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Reminiscence

The Great Wild Goose Chase

by George W. Swenson, Jr.

[Editor's note: Click here to open a new browser that will display the route of "The Wild Goose Chase" as you read. Or if you prefer, click on highlighted names in the text to periodically dispaly the map in your current browser.]

In the early 1960s we were utilizing the early Soviet "Sputnik" satellites for studying the ionosphere. For the first time we were able to observe radio signals which had originated with known characteristics from orbiting transmitters, after they had passed through the atmosphere from top to bottom. This presented a unique opportunity to study the higher, electrified regions of the atmosphere, previously inaccessible to surface-based sounding techniques. Several American institutions set up tracking stations in a more-or-less coordinated effort to exploit this opportunity. We at Illinois had stations at Urbana, Illinois; Houghton, Michigan; Adak (Aleutian Islands), Alaska; and Baker Lake, Northwest Territories, Canada. This geographic coverage was very important in investigating the morphology of the ionosphere as it was related to the earth's magnetic field.

Managing the Alaskan and Arctic Canadian stations posed problems of logistics. After a very exasperating winter trip to Baker Lake with a hired pilot unaccustomed to severe winter conditions and to navigating without radio aids, I decided we could do better. I had learned to fly some years earlier and had some experience with bush flying in Alaska. I enrolled in the University's multi-engine flying course, taught myself celestial navigation and bought a war-surplus sextant and a set of almanacs. We had to make an annual trip to Baker Lake to overhaul the radio receivers, antennas, recorders and clocks and to train and motivate the local operators. These latter were employees of the Canadian government magnetic observatory, rotating out of that remote post after one year, who were allowed to help us out in their spare hours.

Those trips to the Canadian Arctic were expensive. We had to rent a small twin-engine plane and fly at least 3500 miles; more if the weather forced a detour. I always tried to recruit another scientist from the University who had research interests in the Arctic, to share expenses and to provide companionship. Twice entomologist Bill Horsfall came along. Each trip we carried thousands of live mosquitoes back to his Urbana lab. But that's another story, for another occasion.

In August of 1964, we scheduled a trip to Baker Lake. Bill Hay, a geologist/paleontologist, wanted to collect some plankton from Hudson's Bay and the Arctic Ocean. Now Baker Lake is an Eskimo village situated in the Barrens, the vast desolate, tundra region west of Hudson's Bay and south of the Arctic Ocean. It is 640 kilometers almost due north of Churchill on Hudson's Bay, the jumping-off point for that part of the Arctic. The Arctic Ocean is another 500 kilometers farther north, but there's no land airport on the north coast within range of Baker Lake. We'd have to fly out to Cambridge Bay on Victoria Island in the Canadian Archipelago, 160 kilometers across the Queen Maude Gulf, in order to get Bill's plankton.

The whole trip would involve a good deal of wilderness flying, far from established routes with radio aids to navigation. Most of the way we'd be out of range of the very-high-frequency stations that are the standard communication medium on the world's regular air lanes. In addition to the sextant, almanacs and chronometer which would enable us to use the sun as a navigation aid, we would need long-range radio equipment to provide emergency communications and to satisfy Canadian legal requirements. With the aid of Bill Cochran, a campus colleague, I built a 2-watt, transistorized, high-frequency transmitter and matching receiver to work on the Canadian long-range frequency. A trailing wire, to be reeled out of the plane while in flight, provided a high-efficiency antenna for the relatively low frequency of 5.7 megahertz.

Past the point of no return

While we were making these preparations we received an inquiry from the Canadian Wildlife Service. A rumor had reached them through the Illinois Natural History Survey that we'd be flying from Baker Lake to Cambridge Bay, over territory seldom traversed by aircraft. Could they possibly send an ornithologist along, to check out some suspected goose-breeding areas along the Arctic coast? It sounded exciting to an amateur bird-watcher; besides, they offered to share expenses.

We had leased for the trip a Piper Apache plane, N4371P, or "Seven-one Papa" for short. It had two 160-horsepower engines and four seats. In addition to installing the special radio equipment, we replaced the luggage-compartment door with a special hatch so the ornithologist could crouch back there and poke his cameras out to photograph the geese. We loaded sleeping bags, fish nets, rabbit snares, five days' food, rucksacks, cooking pots, and "two-pound-axe-with-24-inch-handle," as required by Canadian Air Regulations for wilderness flights. Aeronautical Charts. Mosquito dope. Cameras. Containers for plankton. Recorder chart paper. Vacuum tubes.

