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Nuclear Winter Recovery of the Stovepipe Piece, NWT, 1978.

Nuclear Winter

When a Soviet satellite crashed in Canada’s remote north, it was a sign of things to come.

In September 1977, a Soviet spy satellite called Cosmos 954 lifted off from a cosmodrome in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. It was a shining example of a modern military asset: carrying forty-five kilograms of enriched uranium as an internal power supply and packed with advanced optics technology, Cosmos 954 could peer through thick cloud to identify enemy ships at sea.

It was one more chess piece moving into place in the ongoing Cold War. And NATO paid close attention. In California, a room-sized supercomputer started trundling through data two months after the satellite’s launch, trying to understand some oddities in its journey. The satellite, despite its high-tech fittings, was in trouble. Air defence commanders could see that its orbit was decaying and it would crash back to the earth in a matter of weeks.

No one knew for sure where it was going to come down, but by the end of January, it was clear it would re-enter the atmosphere over Canada.

The same month Cosmos 954 blasted into orbit, Chris Norment, a twenty-five-year-old American biologist and outdoors enthusiast was, along with a group of five others, fixing up an old wooden cabin in the Northwest Territories, near a stretch of the Thelon River. Their camp went by the name Warden’s Grove.

The first snows were approaching, and they were preparing for winter. The group, a mishmash of grad students and nature buffs, had set off on a canoe-based trip earlier that summer, which they had named “A Traverse of the Northwest.” After months of planning and scraping together sponsorship, they drove a heavily laden bus from Seattle, north through British Columbia, all the way to the remote Canol Road in the Yukon. They plunged into the wilderness with some trepidation, according to Norment’s account of the journey, published a decade later. Striking out on the South Macmillan River, they began paddling and portaging from the eastern border of the Yukon in a bid to cross the Northwest Territories, with a goal of reaching Hudson Bay the following summer.

That meant a trip of roughly 3,500 kilometres through some of the most remote parts of Canada. Their sole means of transport would be their feet and their canoes. They would also need to overwinter in the wilderness of the Thelon wildlife sanctuary, the largest and most remote of its kind in Canada, home to massive herds of migrating caribou. Their journey east led them through muskeg, forests, mountains and the odd brush with tiny settlements. Finally, they passed through the Great Slave Lake region to the Barrens, a very sparsely inhabited area bordering on what is now Nunavut. 

Overwintering in the Barrens was part of the plan: the group would stay put in a spot roughly four hundred kilometres from the nearest settlement, at a high point near a bend in the Thelon River.

Norment had spent much of his youth hiking in the Sierras of California in order to avoid a troubled home life. Asked by a friend if he’d be interested in the long, challenging northern journey, he thought of a certain image. “Lodged in my memory was a recollection of a photograph I had found while rummaging through a library,” he explains in his published account, In the North of Our Lives. “It showed the South Nahanni River in the NWT, a broad stream winding between massive limestone walls. Some indefinable quality in the photograph haunted me; it drew me toward the North and toward my decision.”

The group was also inspired in part by the exploits of John Hornby, a British hunter and outdoorsman who spent many years in the Canadian north. Missing the caribou’s migration one year, in 1927, he ultimately starved to death with two companions near the Thelon River, not far from where Norment and his party overwintered. 

Norment’s group had no intention of repeating Hornby’s mistakes. Well-provisioned, tending to a dog team and even providing weather reports to Yellowknife via a functioning radio, they settled in for the cold months on the relative high ground of the camp. Soon, sounds like gunshots echoed across the landscape as the ice on the nearby freezing river settled into place.

Following a female caribou and her calf one day through an October snowstorm, Norment watched them as they “slowly fed and moved southward with the storm,” he wrote. “Like us, they seemed at home on the Barrens, yet at the same time alone and lost in the blowing storm... swallowed by the land.” Soon, the lone camp was surrounded by an ocean of still white. November brought long, ragged caravans of caribou pursued south towards Saskatchewan by the howling of wolves.

Partway between Yellowknife and Norment’s camp, near the isolated village of Łutselk’e—then known as Snowdrift—a man named J.C. Catholique was following in the footsteps of many generations of First Nations communities. He was seeking out caribou and setting traps to bring fresh food to his family’s table.

