In mid June when I arrived in Churchill, along with the other members of Operation Franklin, the ice on Hudson’s Bay was just beginning to break up. A lead of water had opened along the shore and most of the snow had gone. It would be several more days before our gear was assembled and our two helicopters, HVR and HHU, were stripped down and loaded into an air force cargo plane for the next leg of our journey. The town, just emerging from its long arctic night, was still littered with winter’s debris. Unlike the tidy military barracks where we were billeted the nearby town was a clutter of castoff cartons and cans. The intermittent barking of tethered sled dogs mingled with the incessant drone of an aircraft inching its way to shore.
A few weeks earlier a DC6 had run out of fuel and pancaked onto the ice just short of the runway. Two of the stricken plane's four engines were now droning day and night in a bizarre attempt to taxi it and its own little ice-flow to shore. It was still there when our C119 military cargo plane lifted off the end of Churchill's gravel strip. I never did learn whether the DC6 made that final kilometre to shore. As we banked over the open lead and headed out across the pack ice of Hudson’s Bay my view shifted to the north and my thoughts to the unknown challenge that lay ahead.
Our official mission was to assess the mineral resources, particularly the oil and coal potential of the Queen Elizabeth Islands. Unofficially we were part of an ongoing campaign to assert Canadian Sovereignty over that vast jigsaw of islands and frozen oceans that sits atop the North American Continent. Canada’s hold on the high Arctic has always been tenuous. The Russians and Scandinavian countries have all challenged Canada’s claim to an essentially empty land, and our prime minister was worried about “de facto exercise of U.S. sovereignty” in the region. No, not Stephen Harper — that is a quote from Louis St. Laurent in the cabinet notes of 1953. Operation Franklin was launched in 1955, more than 50 years before Russia’s flag at the North Pole and “scientific expeditions” by the U.S., Denmark, and Norway triggered the current round of angst about Canadian Sovereignty in the high Arctic.
In 1955, during the height of the cold war, Russia’s new fleet of long-range bombers was of more concern than diplomatic challenges. Construction of the U.S.-funded, Canadian-manned Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line was just getting started but as we droned across the vast expanse of barren land I saw no sign of a human presence. Eight hundred kilometres north of Churchill we crossed the Arctic Circle and began our long flight over the ice-bound islands of the Arctic Archipelago. “Global warming” and “climate change” had not yet entered the lexicon of the environmental movement. The northern ocean was still solidly frozen and as we began our letdown into Resolute Bay I spotted several red blotches on the pack ice — places where polar bears had dined on a seal.