Note: from all information received from all sources when I was involved in this seismic survey, I believe that it was indeed the very first one of this nature. If this was not the case... My apologies.
It all started in Gabon, Equatorial Africa, where I was working for a subsidiary of the group which later became ELF.
Sometime during the rainy season of 1963, we had a visit by the Chief Geologist from the Paris head office. One evening, as we were sipping some cool Scotch and Soda drinks, he mentioned that Petropar, one of the subsidiaries of the group, had acquired some exploration permits in the Canadian Arctic Islands. Being originally from the French Alps, and loving snow and winter climates, I immediately offered to volunteer for any future geophysical operations in this remote area.
During my teenager years I had read numerous books of voyages to the North Pole, of exploration in Greenland and the Arctic, the search for the Northwest Passage, the South Pole, all of which had left me dreaming. Moreover I was in my tenth year of assignments in very hot deserts and jungles, and was longing for some cooler living place. But all hopes quickly died when I was told that the company would never need any geophysical survey in the area, geology being all what would be required.
Two years later, in January 1965 while vacationing in the French alps after having just returned from Gabon, I received a letter from Mr. R.G. Levy, the same chief geologist, telling me that my next temporary assignment would be in Canada. I would have to go and spend a few months with a Canadian research project in the Arctic Islands, The Polar Continental Shelf Project (PCSP), where I would familiarize myself with the local working conditions. I was then to fly to Calgary, help the local office of Petropar to sort out the various proposals received from quite a few seismic contractors for a 1966 seismic survey, and prepare the shipment and stockpiling of all supplies which could possibly be shipped in July 1965 to Resolute Bay with the yearly sea convoy.
The letter specified that I would have to be in Ottawa by mid March, to leave for the Arctic a few days later, and that I would soon receive some documents about the various land permits. Being totally ignorant of the working conditions, I respectfully questioned a departure so early in the season.
The next letter I received contained my airplane ticket for Ottawa, a hotel reservation, a couple of names and phone numbers of people to contact, a topographic map of the Queen Elizabeth Islands at 1/1,000,000 scale, a photo mosaic of Mackenzie King Island and Prince Patrick Island.
It also included a plane ticket on a PWA monthly flight from Resolute Bay to Edmonton and Calgary for the last week of April, and a short note from R.G Levy telling me: “do not worry Pierre, in March it is already spring time in the Arctic”.
Two months later, carrying my warmest mountaineering clothes, I arrived in Ottawa where I met with several people of the Polar Continental Shelf Project and The Dominium Observatory. Some of the names I remember were Tony Overton, Georges Hobson, and George Sander. Unfortunately many others are now forgotten.
Like the rest of the crew, I was then issued standard arctic equipment (parka, mukluks, aviation pants, arctic sleeping bags, etc…) which soon proved to be much more useful than my own “warm gears”.
A few days later, on board a chartered DC4 loaded with cargo and people, I had my first taste of “spring time in the Arctic” when landing at Frobischer Bay, Resolute Bay and finally Mould Bay with a balmy -45 degrees temperature.
I was full of admiration for all those tough Canadians who were working outside for hours in a row, preparing shipments of gear and supplies, before moving to their working sites. I admit that for the first two days I could not stay outside more than a few minutes at a time, and I was totally unable to help anyone.
Soon a single engine Otter plane took me with a crew of two geophysicists to a recording site on Mackenzie King Island, and left us with a pile of boxes and crates. We just had time to mount the most rudimentary tent (no double wall, no insulated floor, just a tarp on the permafrost) and light the fuel heater before a very strong blizzard got us pinned down in the tent for three days.
It was then that I pulled out the letter from the chief geologist, and all three of us had some hilarious moments, during the days I spent with this small recording crew, re-reading “do not worry Pierre, in March it is already spring time in the Arctic”.
The project, a deep refraction survey, consisted of shots fired under the sea ice and recorded simultaneously from various fixed stations on land at distances of the order of 100 km. Two shooting crews were moving on the sea ice with skidoos and one Nodwell 75 track vehicle towing a small utility trailer. When enough shot locations had been recorded, the recording crews were moved with an Otter plane to other land stations, providing the desired continuous coverage of the MOHO discontinuity.
At the recording station, while the recording crew was waiting a few hours for the next shot point to be ready, I borrowed a few sticks of dynamite and managed to record two or three surface shots as part of a noise spread. It showed some reflections and it was a very encouraging sign for the future 1966 seismic survey.