Travelling by ski-doo through the wilderness, the twenty-seven-year-old was able to cover a lot of territory. “I was travelling with my late uncle,” he says. “We were living off the land, harvesting and just living out there. That year, we were out doing a lot of trapping and hunting around Fort Reliance and Artillery Lake.”

Łutselk’e is a small settlement typical of the wild, eastern part of the Northwest Territories. Lacking road access, its population is around three hundred. But this isolated community would ultimately feel, more than anyone, the events that were to come in the following months. Cosmos was ready to return to Earth. 

Spinning out of control, the satellite came to its journey’s fiery end in January 1978, just four months after its launch. After weeks in a decaying orbit, it re-entered the atmosphere near Haida Gwaii, then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. The Soviets had intended, in such a scenario, for the reactor onboard to disengage from the satellite’s body and safely burn up seperately. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the remains of Cosmos 954 streaked across northern Canada and the reactor broke apart, spilling its radioactive contents into the air. Fragments were spotted in the sky near Yellowknife, where residents reported seeing something like a burning jet plane coming down.

In the pre-dawn darkness on January 26, the quiet of Chris Norment’s party’s camp near the Thelon River was broken by the roaring of a large, four-engined plane overhead. It seemed to be searching for something. 

A debris path stretched over thousands of kilometres, from south of Great Slave Lake to along the banks of the Thelon River. The satellite’s demise had taken seconds, but it was clear the reverberations could last years. The operation to recover the radioactive fragments was soon christened “Operation Morning Light.” Canadian and American military airplanes were already scanning vast swathes of land for the tell-tale radiation that could lead them to fragments. 

Two members of Norment’s party, John Mordhorst and Mike Mobley, were out on a multi-day sled trip to Hornby’s historic dwelling. They arrived back at the camp two days later, earlier than expected. They’d found something odd downriver. 

Norment’s account describes how Mordhorst and Mobley had stumbled across “a strange object in the river ice,” not more than a hundred yards from where their sled had first passed three days before. “There was this crater, six or seven feet across, where something hot had hit and melted into the ice. Several charred metal struts were visible,” he wrote. 

As bizarre as this visitation was, Norment’s reaction seemed even stranger to the men returning. “You guys have found a goddamned Russian satellite!” he said. But Mordhorst an Mobley didn’t know that the group at the cabin had received an emergency radio broadcast warning them that a satellite had gone down over the area. The group again crowded around the radio and called in their find. Authorities told them they should prepare to be evacuated to Yellowknife. 

It was the beginning of a month-long whirlwind for the group, with Canadian military airplanes and helicopters rapidly descending on the camp. Eighteen hours later, radiation-suited personnel were running scintillation meters over the six friends, then flying them to Yellowknife to be medically tested for radiation poisoning. 

In an instant, the group’s illusion of wilderness was brushed away; in the Space Age, nothing remained beyond the reach of humanity. “Looking back, the emotions are mainly of bemusement,” Norment recalled this year in an interview with Maisonneuve. “The great irony of it was that the six of us decided to go spend more than a year in the wilderness, in the most isolated place you could find on the North American continent. We had travelled up to 1,600 miles by canoe, and we get to this place with enough material to be alone for a year—and the world, literally, comes to us.” 

By the late seventies, the Northwest Territories’ reputation for rich mineral deposits had spread around the country. These included uranium, which had been much sought-after in the post-war years, and radium, found at the region’s first commercial mine at Great Bear Lake. Yellowknife was smaller than it is now—the population was less than ten thousand—but it was a bustling centre for the industry, with the Giant gold mine, on the edge of town, one symbol of the mining bounty. The mine hummed with activity as its workers roasted ore to extract gold and stored the byproduct, an arsenic-rich dust, in tunnels under the landscape. 

A young Ontario man named Walt Humphries had recently begun a career in mineral exploration in Yellowknife; specifically, with his trusted scintillometer by his side, Humphries was looking for uranium, among other things. He had always liked the outdoors. After high school, he studied a little geology and mining but ended up in Yellowknife, wanting to go directly into exploration. “I opened my own one-person company,” he says.

