Monday, January 21, 2008

Snow Removal

Back in Montreal, after a summer in Alberta directing a movie. So I am back to writing – no crew, no cameras, no scenic vistas. Not allowed to leave the house, I am reduced to pointing my Canon Elph out the window. This is a regular sight for the winterized Montrealer, but maybe of interest to the foreigner. I myself never tire of sitting (like an old hound dog) at the window watching the trucks go by. An excellent way to pass the winter months.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


I am back from the Baltics and back to work. Here is a little taste of what I am now dealing with on a daily basis. Yes, I am working in Calgary and enjoying their highways, on-ramps and interchanges.

If you get a chance, watch Radiant City a hybrid documentary about the burbs set mainly in Calgary - a funny film if you don't have to drive through them everyday - then it quickly turns to tragedy or maybe even horror (I don't know, I've only been here a couple of weeks).

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Safety First - Nuclear Annihilation Later

As we were travelling around southern Lithuania we read in the Lonely Planet (guide to the Baltic) that there was an abandoned Soviet underground missile base in what is now the Zemaitija National Park. We were intrigued by the idea of visiting the site, and because we were heading in more or less that direction on our way back to Estonia, we decided to try to get there.

The National Park Service gives regular tours of the site in the summer but not in the winter. We emailed ahead and a guide from the park office agreed to take us out to the site. After a lot of trying to find a car rental we settled on just hiring a car for the day, which Christine explains on her blog, was an adventure in itself.

After about an hour and a half drive from Siauliai we turned off the main road into the national park area. It was hard to see because the fog was pretty thick and it gave us a weird sensation - considering the destination. The weather was setting the scene in an appropriate manner - almost movie like. We drive up to the park office in a little town in the middle of the park and meet our guide - Ausra. Then we drive another 10km down muddy dirt roads through the forest to the site. As we approach there is a fork in the road - one leading to the site and the other to a military base (also abandoned). The first sign that this place is special is that we are now driving on a special concrete road that was used to move the missiles from their storage facilities at the base up to the silo complex.

We come to a gate and hop out of the van. Ausra's key doesn't work on the lock but the taxi driver points out a massive hole in the fence just to the right of the main gate - I see that the security has gotten lax since the Soviets pulled out.

We walk through and are standing looking at a low dirt mount which is surrounded by four smaller concrete domes (the caps for the silos). It doesn't look like much but it sure feels strange. The concrete is cracked and the metal rails that run out from them are rusted. The taxi driver scampers up onto the top of the nearest dome - considering the state of the place I believe this is not a good idea but Ausra says nothing to him.

She is busy filling us in on the history of the place. Built between 1961-62 it was the first underground site built by the Soviets - nice and close to central Europe, the missiles there were targeted on countries like West Germany, Turkey and Spain, with the specific targets being changed every now and then depending on the political winds. The strange thing about the site was that it was built in secret by 10,000 Soviet troops from other countries - most of them Estonian apparently. They dug the silos more or less by hand. The Americans didn't know about the site until the late 70's and it was decommissioned quickly in 1978. Even stranger yet the Soviets simply took the missiles and left the site unattended. As soon as the locals, mostly poor farmers, noticed that the soldiers had gone they broke in and found the site. Over the next 12 years the site was systematically looted - enterprising salvagers (both the aforementioned locals and people from far and wide) taking everything, including things that were bolted down. Huge tanks full of diesel fuel were drained over the years and when the tanks went dry they cut them up and hauled them away piece by piece like ants.

The entrance to the complex is on the other side of the central mound - we walk around. Rusted ventilation pipes stick out of the ground - it occurs to me that this is really nothing more than some boys play fort realized on a grand scale.

The entry way is a short cement stair case down into the side of the mound. It is snow covered and slippy. The door is a simple metal door locked with a padlock but there is clear evidence of metal runners in the cement floor where the original heavy blast doors (heavy enough to be protection from direct nuclear strike) used to be. Ausra explains that they were cut up and taken by the salvagers. In the picture, the Russian writing above the door states "Wipe Your Feet".

The complex itself is a dark cold cement labyrinth. The park service has strung up a series of bare bulbs that light the way. We visit the room where the control panels were - nothing is left. The scavengers have taken everything down to the last copper wire.

We go deeper - there are a few ventilation ducts left over in one room and some metal brackets that once held thousands of cables and wires hanging on the wall in places.

