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Book Review: Sky Road North

by Doug Bell

Dateline: September 13, 2021

    The late Doug Bell (1926-2021) was very well known in the Yukon, and a book could (should) be written about him. The recently-published autobiographical "Sky Road North," which he wrote in 1996, gives a glimpse at a small part of his early years. It tells me enough in its 237 pages that I wish we had been friends.

    Subjects that get repeated a few times in various ways in the book are the importance of growing up on the Prairies, loneliness and solitude, his pride in the years he spent as an aeradio operator, learning important lessons from unexpected people, and his love for his wife, Pearl, who died in 2010.

'Sky Road North' by Doug Bell     The author makes a comment in the Preface that I found useful in keeping the story in context: "This story is tainted by time, age, and memory. Unfortunately, it suffers from tunnel vision too - ours." His original dream to write "a tribute to the men and women who built and pioneered the Northwest Staging Route" didn't happen, but what did result is a very personal but significant look at some of the people involved - "...about a cord and a half of everyday stuff," he says.

    Doug worked at four of the airports on the Northwest Staging Route for 22 years between 1946 and 1978 - Beatton River, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, and Whitehorse - but for reasons known only to Doug, his story focusses on the 4 years spent at Beatton River, 1946-1950. He also worked at Lethbridge and Medicine Hat during that period, but those postings don't get mentioned at all in the book.

    In the Preface, the author mourns the fact that while the story of the Alaska Highway is well known, few people know about the Northwest Staging Route (NWSR). He says "... the road was quite an engineering feat. So, I suggest, is leaving Vancouver with 700 tons of supplies, destined to find a dot on the map beside a small lake in the Yukon as your destination, with instructions to build an airport."

    Doug presents a rough history of the NWSR in Chapter 1, beginning with the 1920 flight by 4 U.S. Army biplanes from New York to Nome, testing an air route to the Orient. While successful, nothing else of note happened until 1934, when 10 American bombers flew a similar route, and Canada made the first test of an air mail route from Edmonton to Whitehorse. Another series of flights in 1935 established the air route that the NWSR and the Alaska Highway would follow.

    The first airfields were built at Grande Prairie, Fort St. John, and Whitehorse. That allowed an air mail contract to be signed with Grant McConachie in 1937, with the airfields supplemented by the use of lakes and rivers by aircraft on skis in winter and floats in summer. The first surveys to construct air navigation aids and weather forecasting stations was done in 1939, and in February 1941, construction of airfields at Fort Nelson and Watson Lake was authorized, as was expansion of the existing three airfields. As well as Canada's air mail needs, the basic requirements of the Lend Lease program to send thousands of aircraft from the United States to Russia was now in place.

    Before the end of WWII, intermediate airfields had been built at Beatton River, Smith River, Teslin, Aishihik, and Snag.

    Chapters Two and Three tell of Doug's childhood in Moose Jaw and his time in the RCAF. His descriptions of his formative early year, full of pride, are wonderful, with a 7-mile-long coulee the centre of the world for him and a small group of friends. Life was simple, and boys were became independent and resourceful. In the hot, dry summers, "all the kept us from naked was a pair of scruffy shorts." The way he talks about government and politicians, a reader would never guess that until just ten years before writing the book, the author held the highest non-elected position in the Yukon Territory, that of Commissioner.

    When war broke out, Doug and three of those friends signed up for military service. His friends all went overseas, but Doug was still only 17, and by the time he was brought in six months later, no more pilots were needed - his second choice was Wireless Air Gunner, a position that was much more "wireless" (radio) than "gunner". And thus began the part of his life that most of the book is about.

    The war ended soon after Doug finished his RCAF training, and following further radio operator training post-war, Doug send out 37 job applications, with dreams of becoming a radio operator on one of the luxurious flying-boat airliners that were crossing the oceans of the world. When a job offer finally came, though, it was from the Department of Transport Radio Division, for service at an unstated location along the Northwest Staging Route.