In late January of 1978, when Norment’s group was scooped up from the wilderness and delivered to town, the local grapevine was working overtime, Humphries remembers. “There was a coffee shop downtown called The Miner’s Mess that everybody used to go to,” he recalls. “That was the information and gossip hub of Yellowknife. I went down to there one day, and the word was out that this thing had passed over Yellowknife the night before.” 

Word had already spread well beyond the city, too, and reporters were scrambling to figure out how to get their stories. “I know one reporter phoned up someone who had a freight-hauling business on Great Slave Lake and said, ‘We’d like to rent your boat to go out to the site,’” Humphries laughs. “Well, it was the middle of winter; the lake’s frozen!”

Journalists’ lack of geographical comprehension didn’t stop their enthusiasm, as reporters reacted to reports of small fragments being found around the territories. “They thought, because (Yellowknife) was the nearest place of note, they could come up here and somehow ‘follow the track,’” Humphries says. “That was not only optimistic—there was no way to do that.” 

So Norment’s party, after getting the all-clear at the hospital, soon became the focus. English-speaking, having found a fragment in the midst of carrying out a impressive journey, they were subjected to interview after interview. But they found facts often got muddled along the way.

“There’s a desire there to cast things into certain categories,” notes Norment in his book. For example, there was nothing unexplored about the region, he was keen to point out. “We were small change when it came to this event,” he wrote, “but they wanted to call us explorers. They wanted to typecast us, because it would make it easier for the public to understand, and easier for them to understand.”

Even Saturday Night Live referenced the event, with a skit that had Bill Murray fending off giant mutant lobsters invading the studio due to the supposed influx of radiation from Cosmos. But soon, the news cycle moved on. Reporters checked out of their Yellowknife hotels. 

As the initial excitement died down, it became apparent that the scale of the government’s recovery operation was huge, a massive challenge. While the radioactive particles could be as small as a grain of salt, they were scattered over an extremely large area. The Canadian Atomic Energy Control Board, or AECB, was asked to lend its expertise and work alongside the military. In Yellowknife, Walt Humphries soon found himself hired by individuals keen to make use of the vast amount of surveying for radioactivity happening—but for their own purposes. “We got all these calls to go out and stake claims in the middle of nowhere by people who weren’t hot shots in the industry,” he recalls. “That was a bit of a puzzle.” 

Humphries realized someone was making use of the insights the military was providing. “We figured out that somebody was looking at the government flight tapes, and saw anomalies that weren’t part of the satellite, and thought ‘Oh, we should stake there for uranium.’” With his scintillometer in hand, he increasingly found himself out in the bush.

For J.C. Catholique, far away from the bustle of Yellowknife, it took some time to piece together, on his own, the story of Cosmos’s crash. That January, he and his uncle went on a caribou hunt. “My uncle, he was really puzzled about the behaviour of the caribou,” he recalls. “They usually travel in a straight line. It seemed like suddenly they were being scattered all over the place.”

A common problem for winter hunters—a broken snowmachine tread—led Catholique to the possible reason for the disturbed animals. Needing repairs, the hunters were forced to travel to nearby Fort Reliance, where Catholique’s uncle had a home. Dropping by the manned weather station nearby revealed that newcomers were active in the area—military, patrolling with aircraft. “They never informed us about what they were doing there, or why they were there,” he recalls.

Catholique soon found his skills in demand. That spring, he was asked to help investigate the potential contamination of local fish stocks; local hunters were instructed to collect samples by ice-fishing. It turned out it wasn’t only journalists who seemed to lack an understanding of the North. Catholique obliged, but he wondered to himself how it would help, since any fish he collected would have been shielded from open sky, and falling nuclear debris, by several inches of solid ice. “I thought that was strange,” he says. It would take years of follow-up studies to get a real answer on whether the fish had been affected, he was told.

But he never heard if those studies happened. For Catholique, the incident slowly faded from memory, but one thing remained ingrained in his memory: the lack of information distributed to isolated communities. “I never heard anything in a public meeting,” he says. “It seemed very hush-hush, like the information was secret and not very public. We were never informed of the health risks, including out in the land, where we still hunt and harvest.” While the AECB did document the erecting of yellow warning signs around particle finds, including in Chipewyan, the Indigenous language largely spoken in Łutselk’e, Catholique has no recollection of ever seeing them.

