Along the Natchez Trace

Friday, July 24, 2015

Unscheduled Tour...

Aroostook NWR was Caribou Air Station before the US Gov't made it a wildlife refuge in 1998.  In the late 1940's it was developed into bunkers and a high security area... the bunkers housed nuclear bombs during the cold war and the service men who were stationed here sometimes didn't even know what the total security system was all about.  Most of the bunkers are still here along with a few of the other buildings, such as the "guard shack" and the "vault".  The base closed in 1994 and since that time there's been a multitude of tests and massive clean-up done to determine the extent of contamination and to make it a safe place for both wildlife and the public.

I'll take y'all on a tour of the place one of these days, but today I'm going to write about a related subject.

The entry to the main road through the refuge is blocked by that big yellow gate.  Signs on either side let visitors know that no vehicular traffic is permitted.  (lots of reasons for this; safety being one) You can walk or bicycle in the refuge between sunrise and sunset.  This gate is closed most of the time, but often, during working hours we'll leave it open just enough to get a service truck or Gator through...  especially if we know we'll only be at the Visitor Center or the Maintenance Shop just a short time.  But by 4:30 of an evening, the last person through (that's either Bill or me) shuts and locks the gate.

A couple nights ago we were done for the day...  locked the gate and headed home.  Our motorhome is parked about 2 miles down the road and as we neared it, we could see about a quarter mile ahead that a car was parked in the road.  Rats!  Unless they had a key, which was unlikely, as they sure didn't look like the Game Warden, Border Patrol, or the National Guard (all have keys to the gate), they were locked in for the night.  Up the road we went.  Now... volunteers aren't "enforcers".  We have no authority or power - but we can "inform".  (Say, did you see the sign at the gate?)

The guy standing in the road immediately started out by telling us he'd been stationed here in 1977-78.  He had driven out to see his old Air Force stomping grounds...   Naturally he "didn't see" the signs.  We go through our spiel about no vehicles etc...  and tell him he's locked in, but we'll follow him back to the gate.

I took this photo through the side mirror in the truck...  but I can just hear the explanations about not seeing the signs etc etc etc.

Now...  when this happens, we tell the folks that if they want to schedule it we'll be happy to take them on a tour of the refuge.  We made arrangements that I'd take Andy and his daughter out at 11:00 the following day...  I'd meet them at the visitor center.

Eleven o'clock came and went.  I hung around until 11:20, then headed home for lunch.  About a half hour later, Bill came down the road in the refuge truck...  with Andy and Erin on board.  Seems they got lost driving out of Caribou and had to backtrack..  They did finally make it to the Visitor Center and started walking to the weapon storage area.  (yes, that's permitted) and Bill picked them up.  Hmmm... this isn't getting off to a real good start, but Bill gave me the truck and the passengers and off we went.

The Game Camera picks us up driving past....

We tailor our refuge tours to what the visitor wants.  Some folks don't give a whit about the military history... they just want to see a moose.  (good luck)....  But Andy was only interested in the Weapon Storage Area and the buildings there.  I unlocked the guard shack and we all went inside.  He showed Erin where he'd put a hard boiled egg in a microwave to see what would happen.  (we all know how that came out)....  they worked the windows...  checked out the bullet-proof glass...  and he relived his days as an 18 year old here in the Service.

We stopped at a couple of bunkers so they could go inside.  He'd never been in one before as they were totally off-limits when he was here.  He was part of the security police...  he was on patrol while on duty here.  We stopped at an area he said used to have an above-ground vent...  and a sign that warned that nuclear waste was buried there.  He searched and searched, but couldn't find it.  (I asked Bill later...  that vent has long since been removed and filled in)

Finally we got to the "vamp" house.  Some folks call it the school house...  but whatever you call it, it's the building that housed the detonators that fired the bombs.  

The top floor is solid concrete....  the ground floor has concrete walls 10' thick.  Inside are 4 small rooms where there were racks that held that component.  There is no electricity here now, so when we were making the arrangements for the tour I told Andy he might want to bring flashlights.  Oh my...  he had those kind that strap on your forehead...  he was prepared.  He and Erin went in and must have spent a half hour to 45 minutes checking it all out.  Erin finally came out and we sat in the truck talking.  Seems her Dad talks about this place all the time...  he's 56 now and they live in Alaska.  But he comes back here when he can to visit relatives.  Each visit back he's tried to come back to the old base where he has such interesting memories.

He told me about hanging out on Inspiration Hill...  a section of the patrol road that overlooks the area, and when they'd see someone important (their sergeant? coming, they'd move on to the next point.  We drove around to the different areas and Andy told me he wished it could have been preserved as it used to be.

I showed them some of the old bunkers that are falling apart and explained about the life of the concrete...  some of the hazards...  some of the concerns.  While the area is definitely of historic value and the State Historic Preservation Association controls much of what we can do, they or no one else provides the funds to keep things intact or make things safe.  When the gov't decided to make this a wildlife refuge the focus changed.

Most tours take about an hour....  I spent at least 3 hours with Andy and Erin.  When I dropped them off back at the visitor center I took them inside to show them a book from the early development of the base.  The VC closes at 4:00 and I think they were there until the last.

I'll admit I'm not real happy with folks that ignore signs and go where they're not supposed to.  But I'll also say that this was one of the most enjoyable tours I've given.  I'm glad it worked out so well.

That's All For Today!


  1. I bet he could answer any of your questions about the days when it was in use. I went through a similar abandoned storage area here in Texas and enjoyed it. A little eerie knowing what was in here could have destroyed the world.

  2. So many people ignore signs guess they figure that they don't apply to them.
    Sounds like you had an interesting tour anyway.

  3. It's nice you could accommodate dad and his girl.

  4. How nice of you two to tailor your tours. I am sure Andy and Erin were so happy that they were able to visit. I can just hear Andy sharing some of his old war stories. I think y'all got a good education that day.

  5. Can't say as I've ever given a tour like that one.

  6. That detonator house REALLY looks like vamps would be flying in and out there all the time. Scary looking building.

  7. Sounds like he got what he really wanted, to see it again, relive his youth, and show it all to his daughter.

  8. I am sure that they appreciated the opportunity to get a VIP Tour.