The station ran on power taken from the military base close by but was equipped to run independently in an emergency (total war?). Deep in the heart of the central complex, in the largest underground room, is the generator, a massive diesel engine originally made to power a submarine. Even the salvagers couldn't get this piece of iron out - although it shows the scars of the attempts. It seems they threw everything at it that they had - then gave up.

In another room lies the cement frame that once held a huge tank - apparently it held a few thousand gallons of Nitric Acid - a component in rocket fuel. In the event that the missiles were to be launched the components (house separately) would be pumped into the missiles waiting in their silos just before launch. A testament to the salvager's talents is that there is not a single scrap of the tank left. The hallways aren't that big so it must have been cut up into pretty small pieces before being hauled away. I was thinking as I was standing there about the first guy who decided that it was safe to cut into this thing with a torch. After all who knows what kind of materials were housed here. There are no stories of salvagers killing themselves here - death by misadventure - so I assume all went well.

From the first steps inside there has been the heavy smell of diesel fuel but as get lower it get stronger and mixed with other unfamiliar smells - rotting concrete, rocket fuel? Ausra volunteers that the air is safe and that she has been down here many times and that the air quality has been checked. I think for a minute about the difference between what I personally would consider safe and what passes for safe in Lithuania - but we move on.

We pass through a long narrow corridor out to the one silo that is safe to walk around in. The floor of the tunnel was once metal plate - with various pipes and vents running under it. Again all that is gone and the tunnel is a bare cement tube.

We get to the silo and have to squeeze up into it through a thick narrow crawl space. I am a bit disoriented because I think we are going to be entering at the base of the silo but in fact we are entering at the top just under the covering cap.

We look down - we are standing on a metal grill that runs around the top of the silo which is about 35 meters deep. The silo is actually a steel tube inside a cement housing - the space around it - which we are standing on - would be flooded with water at launch time in order to mediate the incredible heat from the rocket blast. Down inside the silo there is a elevated platform that would have served to maintenance the rocket - below it the silo was full of water that leaked in through the rotting concrete cap. The place is cold and the cement is sweating condensation. The 360 degrees of the compass are rather crudely painted on the rim of the silo - part of the aiming device that is no longer in place. It feels like something out of a James Bond movie - the bad guy moving the lever to some conveniently labeled position.

Also on the outer rim there are Soviet safety messages painted on the concrete - apparently put there after a soldier took a fatal fall (the terrible machine's only victim perhaps). Seems rather banal - don't forget to wear you safety belt, we have hundreds of thousands of people to incinerate and we don't want anyone getting hurt - madness!

The whole experience gave me a chance to think back to my childhood, right at the end of the cold war. Nuclear war was something that played on a young boys imagination, and although the height of the tensions were in the mid-60's, it seemed pretty serious to me in the mid-70's. I had my share of nightmares and I would guess that the fact that the world could end in a blast of heat and light any second may have changed my outlook on things. It seems strange that all that 'went away' so suddenly. Colour me a pessimist but I think you would be a fool to think that humanity has learned its lesson - this madness is just taking a nap. Nothing that stupid can just disappear.

There are more photos and info available here.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Link This

My wonderful and talented travelling companion has been blogging like a fiend - so to find out in detail what we have been up to, check out her blog ChristleZine.

Here is a dramatic reenactment as she opens her first box of the famed Finnish crackers - Fazer Crisp.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Riga Motormuseum

Some things are just worth taking a bus out into a Soviet built suburb for. One of those things is the Riga Motormuseum. Even though the Soviet era is behind them and the Bad News Bears are themselves extinct, the museum proudly displays several cars owned by some notable General Secretaries of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Not only that but they have installed life size replicas of the men in order to give the displays that little bit of extra realism.

Here is Brezhnev looking appropriately shocked as he totals his Mercedes - apparently the Premier liked to drive himself around.

Here is Nikita Khrushchev getting out of his ZIL limo - from a time when the central committee commanded Soviet industry to come up with a luxury car to compete with the west - at least on parade days.

And here is Joe Stalin riding in his favorite Packard - no matter what you say about the man he had good taste in cars.

And Gorky, writer, poet, and eventual minister of culture, getting out of his brand new car - a gift of the Central Committee.

Monday, February 12, 2007


Could that be the Baltic behind us - the Gulf of Finland perhaps?

Sunday, February 04, 2007


Is that a medieval fortress wall behind me?