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Number 82

September 10, 2015
Number 82 and the 1976 Custom Deluxe, visiting a quarry in the Churchill quartzite.

Number 82 and the 1976 Custom Deluxe, visiting a quarry in the Churchill quartzite.

Sometimes Good Things Come Back

A few weeks ago we arrived in Churchill to carry out a field project, staying at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre as we always do. We were a big group of scientists for the first week, and CNSC assigned us two Suburbans from their fleet. The older was a rather beaten 1976 version, tarnished and burnished by decades of wind-driven salt (it may be aged, but it is a “Custom Deluxe”; on one side this moniker has been abbreviated to a more appropriate “Cus”). The newer of the two was ex-University of Manitoba, as demonstrated by the U of M logo still in the process of being peeled from its doors by Churchill’s -40 winters. It also carried U of M number 82, and my colleague Nancy Chow commented that she thought she had used it in the distant past.

The Churchill Northern Studies Centre owns a fleet of several vehicles, a substantial proportion of them are Suburbans of a certain age.

The Churchill Northern Studies Centre owns a quite a large fleet of vehicles, several of which are Suburbans of a certain age.

Later on, going through my digital photo collection I discovered that I had also used number 82, but quite some time ago. In spring of 2005 it had been our field vehicle in the Grand Rapids Uplands of central Manitoba. It was a fine truck for that work: reasonably comfortable seats, plenty of ground clearance, good power, and immense space for hauling colleagues, students, gear, and geological samples. The only downside, as I recall, was its voracious appetite for fuel.

In the Grand Rapids Uplands, spring of 2005

Number 82 in the Grand Rapids Uplands, spring of 2005

Now here it was again, its paint somewhat faded, some fresh dents added, and the suspension and seats are definitely more worn, but still an excellent truck. Churchill is only about 1000 kilometres from Winnipeg, but since there is no road connection it is not an easy drive between the two. To get number 82 to Churchill, someone had to drive it to a loading point somewhere along the Hudson Bay Railway (probably at Thompson), load it onto a flatcar, and chain it down for the long, slow, swaying trip across muskeg and tundra.

 

It is a challenge to get vehicles to and from Churchill. Here, the Manitoba Geological Survey's drill rig is loaded onto a flatbed car, for its travels on the Hudson Bay Railway.

It is a challenge to get vehicles to and from Churchill. Here, the Manitoba Geological Survey’s drill rig is loaded onto a flatbed car for a return trip south on the Hudson Bay Railway.

Now that it is in Churchill, the truck seems to have found its true milieu. Number 82 still has plenty of space for everything we might want to haul, and since CNSC is only about 25 km from town (and it is hard to find roads that go much farther than that), fuel is much less of an issue than on the long highways of southern and central Manitoba. The long wheelbase, good ground clearance, and forgiving suspension make it a natural for Churchill’s gravel roads and even for most of the tracks across cobbles and beach ridges, though the absence of 4×4 meant that we would not chance the mudhole by Halfway Point, or the soft sands of Polar Bear Alley.

82 on the shore at Airport Cove

Number 82 on the shore at Airport Cove

Suburbans are well suited to the gravel roads of the Churchill area. This is the shore road near Churchill.

Suburbans are well suited to the gravel roads of the Churchill area. This is the shore road near Churchill.

Number 82 is certainly showing signs of wear, or perhaps signs that it is developing  more of a personality. It produces a remarkable repertoire of noises, more than I have ever heard made by any other single vehicle. Sometimes the sources of these are obvious: a squeaking from the rear springs, a continuous groan from the power steering at full lock, a whirring from a belt or the water pump, and the rrrr-rrr-rrr of the engine surging wildly at idle. Other times, the truck just sighs or moans strangely, without any obvious source or reason. Maybe it is just a bit weary, but it is fascinating how the noises come and go; sometimes we heard a particular sound for just a brief interval before it vanished, to be replaced by something different a few minutes later.

Tools of the trade: there is plenty of room in the back for packs, boots, samples, tools, and a shotgun for polar bear protection.

Tools of the trade: there is plenty of room in the back for packs, boots, samples, tools, and a shotgun for polar bear protection.

I can imagine number 82 slowly developing yet more of a personality, gaining a deeper patina of iron oxide and limestone dust as it continues to serve CNSC over the coming years or decades. Maybe at some point it will be a truly historic artifact; from a paleontological perspective it has already transported some very significant fossils, and no doubt it has contributed to research in many other areas. Perhaps we should give better recognition to our field vehicles, and to the many other humble but essential tools that allow scientific research to take place. Some of them are true treasures.

Number 82, appropriately decorated as a paleontology field vehicle

Number 82, appropriately decorated as a paleontology field vehicle

Dave Rudkin adds an endocerid cephalopod to the side of the truck.

Dave Rudkin adds an endocerid cephalopod to the side of the truck.

sunset road

sunset

© Graham Young, 2015

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Vicki Young permalink
    September 10, 2015 12:57 pm

    Lovely post!

  2. Randy permalink
    September 10, 2015 2:08 pm

    Econolines are another matter… I remember a gas-guzzling dark green one when CNSC was at Akudlik in the early 1980s. First time I saw a fill-up of $70… of course that was when gas was maybe 40 cents a litre in Toronto so it was a bit of a shock.
    I agree we don’t pay enough attention to things like field vehicles… when they work! But you sure notice when they don’t.

    • Graham permalink*
      September 10, 2015 2:10 pm

      And the worst ones in the “don’t work” department are some of the brand new rentals! I have never been fond of Econolines, but I guess they serve a purpose.

  3. Gary Bell permalink
    September 15, 2015 10:37 am

    What a stunning landscape! Nice to see Dave out there in the field.

    • Graham permalink*
      September 18, 2015 10:47 am

      Gary, many thanks!

  4. Steve Brandy permalink
    September 16, 2015 2:39 pm

    Hi Graham! It’s always nice to see the Churchill region in one of your posts.
    Summer travel along the roadways around Churchill was one thing, but in the winter during a storm… we would see nothing more headed down the range road than….a NODWELL…
    a vehicle that could go anywhere including areas fraught with muskeg. The ride was not very comfortable… so I’m told because I’ve never ridden in one!
    Much peace

    • Graham permalink*
      September 18, 2015 10:48 am

      Steve, I am glad you enjoyed it. I will have to get to Churchill in winter at some point, but not much geology to be done in that season!

  5. September 20, 2015 8:47 pm

    The Louisiana Geological Survey had a suburban which became pretty much my field vehicle for about 5 years in the ’80s. We had a core rack built on top and hauled a 21 ft work boat behind it. Inside was a vibrocorer, all our tools, and – oh yes – a cooler with food (and beer!) and our clothes for however many days. With all that weight, the truck performed flawlessly. Sadly, I have no pictures of it!

    • Graham permalink*
      September 20, 2015 9:08 pm

      Yes, a great pity you don’t have photos of it, Elisabeth. Digital cameras have changed our lives so much – in the old days I saved all my field photos for outcrops and geological features, whereas now I take endless images of the “fun stuff” (as well as outcrops and geological features).

  6. Daniel permalink
    September 29, 2015 3:55 am

    nice off road vehicles

  7. Daniel permalink
    September 29, 2015 3:57 am

    You changed the title of this posting didn’t you? I remember I saw a different title earlier.

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