Finally, we're off. A day's stop at Houghton, Michigan, to service the station there, then across Lake Superior, dodging thunderstorms, to Thunder Bay, Ontario, to clear Canadian customs and pick up our ornithologist. Harry Lumsden of the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests is a World War II bomber pilot and a splendid companion. He has a list of bird survey tasks to perform at many points along the way.

The next stop is only an hour north of Thunder Bay: Armstrong, on Lake Nipigon. It's necessary to stop here as it's the last refueling station before the long leg north to Fort Churchill. Though nearly at the start of the trip, this route segment is also the longest and the one involving the most time out of range of communication and navigation facilities. In common with many of our projected flights it has a "point of no return," beyond which we'd have too little fuel to turn back to Armstrong or any other airport even if we ran into bad weather; consequently, we had to plan very carefully and fly only in good weather. The route lies over the Hudson Bay Lowlands, a vast area of lakes, muskeg and marsh, with forests of small spruce trees. Once in a while we'd fly over a small Indian village of log cabins. Occasionally, there'd be the smoke of a forest fire, which we noted on the chart for a later report to the authorities. We navigated very carefully, noting each lake or river on the chart as we passed, and we computed our ground speed and the effects of crosswind components for use in deadreckoning navigation should it be necessary. It's beautiful, lonely country, trackless and pristine. These aerial glimpses were intriguing, and stimulated the ambition, later realized, to explore that wilderness by canoe.

The logbook shows a flying time of 4.66 hours from Armstrong to Churchill. There were no incidents enroute, but that's a long time to sit immobile in an airplane!

At Churchill we managed to find a tiny room for the three of us in one of the two small hotels. That evening we became aware of a slight commotion in the street below our window. Down the street toward the hotel came a strolling polar bear, with a rifle-toting Mountie a discreet distance behind. She turned aside as she came abreast of us and crawled beneath a lumberyard building across the street. The next morning we could still see her dim form beneath the building as we taxied to the airport. We were told that Churchill is in an area used by bears for maternal denning, and that females occasionally wander into town along the railroad tracks.

Churchill was built as a grain-shipping port, connected to the Canadian prairies by a railroad. Later a rocket-launching facility was built there for upper-atmosphere research during the International Geophysical Year, and the airport was the site of a Strategic Air Command base. All that activity was dying down in 1964, but a seasonal peak occurs in late summer so facilities are somewhat strained. We shopped for food and mosquito dope at the Hudson's Bay Company store, rubbing elbows with Indian families, tourists, and employees of the several government and commercial establishments.

George Swenson at Churchill
The author at Churchill.

Using the sun as a compass

Next day, August 5, we spent an hour at the airport rigging the high-frequency radio antenna, removing the unneeded rear seats of the plane, and chatting with the local airline manager, a friend from earlier trips who was a mine of information on emergency airstrips, unpublished radio frequencies, and other useful gossip.

Again, the 3.4-hour flight from Churchill to Baker Lake was technically uneventful but exciting because of the beautiful, wild country it traversed. Churchill is at the northern tree line; beyond lies only open tundra interspersed with numerous lakes and rocky outcrops. This time, instead of bee-lining it across country to Baker Lake we flew up the coast of Hudson's Bay at low altitude, looking for geese.

Harry sat on a rolled-up sleeping bag in the back of the plane, with the special hatch open and his camera poised. We flew at 300 feet altitude and 110 mph over the areas we were to survey. Bill, in the right front seat, would spot a flock of geese on a lake or pond, point them out to me, and alert Harry, who'd poke his 500-mm telephoto lens out the hatch. Then I'd try to maneuver the plane over the lake at the right altitude and distance so Harry could focus and shoot when the geese appeared beneath the wing. This often involved tight turns and steep banks, so my passengers eventually grew rather blasé about violent maneuvers.