It was one of many ways that Cosmos’s crash seemed to augur the region’s future. In the years since, increased development has made hunting ever-tougher for locals. “There’s been an impact from the development of the diamond mines,” Catholique says. “They were built on the migration routes of the caribou.” In the past, the caribou came “right down to our area,” he says, allowing people to hunt near home. But the last time that happened was in 1997. “Now, sometimes we have to travel two days to find caribou,” he says. “Gas [for snow machines] is not cheap—we were up to $1.72 at one point per litre. It is expensive to go hunting now.”

An even sharper reminder of the incident came in 2009, with a controversy over the potential development of new mines near the village. The new mines would have surfaced the same substance that was aboard Cosmos 954: uranium. It wouldn’t have been the first time there was a uranium mine in the area.

“There used to be a uranium mine there,” recalls Catholique. “It was drilled through a hill and years ago it was shut down but always open,” never properly sealed, despite the presence of a creek nearby. “You have reports a few years ago that there was mercury in a nearby lake,” he says. “It may have been from the mine. Our fish could be [exposed] to mercury.” Like after the Cosmos crash, a void of public safety information seemed to open up. “They just told us to be cautious.” 

About ten years after the crash, Catholique became a social worker. He says that in his thirty years on the job, one of his main daily tasks has been dealing with influences from outside. One is alcohol and drugs; despite the settlement being declared dry two years before Cosmos came down, substance abuse continues to haunt the village. 

But Łutselk’e has won some victories more recently. This September, it celebrated the opening of a newly renovated school, ending a multi-year struggle against dilapidated conditions. “Łutselk’e today, it’s growing,” Catholique says. “There are still lots of young people. People are going to school and getting educated. We still live off the land. We eat good, our water is still clean, we still have a lot of fish and animals.” 

For Chris Norment’s party, the affair was a major distraction, but it also contained a lesson. “Cosmos 954 tells me no wilderness is inviolate,” Norment later wrote. This year, he said he had continued to think about what it all meant. “To me,” he says, “the big lesson of it is that we don’t have complete control over our technology.” 

Some members of his party were spirited away to Alberta, first perceived as experts in some way on the crash, and it was only two months later that the military tent city erected near the crash site, called ‘Camp Garland,’ finally disappeared. Silence again blanketed the Barrens. Undeterred, the group came together again at Warden’s Grove in February and re-commenced their journey, finally reaching Hudson Bay in August 1978. Norment later returned to the site to complete studies on Harris’s Sparrow, the only songbird to breed entirely within Canada. “I... wanted to put this trip to rest, and make my peace with expedition, and with the whole Cosmos incident. After three summers there, I think I managed to do this,” he says. 

For Walt Humphries, the incident also seemed to mark the end of the sense of wild isolation that had typified his working life. “Nowadays, you see contrails just about every day, regardless of where I am in the NWT,” he says. “It wasn’t like that in the seventies.” There used to be just the occasional plane passing overhead, but now Yellowknife is on a flight path. Cosmos may have been his very first encounter with a satellite, but today, they’ve also become a staple of his life, even in the wilderness. “The fact that I have a sat phone with me out in the bush, and I can call anyone, anywhere in the world, that’s a big change,” he says. “It used to be that we’d go out in the bush, and you wouldn’t talk to anyone for a long period of time. [Today], if you don’t have WiFi and internet, people won’t want to work for you.” 

As for the remains of Cosmos 954, the CNSC told media in 2018 that the recovered particles of the satellite remain securely stored at Whiteshell Laboratories, a largely decommissioned nuclear facility near Pinawa, Manitoba. The fragments “are entombed in a concrete structure within the secure area of the facility,” the agency says. “The CNSC will continue to exercise regulatory control of the site for the foreseeable future.” 

Only a single large chunk of Cosmos 954 remains publicly accessible. Currently in the storage collection of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, the “stovepipe” piece looks remarkably banal—a piece of cylindrical, scorched metal about a foot long that happened to go to space and come back down again. 

Its identity tag includes a single word, separate from the rest of the description. In capital letters and underlined, it reads “NON-RADIOACTIVE.”