Within an hour of the plane's departure, the sky had completely clouded up and a strong north wind complete with a small snow blizzard was giving us our first taste of the winter ahead.

August 31: Took a picture of the midnight sun before hitting the hay. The sun doesn't go below the horizon here yet, 24 hours of sunlight for a while to come. Before I forget, we saw our first wolf –  it hangs around the area here. It was lying on the ground beside one of our barracks tonight when Frank Gelson walked by. Thinking it was one of the huskies he called to it. It didn't move so he petted it on the head and walked on. He got quite a jolt when we informed him that it was a wolf, not a husky.

September 1: Also saw the fresh water lake from which we have to haul our drinking water. The DOT boys keep a small rowboat here and have good luck catching trout.

September 5: Took some colour pictures just after supper – one of the DOT area, one of the back part of our buildings and immediate surroundings and last but not least, one of our Air Force ensign blowing strongly in the breeze. The ensign's clear and bright colour certainly stand out against our orange coloured buildings. On my way to the barracks from work at midnight I saw a sunset that most of the world will never see; the sun just barely crept below the horizon and then up again to begin another 24-hour tour.

September 9: Three of the boys went tobogganing tonight. There's quite a steep hill, which runs from our buildings down towards the shore of the ocean – certainly ideal for the sport of tobogganing.

October 27: Mail today!! First time in one month and one day. The letters from home sure looked good, believe me. Even if it had been only a short note, it would have been more than welcome. I can see where those letters are going to be read and re-read thoroughly.

December 13: Coldest night of the winter so far - 49°F. Sure can feel it, too.

December 19: The North Star aircraft that was due in today turned around at Thule AFB and went back to R.B. Sent word up to us that engine trouble was the reason for the turnaround. Morale sure took a big drop, especially when we heard that there was 657 pounds of mail on board. Still, it's sort of a shame, with Christmas so near.

December 25: Everyone all dressed up for the Mess dinner today, lovely Christmas turkey dinner with all the trimmings. The cooks from the weather bureau come up and helped our cooks prepare the meal. The tables looked very nice—individual name cards, and also individual menus. A lot of us managed to get some colour pictures. It will be a nice souvenir if they turn out. One thing for certain, this was the biggest gathering at a mess function that Alert has ever or, possibly, will ever see.

December 26: Back to work at 4 p.m. Our two-day holiday is over. Only 64 days left to go!!!

January 5, 1958: Temperature is down around -45°F, with a cold 15 mph north wind. The coldest to date was December 29 -48.8°F. Biggest change in temperature was December 30 – from a low of -43.8° to -4.7° F.

January 15: The a/c got in today!! Plenty of mail and Christmas parcels for all. You've never seen a happier bunch in all your life. Plenty to catch up on for the mail has piled up since November.

by Robert Reive
I  was posted  to Alert  as temporary staff and classified as a FOS 4  "Field Operations Service Level 4" assistant cook from early August through to late November 1977. It was a three month tour which turned out to be almost four months because of weather problems delaying two supply flights . During that weather problem, we had two days living on emergency rations  and were confined to quarters because you couldn't even see the yellow ropes between buildings. The snow was creeping in through every conceivable crack like icing sugar around the triple pane glass windows, and the official temperature was -80F (-62C) with wind chill recorded at -110F. It was cold indeed. This was sometime in November 1977 after the sun had disappeared.

We were there to feed the military staff. We also were the guys in the back of the kitchen who prepared the feast for the "Sunset Carnival". I was 19 at the time, and one of three civilian guys in the mess hall working with the three Inuit staff as kitchen help.

There were three of us who were recruited by Sergeant Fletcher from the CFB Trenton Air Cadet Mess Hall (kitchen help) in early August 1977. The other two were Darrell McCumber, Frankford, ON (Bayside Secondary School from which I also graduated) and Bill Wilson, Carrying Place, ON (Northumberland District High School, Brighton). We were known at the time as the "three long hairs" while on the base at Alert, and at the time took a lot of ribbing from the men in uniform, most of it just for fun.. I was a base brat all my life, so it was like "water rolling off a duck's back" for me but a bit of a shock for the other two guys being on the receiving end of hair comments.

The tidbit I wanted to contribute to your site was this. The sign over the original bar (beside the movie theatre) read:  "As I slide down the banister of life, Alert will always remain as a splinter in my ass!" Author unknown."

On another ocassions...Out at the back of the mess hall, a small five ton dump truck ran all the time during winter. We, (the civilian kitchen staff) would climb up stairs (like boarding an airliner) to dump 40 gallon garbage cans into the back of the truck from the side once per day (usually two of them full with mess hall waste). Every Wednesday at 1700,   military transport staff  and sometimes the kitchen staff would run the truck to  the local dump. Apparently the shot gun in the gun rack was a precaution for the Arctic wolves which roamed the dump. Often , they would dig into the dump over the winter and then come out of their holes to feast on any warm food garbage. As a result, the staff person  not driving would scale out of the window on top of the cab,  grab a pike pole and then the driver would tip the load.  The pike pole was used to pry and chip the frozen, semi frozen and warm garbage off the back of the bucket. You were only allowed five minutes to work, then the two people  switched positions. It was hard work and it's hard to believe being so far north, that there were wolves (pretty small ones) darting around in the peripheral area of the truck. It was a bit of a hair raising experience.

Credits and References:

1)  Jim Thoreson < jimthoreson(at)>
2) Robert Peary
3) Kite GIF http://slais/
4) Maurice Drew <maurice0404(at)>
5) Maple Leaf Magazine
6) Earle Smite <t16ru672(at)>
7) Robert Reive <robert.reive(at)>

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Dec 6/09