We found some snow goose broods on an island in Hudson's Bay near Eskimo Point, thereby confirming some Eskimo reports, as requested by the Canadian Wildlife Service. All eyes concentrated on the tundra near the shore. Suddenly, we all exclaimed together: "What are those things in the water? School of fish! Too big! Seals! No, Whales! Whales!" A pod of white beluga whales, basking in the sunlit shallows at the mouth of the river. That was worth a picture, so we banked into a descending spiral to get closer. The whales turned toward the sea, struggling to cross the shallow bar as the cameras clicked.

Turning inland then, we took a gyrocompass heading for Baker Lake. At this time I thought it prudent to make a position report, so I called both Churchill and Baker Lake on the radio. Neither answered. Again I called; again no response. Finally, a call loud and clear from Fort Chimo, Quebec, 1600 km (a thousand miles!) to the east. He's reading my homemade, two-watt transmitter "five-by-five" and will relay my position report to Baker. A dramatic manifestation of the "skip-distance" effect, well-remembered from boyhood ham-radio days and well-understood by a professional ionosphere researcher. Still, something to remark on, and to explain to my non-engineer passengers.

The magnetic compass isn't much good up here so close to the magnetic pole; it drifts around aimlessly in the nearly-vertical flux field. Big planes have gyro-stabilized magnetic compasses or other sophistications, but we have only a single "DG," or directional gyroscope. It precesses with time, and also needs to be corrected frequently for the rapid convergence of the meridians of longitude. We flew only on sunny days so we could use the sun as a compass. A piece of masking tape on the windshield cast a shadow on a piece of tape on the floor between the front seats when the plane was flying directly toward the sun. From the plane's position as determined by map-reading or dead reckoning, the time of day and almanac information, the azimuth of the sun can be determined by means of a little spherical trigonometry. This procedure was used to correct the DG at least once per hour. We could also use a sextant observation of the sun to obtain a line on the map along which the plane is positioned. This is a useful item of information, but it's so difficult to fly the plane with one hand and manipulate the sextant, timepiece, and almanacs with the other that we preferred to rely on map reading and dead reckoning except in emergencies.

Baker Lake has a low-frequency radio beacon, and eventually we picked it up on the plane's direction finder and homed-in on the airport. We had permission from the Canadian Air Force to purchase four drums of aviation gasoline from their caches at Baker Lake and Cambridge Bay, so the first order of business after landing and applying lots of mosquito dope was to fill all four of Seven-one Papa's fuel tanks. Then we rode the mile and a half to the village in the local airport limousine, a ten-ton dump truck with a snow plow.

Baker Lake, an arctic village

W. Hay, G. Swenson, and H. Lumsden at Baker Lake
W. Hay, G. Swenson, and H. Lumsden at Baker Lake.

Baker Lake's villagers included several government weather observers, school teachers, police, Hudson's Bay Company storekeepers, missionaries, and nearly 200 Eskimos whose traditional occupation is caribou hunting. In earlier years the natives lived "on the land," coming to the village only occasionally to trade. Now they stay in town the year 'round, to be close to the school, the store, the churches, and, above all, the source of government relief checks. They're charming people, friendly and curious.

Eskimo igloo at Baker Lake
Eskimo igloo at Baker Lake.

In the winter of 1959-60 when I first visited them, the Eskimos were living in snow igloos, confined to the village and its food supplies by a catastrophic crash in the caribou population. By the next year they were all living in government-supplied, polyfoam-insulated, plywood houses. Clearly, the economic problem of the native peoples of the Arctic is a very serious one as subsistence hunting becomes more difficult and impractical and other economic activity penetrates the region only slowly.

Inside the igloo
Inside the igloo.

We took only a day to perform our technical chores at Baker Lake. Harry collected and dissected several ptarmigan specimens and I aligned the radio receivers and chatted with the satellite station operator. We ate fine meals in the government mess hall and visited with the remarkable people of the village. Arctic villages are not really attractive places, especially in the summer. Vegetation is sparse and slow-growing and decay and corrosion proceed very slowly, so the trash of civilization tends to lie around indefinitely exposed to full view. The only commodity in plentiful supply in the Arctic is the ubiquitous empty oil drum. Other materials are scarce and expensive because of the cost of transportation, so houses tend to be tiny and patchworky, without style or decoration. Village streets are metaled with gravel, at best. and there's a clutter of snowmobiles and decrepit jeeps and tractors lying about.

