Press coverage of the Society and its activities

They’re Coming by Sea and by Air

Written by
Mike Milgram
the North Renfrew Times
2020 Sep 16

In the mid 1970’s we were a new generation of AECL employees, and we were restless. We had already upset the staid oldsters by introducing various novel means of getting to work at our jobs at the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories.

Cycling was previously unheard of, and jogging was beyond the comprehension of our older colleagues, so of course we needed to do something even newer. The thought somehow percolated into our collective minds – let’s try canoeing.

So one bright, warm, sunny July day, eight of us in four canoes set out at 6 a.m. from Balmer Bay on the Ottawa River, with the labs as our goal. It was a beautiful paddle, the air was warm, the water was warm and calm, and all was serene – until we arrived at our goal, that is.

At that point, it became clear that no one had thought the next steps through – all of us were professionals with advanced degrees in science, not administration. The first step was clear – beach the canoes. The next step was less clear – how to get to our desk jobs inside the labs’ perimeter fence, from outside the perimeter fence.

As we huddled on the beach below the reactors, someone noticed that in spite of the formidable perimeter fence, there was a hole underneath big enough for a person to wiggle through. More discussion ensued, because on the other side of that fence was the inner area of the plant site – forbidden to anyone without proper authorization and accessible only via an inner area gatehouse where badges of all entrants were scrutinized.

At this point one of our group pointed out that the guards at the inner area gatehouse only checked the badges of those entering, not leaving the inner area. The best course of action to take was clear: go under the fence and walk out from the inner area to the main gatehouse to pick up our badges for the day.
Of course, no plan ever works as it should. In our case the unexpected came in the form of a guard performing his daily check who, coincidentally, just happened to drive past us as the first few paddlers emerged from the beach.

It soon became clear that the guard had no instructions in how to deal with intruders, so all he did was ask, “How many of you are there?” One of our group, with more temerity than brains, replied, “They’re coming thick and fast, by sea”.

Amazingly, that ended the exchange. The guard headed off, presumably to obtain instructions, and we all headed to our desk jobs. We exited the inner area, went to the main gatehouse, grabbed our identification badges, and re-entered the inner area as we normally did. After that, the workday progressed as usual – until quitting time that is.

At this point I should add that in those days leaving Chalk River labs at quitting time was an art form. As the departure time approached, people would queue at the main gatehouse, awaiting a signal from the plant whistle. A surge of humanity would then pass through the gatehouse, leave their badges on the way, and head off to take their customary seats on the fleet of company busses that would take them home.

This day at quitting time, we clustered at the exit gate of the main gatehouse wondering what to do. It had also been deeply engrained in all employees that we were never, ever, to pass through the inbound gate at the main gatehouse without our badges. Our canoes were on the far side of the inner area. We would need our badges to enter and cross the inner area, but we then couldn’t leave our badges at the main gatehouse as required when leaving the site.

We had two options – both were unpleasant. We could either re-enter the inbound gate of the main gatehouse with our badges, transit the inner guardhouse, wiggle under the fence and take our badges home – a misdemeanor, but not a hanging offense. Or we could deposit our badges at the main gatehouse as usual and walk around the outside of the entire labs perimeter fence from the main gatehouse to the beach – a trek of about 1 km through thick bush.

Eventually youthful confidence in our physical fitness won the day, and around the perimeter fence we walked. It took about an hour. Oh, did I mention that the beautiful weather had then given way to rain and cold? It was only when we arrived soaking wet at our canoes that it became clear that the morning guard had received his instructions.
Our paddles were gone and in their place was a note instructing us to attend the main gatehouse and identify ourselves in exchange for our paddles. So under the fence again it was, with no huddles or discussion this time.

At the main gatehouse each of us dutifully gave our name, badge number, and surprisingly, home address (perhaps for the benefit of RCMP counterintelligence?).
At this point memory fails – did we again walk around the perimeter fence to the beach, or did the guards accompany us to the hole-under-the-fence and allow us an ignominious departure under observation? Perhaps one of the other surviving miscreants reading this story can clarify that point.

In any event, we eventually arrived home, wet and tired, but with a good story that has not been recounted until today.

The next day, each of us was called into an interview with our respective Division Heads, (an exalted administrative level beyond comprehension). With a straight face, each of them strongly suggested that we never do such a thing again.

The story is told that in one case the legendary John Melvin had gathered several of his charges in his office for the requisite wrist-slapping when the phone rang. The voice of the head of Security could be heard thundering about the impudence of new employees followed by the expletive, “Next thing you know, they’ll be coming by parachute”. At that point John, ever the comic, calmly replied, “I have them all here in my office now – and strange that you should mention that!”

For years thereafter, employees arrived (furtively) at the labs by canoe, but never again went under the fence.