An article by Chris & Connie.
Our subject is the very last “Pine Tree Line” radar dome, of many, many dozens that once existed across the nation, whose purpose was to scan the skies for approaching enemy aircraft. Part of CFS Alsask (Saskatchewan), it was one cog in an early warning system, spanning Canada, that dates back to the terrible days of the Cold War. The world was on edge, the threat of nuclear annihilation was imminent and paranoia was the norm. The planet was that close to being blown to teenie-tiny bits and every one was terrified. This dome and the others were built in reaction to that threat.
Today and the massive building stands empty, a hollow shell and a curious military relic to those passing on the nearby highway. It’s no longer needed and hasn’t been for some time – how enemy threats are handled has greatly changed – but its still around for some reason, having been saved from the wrecking ball.
BIGDoer.com, along with with the Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association are given rare and special permission to explore this fascinating structure connecting us back to those dangerous times.
After the Wold War Two, tensions between the world’s superpowers, the US on one side and the Soviets on the other, grew and grew. The arms race was on, each side flexing its military muscles and amassing huge armies and all sorts of ugly atomic weapons which to destroy each other with. The war machine was readied for action. Let the show down begin: it’s the Yanks vs the Commies, and if the planet was blow away in the process, so be it.
In anticipation of an attack – it was not a matter of if the enemy, the “Red Menace” those evil Russians, would drop the big one, but when – the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD, was formed. A joint US/Canada operation, its role was defensive and fairly straightforward. It’d watch the sky, 24hrs a day endlessly, for approaching enemy aircraft. Since it was believed they’d come in over the pole, and only over the pole, everything was focused north.
There were three rows of dome installations, all sort of parallel. The most northerly was the Distant Early Warning or Dew Line high up in the arctic of Canada, Alaska and Greenland. The Mid-Canada Line was part way down, extending from Labrador to British Columbia. The lowest was the Pine Tree Line, of which this facility is connected, running from coast to coast. All were established in the 1950s and 1960s, most were gone by the 80s. The Alsask dome is the last from that line.
Royal Canadian Air Force Station Alsask Saskatchewan, later Canadian Forces Station or CFS Alsask (sometimes called Canadian Forces Detachment or CFD Alsask) was completed in the period 1961-1963. The dome is from that time and was the whole reason the base established. The dome building is located just north of the town on a small rise, the Alberta border a mere stone’s throw away.
In support of the dome installation was a base for personnel, long since decommissioned but still party intact, which can be seen to the south (article link further below). It was home to over a hundred military staff and technicians and their families.
CFS Alsask, the dome and support base were decommissioned in 1987 a victim of changing times and technology. It’s not that the threat was any less there, it was and I guess probably always will be, just things had changed. The old enemy I guess is still looked upon suspiciously but many new players have emerged since. A big giant complex looking only one way for incoming trouble hardly seems effective when the danger today comes from every conceivable angle.
Side note: word is the radar dome served another function for a time after it was closed by the military, but exactly what is not really documented. Why it was not torn down, while all others across the country were, is not exactly clear either.
The main support structure is completely metal. There are two raised floors that once housed all the transmitting and receiving equipment, computers, operations centres and offices. Outside a few odds and ends left behind, a crane lifting unit and precision equipment shipping container, some electrical cabinets, a motor (to turn the radar unit?), both floors are for the most part empty of stuff.
Pigeon poop covers everything however. These pesky birds always manage to get inside and always make a huge mess. Those droppings can be a health hazard, so we take precautions to cover our mouths with masks.
The golf ball shaped dome is a shell protecting the radar dish and is made of interconnected fibreglass panels. The light from the translucent material casts a warm golden glow within the structure. The remains of the radar assembly sans the dish itself, are still in place. The mechanism is giant towering one or two stories high! My kingdom for an ultra wide-angle lens. It overflows the the frame using our smallest lens, a 24mm. Damn!
When in use the arm and dish would slowly spin round and round (and round and round…stop!). Don’t get in its way. Demonstrating just how precision the whole assembly is, it can be easily rotated by hand! An open walkway allows access to the outside of the dome, used for maintenance and inspections I’d guess. It’s a long drop down!
The entire dome site is ringed with razor wire, reminding us this was a military installation of great importance. Old light poles stand vigil. A radar assembly bearing, a huge piece of finely machined metal, sits unceremoniously in the overgrown parking lot beside the building.
The 44 Radar Squadron was the company stationed here. We’d absolutely love to hear from any former members.
At one time there were two additional domes here, one on each side of the current structure and used in conjunction with it. These were soon unnecessary and were torn down early on. It’s rumoured that an underground bunker may be present on the site, a place presumably where personnel could take refuge should the base come under attack – but so far no evidence of it or them has come to light. It does sort of make sense that one could exist here. Any military base, even a small relatively insignificant one such as this, could no doubt be a possible target.
The radar dome building has been historically recognized for some time but what happens next is not clear. Those connected with it hope in some way to fix up the place and put it on display but at this time no solid plans are in place. Much money would have to be raised, and many obstacles overcome and it’s one giant towering mountain to climb. Presumably the dome, and the what’s left of the old base nearby, could be incorporated into a museum showcasing Canada’s participation in the Cold War and how it impacted the country. That’s one plan which I’m certain many would support.
The Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association has a website…
The nearby base, a literal time capsule, which we also visited…
Canadian Forces Station Alsask.
The dome earlier in the year…
Pine Tree Line radar dome.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: September, 2015.
Location: Alsask, SK.
Article references: Book: Captured Memories – A History of Alsask and Surrounding School Districts, Canadian Forces records, University of Regina, Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association.
The dome is NOT publicly accessible and BIGDoer.com visited with permission.