Fighting the landlubber syndrome

Next day we departed for Cambridge Bay, a four-hour flight. Our route took us northwest 480 kilometers over trackless tundra to the mouth of the Perry River on Queen Maude Gulf. We had several tasks to perform enroute. First, we examined an area along the Back River, halfway to the ocean, for signs of breeding geese, but found none. The tundra was disappointingly barren, and we saw few birds on the first half of the trip and only one caribou the entire day. When we came to the headwaters of the Perry River, however, things began to change. For fifty miles or so between the headwaters and the Gulf the area had been submerged beneath the sea before the land rebounded after the last great glacial period. Here marine sediments make good growing conditions for the grasses and sedges that provide suitable goose pasture. We began to see waterfowl on the lakes, and resumed our twisting and dodging photographic exercises.

Another assigned task was to look for an ornithologist who had been airlifted to the Perry River a couple of months earlier, and who hadn't been heard from since. Attempts to contact him by radio had been unsuccessful and it was possible he might be in trouble, alone in that vast wilderness. We flew low down the river, searching the banks for a canoe, occasionally detouring to photograph some geese. Nothing: no canoe, no tent, no smoke. Finally, many miles ahead on the otherwise featureless horizon there's a small anomaly of some kind. We'd been told that the Wildlife Service had placed a cache of plywood and lumber at the mouth of the Perry. Could our man have built himself a shelter? We flew on for many minutes, and finally resolved the tiny speck into a neat cabin with a yard and walks outlined by whitewashed boulders, and two canoes pulled up on the river bank.

As we buzzed the cabin, several figures emerged, waving vigorously. Apparently the solitary scientist had recruited an Eskimo family to help in his work. Are their gestures signals of distress, or merely of greeting? How could we communicate? We sketched a set of simple arm signals on a scrap of cardboard, put it into a plastic bag weighted with a candy bar, tied on a streamer of paper toweling, and dropped it out the hatch. Soon the answer came: three figures standing with arms outstretched. Chagrin, chagrin! Too late we realized we'd cast overboard our only copy of the code. Racking our collective memories, we decided they were telling us all was okay, but that their radio was inoperative. We reported this to the police at Cambridge Bay a couple of hours later.

Now we faced a special thrill, the flight across Queen Maude Gulf, choked with the ice pack of the Arctic Ocean. We set the DG once again and laid a course for Melbourne Island, halfway across. Below was an apparently limitless expanse of broken ice. No chance of a successful emergency landing there. In any event, a person could only live for a few minutes in those frigid waters. We have to depend on our two engines and our navigational skill and judgment. There's a phenomenon familiar to overwater pilots: "automatic rough." The moment one arrives beyond gliding distance of land, the engines begin to emit strange sounds, which disappear only when one approaches the shore again. We noticed that, all right, and another phenomenon, as well. There's an almost irresistible tendency to alter direction gradually toward the nearest land, and one must exercise strict self-discipline to keep the DG centered on the designated course. I call this the landlubber syndrome.

We searched Melbourne Island for geese, but found few. Many pairs of whistling swans swam in the numerous lakes, and there was an extraordinarily well-developed system of frost polygons engraved in the surface of the tundra. We flew out over the ocean again.

Victoria Island is hilly, so we saw it from far out to sea. Again, we followed the radio beacon to the Cambridge Bay airport and found a typical modern Eskimo village, oil drums, plywood huts, Hudson's Bay store, and all. That evening, before bedding down in the quonset-hut hotel, we negotiated a ride out to sea for Bill in a helicopter of the Canadian Geodetic Survey, to pick up a barrel-full of sea water. He examined it upon his return and found to his great disappointment that it was fresh, apparently because of dilution of the salt water by river inflows and melting pack ice. The plankton he was seeking cannot live in fresh water. Something else would have to be done.

We had a marvelous dinner that first night, of arctic char, a local fish related to the salmon and trout, with firm, pink flesh and a flavor beyond description. Maybe we were just very hungry, but a meal that remains in the memory for seventeen years is memorable by definition.

"I thought you'd seen some geese."

