Today’s subject takes us back to the paranoia-fueled days of the Cold War, a long abandoned military radar dome installation in Western Saskatchewan. Its purpose was scouring the skies for approaching enemy aircraft and missiles and was one of a large network of similar facilities, operated jointly by the Canadian and US governments, located across the nation. The very last of its kind, this very unique building is now empty and quiet, standing vigil as it always has, but the job now done and its future uncertain.
This site is not publicly accessible and BIGDoer.com was given special permission to visit, but even then only briefly. We had fifteen minutes to record what we could and then get the heck out.
The dome, part of Canadian Forces Detachment (or CFD) Alsask, was one link in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), “Pine Tree Line”. It was the lowest geographically of three roughly parallel rows of radar installations that once existed over the years. (Note: there are few pine trees on the Saskatchewan plains.) The others were the “DEW Line” (Distant Early Warning) in the far north, then the “Mid-Canada Line” about half way down.
What these radar domes did was very simple, watch the skies in search of the enemy, aka the Soviets (in the parlance of the day, the Commies, Russians, Evil Ruskies or Red Menace). If they were to attack, and back then it was thought they most certainly would, it was expected they’d do so via a route that would take them over the North Pole. This helps explains why the lines were set up as they were, running in an east/west fashion and focused on that direction. It was a three layer line of defense.
Running 24 hours a day, every day of the year, no matter the weather or conditions, the facility was operational from 1963-1987. Other installations in the Pine Tree Line opened variously in the 1950s to the early 1960s and closed at different times, some lasting only a few years, others until the early 1990s. Changes in technology made the whole network obsolete long before they were actually closed down.
At the peak there were thirty nine radar domes in the line. When decommissioned, all were torn down save for this one. The reason it survived is not completely clear. Any old members of the 44 Radar Squadron, the company once based here, care to chime in?
The radar dome building has been historically recognized but what happen next is not known. We asked our contact if they knew of any plans, but they’ve heard nothing.
Nearby and in support of the installation is a small military base. It opened and closed with the radar dome. Today some of the complex is used for other purposes, and some of it abandoned and eerily empty.
The building is made entirely of steel, save for the golf ball-shaped dome itself which is fibreglass and housed the radar machinery which had to be protected from the elements. The building’s two floors were used for offices, work stations and computers. We were asked not to show the interior. Too bad, as the cavernous dome part is particularly interesting – there is still some radar equipment in place. The rest of the structure was for the most part empty, unless you count pigeon crap. A window in the south allowed us a good look of the endless Saskatchewan prairies.
The radar dome building sits on a tract of land all by itself about a click or so north of the old operations base. At one time, I understand, a couple other buildings once stood here. There is a small parking lot with the whole place being surrounded by a tall fence topped with nasty razor wire. They meant business when it came to security. At times, especially so in the 1960s, the Soviets were greatly feared. An attack, in many people’s minds, was imminent, putting the world on edge.
Sitting outside is a piece of precision machinery, what looks like the radar mechanism main bearing. It’s similar to the one already installed in the dome. Also found outside was a washer and dryer – odd indeed. To do the commander’s laundry?
In the Cold War era the Soviets would often sending planes over the pole, to harass North American defenses and to test these radar lines. They’d see how far they could get (they never even tried to be incognito), how quick response times were, the patience of the commanders in charge and so on. In simple they were pushing buttons, becoming a nuisance as a way to gauge the opposing side. In a case of nothing changes, they still do this same ploy today.
This visit only piqued our curiosity and we’re already negotiating something bigger. Hopefully we’ll return, to explore the dome more, and to check out the base as well.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: June, 2015.
Location: Western SK.
Article sources: Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, Canada’s Historic Places archives.
This site is on private property and there is no public access. We were given permission to visit.