Sunday, July 31, 2011

30 Days of Fallout

Ed. Note: My family and I recently spent a few days on mini-vacation in our nation's capital of Ottawa. What lies below is a shameless exploitation of that trip - largely intended to fill space here for a few posts. This is the lowest form of blogging, of course: the sharing of vacation stories and pictures. You've been warned, etc.

If Ottawa is the town that fun forgot, then Carp, Ontario is the town that history (almost) forgot. Nestled outside Ottawa's city limits sits the unfortunately-named Carp, and outside Carp's boundaries, in the guts of what was once a gravel quarry, sits a remarkable piece of Canadiana lovingly called The Deifenbunker.

The Internet can provide you with all all sorts of facts and figures about this love-letter to the Cold War, but the Deifenbunker's salient facts are these: At the height of the Cold War, Canada's Prime Minister, John Deifenbaker, commissioned a nuclear fallout shelter to be built at CFS Carp near the nation's captial (other, smaller facilities were built across Canada). Dubbed 'The Deifenbunker', the Carp facility was built to withstand a near-miss nuclear explosion and safely house 500+ staff (including the government of the day) for a period of 30 days. It was (wrongly) believed that 30 days would provide sufficient time for the threat of nuclear fallout to dissipate to safe levels, allowing the bunker's occupants to emerge into a Brave, New World.

Operating for decades with an average contingent of 200 staff, the bunker was decommissioned as an active military base in 1994. By 1995 (or thereabouts) it re-opened its doors as a not-for-profit museum dedicated to the history of the Cold War. And in July 2011, with my wife and son in tow, I took a trip through the blast doors into the dimly-lit tunnel where 1963 would be waiting.

The entrance to the place is noteworthy insofar as a heli-pad might be noteworthy. Beyond this piece of tarmac, there sits a modest garage building large enough for a single truck to park inside and unload without prying eyes watching from the outside. But once inside that garage, things get ominous. Behind a large double-door lies the blast-tunnel - the only way in and out of the facility. And at the end of the tunnel sits the heavy metal doors that mark the portal back to a time when 'duck and cover' was a familiar phrase.

A chain-link fence and a heli-pad?

A non-descript garage, or is it?

Into the blast tunnel!

And down we go...
Through the blast doors we entered what could have been any circa-1963 government building - hallways painted in neutral colours, function--but-boring furniture, signage that meant nothng to the unbureaucratic mind. The only hints that something else was going on was the lack of windows and the unavoidable showers that awaited all who stepped through the blast doors.

Once inside, the Deifenbunker is a essentially a small town built as a 4-level office building underground. There's a fully functional hospital, communications rooms, meeting rooms, offices, personal quarters - all designed to keep government running and all vaguely based on the lessons of submarine layouts. Every piece of furniture, every piece of equipment, every well-labelled room - functional, non-personal. The place spoke in steady, measured tones that it had a purpose and that purpose would be met.

Everything non-descript.

The hospital could handle any medical need except heart or brain surgery.

The 'war room' keeping time where time passes quietly.

The Prime Minister's office (never used, of course).

There were a few features that I did not expect to see (and yet made abundant sense when I saw them). The cafeteria and common room was specifically designed to help ease the stress of the 24x7 rotating shifts within the Bunker. The walls have a bit of colour. There are tables and chairs for playing cards, etc. A billiard table sits near a small library. And on one wall is a photo-mural of some generic Rocky Mountain vista - intended as a reminder to everyone in the room what they were working to preserve.

Canada's own CBC Radio has a small studio 'down there' - intended as a conduit between the government-in-hiding and whoever was left on the surface (provided they still had radios). The final oddity; down at the lowest levels of the Bunker sits a Bank of Canada vault where, presumably, a little bit of seed money would be stored to keep the country financially solvent.

There's more to see down there, of course. And I was surprised at how freely one could roam the lonely hallways on all 4 levels. While guided tours are free and available in both official languages, one can also simply grab a map and audio guide and poke around at a personal pace. Oddly, the Bunker offers children's birthday packages and even runs a Summer day-camp.

So if you ever find yourself rolling through Carp, Ontario and feel the ground start to rumble while mushroom clouds lazily rise into the heavens, you'll know where to go.