Next morning we borrowed a hand-operated fuel pump and twelve meters of garden hose from the "Bay" store and rented a boat and motor from an Eskimo. By dropping the hose as far as it would reach beneath the surface of Cambridge Bay we found we could pump salt water up from below the fresh surface layer. It was then poisoned with formaldehyde so the plankton would settle to the bottom of Bill's big plastic tank, from which they were decanted into small bottles for the trip back to Illinois. A little ingenuity and persistence can usually circumvent difficulty!

That afternoon we were to make a special flight for the Wildlife Service. Back we went across Queen Maude Gulf, fighting the landlubber syndrome, making a landfall 50 miles east of the mouth of the Perry. We flew south until we were 50 miles inland, then turned west and flew a zigzag route roughly parallel with the Arctic coast, photographing geese as we went. Thousands of geese: Canadas, Blues, Greater Snows, Lessor Snows. And whistling swans. And sandhill cranes. And ducks, mostly pintails. Harry was busy snapping pictures and changing lenses. Bill was busy spotting geese, and shouting directions and loading film magazines. George was busy maneuvering the plane, worrying about the fuel supply, and trying not to get lost. After 250 miles of this, dozens of rolls of film and seemingly thousands of lakes and rivers, we turned north again and passed over the coast and out to sea. Picking up the Cambridge Bay beacon we cruised for "home" and supper, arriving just in time. We had been in the air 3.6 hours and had flown about 500 miles. As the powerful radio beacon was audible the entire trip, we hadn't had to use any celestial navigation.

Next morning we continued our goose survey after again traversing Queen Maude Gulf enroute back to Baker Lake. We came to our landfall somewhere east of Perry River, on another river, identity uncertain. It's harder to track accurately outbound than inbound on a low-frequency beacon, and almost impossible when one's compass heading is uncertain.

Bill earnestly searched the map for recognizable ground features, but there are dozens of rivers draining north into the ocean, and they all look alike. Geese appeared below, and we forgot the navigation and headed generally southward, dodging back and forth to photograph the flocks on the water. The birds were more plentiful here than anywhere else on the entire expedition, and Harry's report states that this is a previously unsuspected major breeding area for Ross's geese.

Seven-one Papa had two gas tanks per engine, a "main" and an "auxiliary." It was our practice to begin each flight on the "aux" tanks, and to run them dry before switching to the mains. One lands only on the mains so it's important to milk all possible mileage out of the aux's before the end of the trip. We were still on the aux tanks when Harry, excited by the discovery of an important breeding area for Ross geese, announced that he had to have a reliable position. Bill still hadn't found a landmark and my dead reckoning was hopelessly confused by the scrambling after the birds. The sun was our last resort. If I could get the gyrocompass accurately calibrated, I could get a line of position by taking a bearing on the Cambridge Bay radio beacon with the automatic direction finder (ADF). Then with the sextant I could measure the sun's altitude and derive another line of position. Where the two lines intersect is where we are. Approximately. If I haven't blundered. If the timepiece is correct. Et cetera.

The air was too bumpy at our photographic altitude of 300 feet, so I climbed to 5000 feet where it was smooth enough to permit accurate sextant readings. Now I throttle back a bit, consult the Almanac, do a few calculations, and calibrate the DG. The bearing of Cambridge Bay is plotted on the map. Then, noting the time to the second, I have to sight through the sextant, center the sun in the image of the bubble of the spirit level, and hold it there for two minutes while a mechanical integrator averages the sun's altitude. All this while flying the plane with one hand and two feet, trying to avoid accelerations which move the bubble out of the true horizontal.

I was well into the observation when the plane lurched abruptly to the right and peeled off into a dive. Sextant, almanacs, trig tables, calculation pad flew in all directions as I struggled to impose some discipline on Seven-one Papa. What could be causing this wayward behavior? And why the strange silence from the right engine? Aha, the right aux tank must be empty! Forgot all about it. A flick of a switch and the engine starts smoothly and the plane levels up. Better switch the left engine to its main tank, too. Now to apologize to the passengers for the unsettling experience. "I thought you'd seen some geese," said Bill.

We didn't get our second line of position, and I could hardly bear the thought of starting again. While I was thinking about that, and checking all the gauges to see if I'd forgotten anything else, Bill spotted an oddly shaped lake on the ground that was clearly depicted on the map. The rest of the trip to Baker Lake was uneventful.