I also spent some time with one of the shooting crew, moving for several days on the sea ice. It gave me a first hand appreciation of what pack ice could pose as problems for travel on this kind of surface.
Then I moved for about 10 days to the PCSP Base Camp in Mould Bay. There I spent my time gathering a lot of very useful logistical and safety information from the base manager. Interviewing small plane and helicopter pilots, and the manager of the DOT base, I learned a lot about the various types of cargo planes available in Canada, their performances, the DOT regulations regarding charter contracts, the weather statistics at the various DOT bases, and the very strict restrictions blocking non Canadian air carriers from operating in Canada.
When I inquired about leaving for Resolute Bay to catch the famous regular PWA monthly flight to Edmonton, everybody was bent laughing. I then learned that this flight had been cancelled every month for the last eleven ones for lack of passengers and cargo, and it would likely be the same at the end of April .
The owner of the small plane company chartered by PCSP offered me a ride onboard his Beechcraft returning for maintenance at their base in Uranium City. This gave me the unique opportunity, after missing by one day the weekly flight to Edmonton, to visit six days in a row, an entirely empty town in full recession; all houses had boarded doors and were for sale at prices lower than the cost of the kitchen Frigidaire!
Finally I reached Calgary.
At Petropar office, proposals from some 10 or 11 seismic contractors were waiting to be sorted out. Surprisingly enough, all of them but two had based their proposals on nothing but track crews (Nodwell 75 and 110) and track mounted camp. Mobilization to the Arctic in the spring of 1966 would have to be done with C-130 planes, none of which was then available through Canadian carriers.
PWA representatives, who were hoping to be the successful bidder for all chartered air transportation, were trying to convince me that they would be able to subcontract an American C-130 from Alaska Airline with DOT approval. They were also offering to buy some decommissioned military “flying box cars” grounded somewhere in Saskatchewan and obtain their recertification.
Based on what I had learned, this looked very dubious to me, and a serious verification with the DOT was needed. The first phone contacts with the DOT in Ottawa were very negative. We followed with a phone conference between Petropar, PWA, and the DOT which produced an absolute no-no for recertification of the “Box Cars”, and a refusal to guarantee permission to subcontract an American carrier.
It appeared that the chance was then nil of moving a track crew in the spring of 1966.Therefore only two proposals were left offering heliportable seismic, and in my opinion, this was the only viable solution.
The method was then fairly new in Canada, and I believe, but I am not sure, that Mobil Oil had used it during a few months of 1964 in the Northwest Territories. It required a Bell 204 helicopter capable of lifting the two loads of each Helidrill belonging to Big Indian Drilling Company, as well as the camp buildings proposed by Atco. The Bell 204 was off e red by Bullock Helicopters Company, as well as a smaller machine for other tasks.
Transportation of these various equipments was in principle possible using two types of planes available then in Canada: the DC4s with cargo doors from PWA, and the Bristol, only one of which was available with the Wardair Company, based in Yellowknife. As for the helicopters, they could fly to the Arctic on their own. We knew that the Bristol plane was a very critical element of this mobilization, and we would have preferred a larger cargo plane. But it was the only possible choice if one did not believe in promises far from guaranteed.
The contract was awarded to CGG and its subcontractors. Their proposal, offering only a heliportable crew, was most carefully prepared.
Mobilization would be based on the use of the only two suitable cargo planes available: DC-4s with large cargo doors, and the unique Bristol.
The camp units would be re-designed to satisfy two basic specifications: weight lower than 3200 pounds, and size of each crated package of floors, ceilings, walls, etc… to fit the DC4 door loading chart.
Kitchen, snow melter, lavatory and generator units would require walls folding horizontally above the various installed machines, providing a minimal clearance of just 4 inches in width and height inside the Bristol cargo compartment. The Helidrills were also fitting tightly into the Bristol.
Nevertheless we kept working with PWA to try and obtain clearance from the DOT for a sub contract with Alaska Air Line, as it could considerably simplify transportation of equipment from Yellowknife to Mackenzie King Island.
All consumable supplies were checked and rechecked with the contractor and sub contractors, and ordered. Shipment was booked on the July sea convoy to Resolute Bay. I then returned in early May to the Paris head office.
Later in the fall of 1965, I flew back to Calgary where I spent a few days checking the progress of the camp construction and the signature of the various sub contracts.
