Canada’s North Warning System

The other day, a bunch of Gjoa Haven’s Rangers set out on patrol to check on the North Warning System, a line of short- and long-range radar towers that covers 4,800 km west-east, and 320 km north-south. It’s been described as a continent-long ‘tripwire’ that will alert Canada and the USA of any inbound aircraft long before they reach the more densely populated areas on the continent.

The Rangers finishing prepping for their NWS patrol (photo by Tobi Elliott)

The NWS was born out of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line, set up in the 1950s to watch for Soviet bombers. The DEW line had two southern sisters: the Mid-Canada line and, most-famously, the Pinetree line at the 50th parallel. A former radar tech named Larry Wilson has a page full of stories from the radar lines he collected their operators, in case you’re interested in reading about the occasionally white-knuckle job of watching for signs of war. A particular highlight is a story about an operator dealing with an Arctic mayday call. Check out the pictures of the patrol, which show the radar bubbles and the station’s interiors, where visitors have been scrawling messages for decades. They also give a pretty good idea of just how important navigation is up in Gjoa Haven, where all directions look identically white and flat. These guys are truly experts.

The NWS station appears on the horizon (photo by Paul Rickard)The Rangers, along with sound man Nick Huard, huddle inside the station (photo by Paul Rickard)
Messages on the walls from former and current Rangers (photo by Nick Huard)
The patrol unpackes their qamutiks in front of the radar bubbles (photo by Nick Huard)
An elevated radar bubble (photo by Nick Huard)
Paul adjusts the camera’s protective case; beyond the skidoos lies hundreds of kilometres of flat, snowy terrain (photo by Nick Huard)