What magic might Bill have wrought?

Next day only a few chores remained at Baker Lake. A final tweaking-up of the satellite receivers and the precision clock. Review of operating procedures with the magnetician who moonlighted as our operator. Harry finished examining the stomach contents of his ptarmigan specimens and retrieved the meaty carcasses from the freezer. They'd make a novel and delicious meal back in Urbana, Illinois, and Bill is renowned for his gourmet cookery.

A final topping-off of the gas tanks and we're ready to go, direct to Churchill. It's a fine, sunny day with excellent visibility. We've no more goose-hunting to do, so we can cruise at 9,000 feet, the highest altitude permitted in Canada without being under supervision of air traffic control. This time we can rely on the radio beacons at Baker, Eskimo Point and Churchill for relatively easy navigation, so we can sight-see and enjoy the scenery. Again, we're unable to work either Baker or Churchill on the h-f radio, but Yellowknife, 1000 km (600 miles) to the west, obliges as a relay station to send on our position report. The land appears flat and featureless at first glance, except for the myriad lakes and streams. The colors are subtly beautiful, pastel greens, grays, blues, tans, with here and there a splash of red or yellow from some tundra blossoms. When the eye adjusts to the landscape, the influence of the glaciers appears: outcroppings of primeval rock, snake-like eskers dozens of miles long, huge boulders, ponds reflecting the blue sky.

Finally we converge on the shore of Hudson Bay; Churchill just ahead. The airport tower responds on the VHF radio, "Straight-in approach," and then "Seven-one Papa, cleared to land. Turn right first intersection to Transair hangar." We've made it again!

But we've got trouble. The hotel rooms are all filled and it's too late to fly on south. What to do? The Transair manager suggests the Bachelor Officer Quarters at the Canadian Air Force Base. Our professional pilot had been royally entertained there on our first trip, two years earlier, while we passengers made shift in town. We hitched a ride over there on the Transair truck, and introduced ourselves. The U.S. Air Force had an allocation of rooms in the BOQ, as there were American planes on the SAC base, and NASA had a sub-allocation for the convenience of scientists visiting the rocket site. We can claim to be on NASA business, can't we, since the satellite project is supported by a NASA grant? The prim, starchy receptionist-lady isn't convinced, but when we plead hardship she consults a Canadian major who gruffly gives his assent, for one night only. May we eat in the officer's mess? Yes, but coat and tie are required. On this they are absolutely adamant. Never mind that we're at a tiny oasis in one of the world's wildest regions; standards must be maintained. Harry is eminently respectable in his natty game warden's uniform, but Bill and George are in flannel shirts and blue jeans. Flying clothes are acceptable, at breakfast only. "These are our flying clothes." "Oh, very well, but be as neat as you can," says the lady to the two scruffy professors, determined to defend the dignity of the institution against any affront.

Next day, at the weather office, we discover that a low pressure center to the south prevents a direct flight to Armstrong and Thunder Bay. Head winds would stretch our fuel supply to the danger point. The more prudent route is to the Southwest to Winnipeg, thence Southeastward toward home. It has the advantage of following the railroad fairly closely, and of having adequate radio navigation and communication facilities. On the other hand, it means our adventure is essentially over. From here on it's routine. It was interesting to refuel at Thompson, Manitoba, an airport and a town that didn't even exist a year earlier, built almost overnight to exploit a valuable mineral deposit. Then outbound customs and immigration checks at Winnipeg and inbound at Baudette, Minnesota. Harry is coming back to Illinois with us, to develop his films in the campus labs and to consult with colleagues at the Natural History Survey.

Now we're on the last lap. Time to reflect. It's hard to believe ten days could pack so many impressions. Only one small flaw mars our satisfaction. A dozen ptarmigan lie forgotten in the Air Force freezer at Churchill, and we'll never know what magic Bill might have wrought upon them.

Igloo at Baker Lake, 1960
Igloo at Baker Lake, 1960.

Eskimo fishing in Baker Lake, 1960
Eskimo fishing in Baker Lake, 1960.

Refueling Seven-one Papa at Baker Lake, 1964
Refueling "Seven-one Papa" at Baker Lake, 1964.
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