Some progress had also been made with the DOT and it appeared that PWA would be granted permission to subcontract an American carrier in the spring of 1966.
We immediately phoned the Alaska Airline representative we had met in the spring, and his comment was: “ Sorry. We now have an open contract with the US Government to fly as many flights as possible between the West coast and Vietnam for at least six months. We are not i n t e rested anymore in these few loads of yours, and do not waste your time looking for other US air carriers are they are all as busy as we are”.
It was the final confirmation that we had made the right choice of transportation. I could visualize what would have happened, if the seismic operation had been based on a track crew. The cancellation of the whole operation and contracts, the useless supplies transported at great cost to the north, what a nightmare it would have been!
This short visit to Calgary also gave me the opportunity to meet many friendly people: Bruce Bullock (Bullock Helicopters), Gilles Wilderman (Big Indian Drilling), Brian Montgomery and John Urbas of Atco, and Art Paterson (Western Decalta) who was also president of the Calgary touring ski club. They introduced me to the mountains in the National Park, skiing in the Rockies, and hunting bird and big game, activities that I still enjoy today.
In early January 1966 I was transferred with my family to Calgary for a temporary two years assignment (I still live in Calgary 42 years later!). This assignment did not surprise me as I was the one whose recommendations had been followed and as my colleagues were not anxious to be involved in this new venture considered as very risky indeed.
January and February where busy months, checking and rechecking the transportation plans with the contactors, and getting ready to start this adventure in early March at the latest. On a January weekend while skiing in Lake Louise, I managed to break one of my Achilles tendons. I went through surgery and was equipped with a cast not particularly suited to walk in the Arctic.
Fortunately the surgeon agreed that he would remove it after five weeks, so that I could leave for Resolute Bay with one of the first flights. My limping, while in the north, earned me as nickname the name of a popular limping cowboy of a TV series, “Chester” I believe.
Then it started.
All the equipment was trucked to Yellowknife.
Don Brown of Wardair was in charge of finding a suitable landing site for the Bristol on Mackenzie King Island. There he deposited an advance crew of six or seven Inuit and a disassembled D4 cat to clear a suitable landing site for the DC4. He flagged a one-mile long airstrip, and flew back to Yellowknife to bring the first Bristol load of camp equipment.
The DC4s started their round trips to Resolute with personnel and equipment. The helicopters flew to Resolute Bay, using fuel caches deposited between Yellowknife and Cambridge Bay. And sure enough terribly bad weather started, lasting about a week and leaving everybody and everything grounded in Resolute Bay. Once the weather cleared, a flight to the landing site boosted our moral: not only were the Inuit comfortably installed in their igloos, but they had also reassembled the D4 cat, and cleared the airstrip! No time had been lost!
The first DC4 flight took off from Resolute Bay, but immediately after landing the two pilots (and myself too) were very pale. We nearly overran the strip and stopped a few feet only before ending up in a snow bank! Something was wrong. We paced and re- paced the cleared airstrip and no doubt was possible: it was 3000 feet long only instead of the required 5200! We never found out what had happened. Were some of the flags blown off by the blizzard? Or was the initial length measured wrong at the beginning?
Three or four more days were required to clear the extra 2300 feet. Everybody waiting in Resolute Bay (pilots and seismic crew) was becoming nervous because of this new delay. When flights could resume at last, the operation suffered another big blow causing another large delay.
The first Bristol Flight carrying the kitchen unit landed immediately behind one of the DC4 flights. For an unknown reason, instead of turning at the end and on the runway itself, it tried to make a U turn outside. Under the snow coverage, the sharp bank of a summer river was waiting. The Bristol stopped nose down in the snow, tail up and across the airstrip, but fortunately without any apparent damage. No other landings were possible until it could be jacked up and towed back on the runway.
In Resolute Bay everything was stopped. The Wardair crew was looked up like Black Sheeps, and tempers were at the flash point. Two weeks were consumed flying heavy timbers and hydraulic jacks from the south, combined with days lost because of bad weather. This waiting time was a most nerve-racking period, as failure could obviously be considered as a possibility. But good luck finally came back, the Bristol plane became operational again, the flights resumed, mobilization was completed without any other major delay, and the real geophysical work could at last start.