'Sky Road North' by Doug Bell     Doug was initially sent to Blatchford Field in Edmonton for more training, in radio operations and weather observing. In December 1946, Doug and his wife for the past 65 days, Pearl, parted ways - he headed north to the remote Beatton River 5,000-foot dirt airstrip with its Radio Range Station, which had no facilities for married men, she headed south to her parents' home back in Moose Jaw.

    Doug goes into great detail about the operation of the station, starting with the cutting of firewood. Logs were brought in by contractors, and the station staff of 28 bucked it up using a Fordson tractor powering a large circular saw. With heat taken care of, electricity was provided by a pair of huge Buda diesels.

    Doug had many new experiences at Beatton River - the awesome silence of the north, darkness, deadly cold, loneliness, and cabin fever - and describes various aspects of each several times.

    Beatton River is perhaps the primary focus of the book because it was important in defining where he fit in:

    Little did we realize the land, the drought, the depression, and the people around us were shaping us as the wind shapes the snow on a high mountain ridge. Its time was our time, its moods were our moods, deny it we might, and lots do, but escape it we cannot. There's no question the prairie space, and the people around us, prepared us for the north. I've never been able to sit in a city anywhere and say I belong here, though we've lived in a couple, yet set me on a hill on the prairie, or a mountain side in the Yukon and I fit. It feels good. I'll be damned if I know why, and it really doesn't matter. If you're lucky you end up where you fit.

    In March 1947 Doug made the 200-mile drive to Fort St. John, and brought Pearl to her new home. After their truck broke down and it took 6½ hours to get rescued, and she happily accepted Doug's rough shack as "home," Doug summarized his wife: "They dont come any better, nor any stronger, nor any more beautiful." Life was good.

    Doug was an expert people-watcher, and a few of the ones he was particularly impressed by get fairly lengthy descriptions: trapper Alex Kalahasian, a Tibetan Lama that dropped in, a ditch-digger who made a lie of the stories he'd heard about such people as a child, and Jim the grader operator. Some animals were remembered as well, including a fox caught on a co-worker's trapline he had offered to check. That story ends with: "I never volunteered to walk his line again. I never did much serious hunting after that either. A camera became my hunter's memory."

    Doug saw the gradual arrival of technology such as a teletype machine that would eventually kill the need for his job - the morse code part of it to start.

    Drinking, smoking, and high-stakes gambling were realities of bush camp life for many people. Losing $40 or $50 in a night when your monthly salary is $110 is a lesson that sticks for some, and Doug hints that he was one of them.

'Sky Road North' by Doug Bell     The birth of Doug and Pearl's first baby turned into quite an adventure. Fearing being caught at Beatton River by spring break-up, Pearl asked in mid-April 1948 to go to Fort St. John to await the expected May 24th birth. The road to camp did indeed get washed out, including two bridges. Camp staff build one bridge themselves, and Doug rafted across the larger river to get to Fort St. John for the birth, which didn't happen until June 11th.

    Events after that get only briefly mentioned, with Fort Nelson being the only posting that gets much of a description. The sole exception is a flight to a remote weather-reporting station in a Beaver - it gets several pages.

    The final short chapter is "Lessons Learned," which concludes with:

    While others traveled our Sky Road, we traveled the gravel road. It took us north, station by station, beginning in an unpainted time-keeper's shack in a bush camp at the end of a northern side road, and brought us new homes, old homes, family, friends, good fishing, and even a brush or two with royalty. Like countless others we talked about moving south yet every time we looked, we found nothing better until it was too late - or we realized this was home. We came seeking independence and found the land and the people who spawned it. We sought riches and success and found humility and home.

'Sky Road North' by Doug Bell     "Sky Road North" provides a good look at the radio operations along the Northwest Staging Route, but even more so, it is a fine study of a famous Yukoner. I read books twice completely to write a review, and I enjoyed "Sky Road North" even more the second time. I highly recommend it.

Sky Road North
by Doug Bell
Yukon Transportation Museum, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-7775443-0-0
237 pages, 5"x8"
69 photos, 2 maps
$20.00 Canadian

Related reading:
  • K.C. Eyre, "Custos Borealis: the military in the Canadian North, 1875-1975" (1981)

  • Norman Leonard Larson, "Radio Waves Across Canada and Up the Alaska Highway" (1992)