Regardless of whether you go by Robert Dean’s property on Vale Island by land or water, you can’t help but be drawn to the enormous dish that points to the sky.Its unorthodox appearance and location has probably confounded hundreds of people throughout the years.
“When I was a child, I thought it was a drive-in movie screen for boats,” said Hay Riverite Kate Latour.
In fact, the 60-foot billboard shaped antennas were part of the Cold War’s Distant Early Warning System (DEW Line), built in 1963 along with other radar equipment to monitor Soviet bombers and prevent land and water invasions in the Arctic.
The antenna would transmit and receive signals by tropospheric scatter, a method of bouncing microwave signals off the troposphere – the lowest portion of Earth’s atmosphere – and then having them picked up by receiver stations as far away as the signal scatters.
Around 1975, when the Canadian military stopped using the facility, it was operated by Canadian National Telecommunications (CNT), a subsidiary of Canadian National Railways, and turned into a way to communicate with northern sites.
Poul Osted’s aunt worked as a phone operator at the facility.
“Back then, this was as far north as the phone lines came,” he said. “The signals received by the antenna would be sent out via telephone lines to receiver stations down south. Then they were used for civilian purposes and every time a person would call the site to be connected elsewhere, everyone on the line could hear the conversation, just like on a CB radio.”
At that time, a young Northwestel employee by the name of Robert Stephens discovered the facility, and spent some time there on a microwave technician training course while it was still being operated by CNT.
In the early ’80s, Stephens was living in Edmonton and began searching for equipment he could use to establish a dedicated Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program.
When he came back to Hay River in 1981 and discovered that the site had been decommissioned, he was able to purchase the antennas for the relatively low cost of a dollar, according to his website.
“Before I could remove the antennas for relocation to a site in Alberta, CNT decided to sell the property by auction,” Stephens said in a recent e-mail.
He said he pleaded his case before town council in 1983, laying out his plans to establish a radio observatory at the site. His motives were backed by extensive research in the form of a 23,000-word report, concluding that the site was a suitable location for his project.
With very limited funds, he made the highest bid he could without borrowing any money. The town also entered a bid to secure the site for the proposed radio observatory.
The eight-acre property was put on the block in 1985 and was purchased by Robert Dean, who came out on top with a bid under $20,000.
As a result, Dean and Stephens negotiated a five-year lease agreement. After selling off most of his personal possessions in order to buy various pieces of equipment, Stephens was finally able to start monitoring the skies for extraterrestrial signals.
From 1985 to 1989, his work gained international attention. The American television network NBC even sent a news crew to the site in 1987 to do a story on it. The same year, Stephens hosted his first undergraduate university student, who came to the site for some hands-on observing experience.
A July 1987 Hub article described a campaign drive, in which he travelled across Canada and the United States to drum up support for his project. It also documents his mounting debt, which stood at $50,000 at the time.
Without a constant source of funding, Stephens had no way of paying his property-lease payments and mounting utility bills. In 1989, he was forced to abandon his project and leave Hay River altogether, and now lives in Ontario.
Dean tore down one of the antennas, to Stephens’ dismay, and left another standing, because “it was kind of a landmark,” he said.
“Years later, I found out Dean had torn down one of the dishes after I’d left,” Stephens said. “My use of the site as an astronomical radio observatory was completely harmonious with the existence of the structures as a navigational aid for fishermen and the bit of tourist interest that my repurposing the site had created.”
Reached last week in Arizona, Dean said he still didn’t have any plans for the last remaining dish.
“It’s a real curiosity piece,” he said, adding tourists drop by once in a while to ask him questions about it.
In a 2001 News/North story, he mentioned his desire would be for an artist to come by and paint a giant mural on the dish’s smooth surface.
— Myle Dolphin