The first test shots were of good quality, the air drills were performing properly, and seismic recording (which at the time was simply analog) settled rapidly in a routine of good quality records, interrupted only by short periods of bad weather. Those unfortunately were more frequent than anticipated from the study of weather statistics of the nearby DOT bases. The total mileage of the program had to be somewhat reduced, but coverage was achieved on each of the following islands: Mackenzie King, Brock, Borden, and Prince Patrick.
Food supplies and crew changes were flown out of Yellowknife with a relatively small twin-engine plane, a Beechcraft 18. Bad weather, in the south or anywhere along the route to Mackenzie King Island often delayed its arrival.
Once, as the arrival of fresh supplies had been delayed quite a few days in a row, two of the Inuit went hunting, and a few hours later came to the kitchen with two freshly killed caribous: “you better use those otherwise you are going to starve pretty soon” was their comment!
The same group of Inuit, all excellent workers, would one day suddenly look at the sky and some change of temperature and announce that they had to leave right away because it was becoming urgent to go seal hunting!
On the field, surveyors, drillers and recording crew were working long hour days without shelter, as there were no vehicles on the ground. Selecting real strong personnel already experienced with the high Arctic was, at least at the beginning, an important factor.
In the spring of 1965, I had included in my notes the names and addresses of some of the people working for the PCSP, which I communicated to the seismic contractor.
So the initial crew included, the Inuit already mentioned, a shooter from northern Quebec, Leon Brousseau, and five or six other tough helpers more or less from the same family, having all worked as miners or lumber jacks.
One of them (Pasquin was his surname) left me with a lasting impression: He was nearly as wide as tall and certainly very heavy, and outfitting him with arctic clothing had been a serious challenge. But what could be confused with an excess of fat, was in fact pure muscle mass. When off loading fuel drums, weighing each close to 400 pounds, he would grab each drum from both ends, lift them up swiftly on one knee and send them flying at least six meters away!
The same character, who was working already at least 14 to 15 hours per day during the mobilization, was not satisfied with his pay cheque. He explained to the Party Manager that if he was working on this crew, it was “to make hours”, therefore he was requesting to be allowed to work “continuously 24 hours a day”! I do not remember how the Party Manager managed to convince him that it was impossible, but a month later he resigned invoking the same reason!
The harsh conditions prevailing when weather was turning bad could have some very debilitating effects on weaker characters.
For instance one of the cooks, at the sight of drifting snow in a blizzard, decided to leave on foot for the south! It was a miracle that somebody caught him leaving. Afterward, needless to say, he was watched very closely, and was sent back south on the first available supply plane.
One of the French technicians, in similar condition, had a very serious nervous breakdown, and he was trying to set a speed record at climbing the radio mast. His surname was “Froidure” which in French translates as Cold or Frostbite! I am sure that such a name was one of the reasons why he was selected for this arctic crew!
Safety was of course very seriously respected.
On the field at both ends of the recording line, two basket containers were moved regularly. Enough inflatable igloo tents, arctic sleeping bags, cots and survival rations for the whole recording crew were then transported along. Each drill was similarly equipped for its two driller crew.
Each helicopter and the supply plane were permanently carrying sleeping bags and survival rations sufficient to last for weeks. Nobody was allowed to travel without carrying his sleeping bag. During five months of operations to the end of the survey not a single accident occurred, due to the cold or for any other reason.
At the end of July 2006, the crew and its light equipment returned to Calgary. The rest was stockpiled ready to be airlifted early September as soon as the ground would be frozen enough for cargo planes.
The American military build up in Vietnam was over. The “dreamed of” Hercules C-130 plane belonging to Alaska Airline was at last available, and demobilization was easily completed within a few days.
This was the end of an adventure in which seismic recording occupied a small part only. The initial program was reduced somewhat and the survey, which stayed within budget, gave the company a reasonably good seismic image of the sedimentary basin where its exploratory permits were located.
As for me it left me with some of my best memories, even though the beginnings of the operations were nerve-racking.
About the Author(s)
Pierre Marechal, B.Sc. from Grenoble University in 1951. 1951-1952: military service. French Petroleum Institute (Geophysics) in 1953. Then started working for CGG; 1954 joined Irak Petroleum Company in Irak; 1957 joined SPAEF in Gabon; 1965–1969 with Petropar / ElF in Canada; joined CGG in 1970 (Canada, France, South America, Canada) until retirement in 1989.
Pierre lives in Calgary, his two sons (in oil business) and their families also live in Calgary. Pierre has four grand daughters and one grand son.