Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The camp 'telephone" back in the 1960s

Bill Stupack and my mother, Del Baughman, in the old lodge kitchen
Bow Narrows Camp's link to the outside world in the 1960s was the radio telephone, shown here in a corner cupboard in what was our first lodge, now Cabin #3. That's my mom, Del, and with his back to the camera is Bill Stupack, the goldrush pioneer who first built camp in 1948.
The phone was powered by a 12-volt battery seen sitting on the floor. Since we did not have a generator in those early days, the battery needed to be taken to town periodically for recharging.
The radio phone operated similarly to a CB radio. It's antenna consisted of a hundred-foot wire that stretched from a pole tied to the trees in front of Cabin #3 to another pole at the back of the cabin. The front pole is still there.
With this radio we could contact every other fishing and hunting camp, every geology camp, every Hudson Bay post and nursing station in Northwestern Ontario. We were all on the same channel and we all heard both sides of the conversations at these places.
To connect to a land line -- a conventional telephone -- we had to phone the radio operator in Kenora, about 120 miles to the southwest.
"Kenora, Kenora, this is Bow Narrows, over" we would say after clicking on the transmitter switch, letting the unit warm up and depressing the button on the handheld mike.
"Bow Narrows, this is Kenora. Go ahead," Ollie, the operator would reply.
"I would like to place a call to ... and we would give her the phone number. She would dial the number and patch it into the radio system.
We could only hear when we weren't transmitting so we all used radio protocol and said "over" each time we were through and waiting for a reply.
The reception was greatly affected by atmospheric conditions which could produce static that made hearing all but impossible. "Say again," was a frequent comment.
You had to be patient to get a message through. Placing a grocery order could take a half hour.
Most of the time the reception was good but often the whole system would have been nearly worthless had it not been for Ollie. She would repeat back messages that she knew might have not been understood correctly.
"Bow Narrows, I check you want a Norseman (a model of floatplane) at camp at 8 a.m. on Saturday. Is this correct? Over.)
"Roger, roger, roger," we might say through the hiss and cracking.
Sometimes we couldn't connect with Kenora but our calls could be heard by another camp and they could connect with Kenora. So we gave our message to Sarah at Trout Lake or someone else a hundred miles off in the distance and they called Kenora, gave the message to Ollie who then phoned whoever we were trying to contact.
If Ollie could not reach us with an incoming call. She would take a message and pass it on as soon as the reception was clear again.
Northern lights were the biggest disrupter. A brilliant display one night might mean we couldn't use the radio for several days.
We never could use it at night. The minute the sun went over the horizon, the reception was filled with "harmonics." We just turned off the unit at suppertime and back on at breakfast.
Everybody heard our conversations and we heard everybody else's.
The radio phone was one of the main sources of entertainment back then. Some of the most interesting conversations to listen to were those placed by far northern Hudson Bay Company trading posts when they were reporting the furs of various species of animals to the head office. For some reason they didn't want the public to know which animals they were talking about so they had a code in which they substituted the names of African animals for the ones in their posts.
It was hilarious to hear them reporting they had "55 zebras, 22 hippos and 250 wildebeests."
Sometimes the conversations were grim as when a far northern nursing station, somewhere between Red Lake and Hudson Bay, needed a plane dispatched immediately to pick up an injured or sick individual. Sometimes a doctor could be heard passing on emergency medical advice. In some of these urgent cases the message might have been relayed not just once but several times by whoever could hear it until it eventually reached Kenora.
The good, the bad and the ugly, it was all there on the radio telephone.
Once in awhile, somebody used the phone and didn't understand that others could hear his conversation. We once had a couple of young men who were working at a geology camp up in Pipestone Bay that came and used the phone every weekend. One of them insisted that everybody leave the kitchen area where the phone was located while he placed his call. Marg Cheney (now Marg McLeod, who with her husband, Dave, owns Howey Bay Resort in Red Lake) was working as our young cook-waitress that summer. After about the third time she was forced to leave the kitchen she asked the young man who he was calling. It was his girlfriend. "Don't you know that everybody in Northwestern Ontario can hear what you are saying?" she asked. I guess he didn't because he never came back after that. I think there had been some pretty steamy conversations.
One day Ollie inquired, "What happened to Romeo?"
Click to go back to our website 
Click to see the latest on the blog


Uffdah-ya said...

Ha! Great stories... Ah, the good ol' days. We sure have come a long way to where we are today; in the realm of communication. It's funny that you posted this as I was reminiscing the other day on my first phone system that I had as a fledgling fresh out of the nest--a "party-line."

InLineCom said...

Really a great blog with a best thoughts and ideas are shared thanks for sharing such an interesting article.

voip phone system Toronto