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Engineering An Anniversary On The Trans Canada Trail

by Tom MacGregor

Members of the 44th Field Engineer Squadron construct a 40-metre Bailey bridge at the Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area near Creston, B.C., in September 1999. The bridge, which is on the Trans Canada Trail, is named after Master Corporal Mark Isfeld, affectionately known as Izzy, who was killed removing land mines in Croatia in 1994.

The Trans Canada Trail is nearing completion but it still has gaps where there are rivers and ravines to cross. The challenge of building bridges for these gaps has been taken up by the Canadian Military Engineers as a way of celebrating their centennial year in 2003 and leaving a lasting sign of their work.

The Trans Canada Trail is a recreational trail that will wind through every province and territory and be a symbol of Canadian unity. When completed it will be approximately 17,898 kilometres long, making it the longest trail of its kind in the world. The trail is to have shared uses, especially walking, cycling, horseback riding and cross-country skiing. Some places will allow snowmobiling.

Under their Bridges For Canada project, the engineers are taking up local challenges to construct overpasses over and around the obstacles nature has put in the way. The work in turn becomes an important training exercise for engineers whose mandate is to contribute to the survival, mobility and combat effectiveness of the Canadian Forces wherever they are.

The Trans Canada Trail Foundation is coordinating the national concept but the trail itself is a series of community-based projects built on existing trails, federal and provincial parks, Crown lands and abandoned railway lines.

“We’re able to get excess Bailey bridge materials since Baileys aren’t used anymore,” explains Captain Nanette Fliesser, a communications officer with Canadian Military Engineers 2003, the non-profit organization set up to handle the celebrations.

For instance, when the Nelson Waterfront Committee in British Columbia was creating a pathway along the waterfront in Nelson it was stymied by having to cross the Cottonwood Creek. The committee asked for help from the 44th Field Engineer Squadron which undertook the project. First the engineers constructed a 3,000-foot pathway and approach along the waterfront with heavy equipment, which became a training exercise for the unit’s tractor/dump course.

In one day in April 2001, 40 engineers constructed a 100-foot Bailey bridge over the creek. The final pin was driven by Nelson Mayor Gary Exner, assisted by WW II veteran Ken Budd, a life member of the Legion’s Nelson Branch.

First used in Tunisia in 1942 by British engineers, the Bailey bridge went into full use during the invasion of Sicily and Italy. Designed to be erected by hand, the bridges became a military staple for the next 50 years. The new Acrow bridges are a similar concept, only designed to be built by mechanical means.

Recycled Bailey panels can cost about $4,000 a metre. There are no capital costs going to the Canadian Forces. The money for the projects is raised by the private and public sectors in the community. The only significant cost to the Canadian Forces is the time of the unit members who are engaged in the training exercises.

So far the Bridges For Canada program has seen the construction of 24 bridges in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Dutch engineers came to Canada to build two bridges at St. Leonard, N.B., and were later entertained at the Legion’s St. Leonard Branch.

“Our celebrations will also have many more traditional forms,” says Fliesser. “There will be a gala ball in Ottawa. There will be fun things for kids to do such as rafting across the Ottawa River June 28­July 2. We’ll even be taking water out of the Ottawa River and running it through our portable water purification systems so that it is safe to drink.”

Memorabilia and souvenirs have also been developed with the special CME 2003 logo. The logo is based on the traditional engineer badge which features a Canadian beaver looking to the left, except the logo has the beaver looking right. “I know a lot of people will say our beaver is going the wrong way,” says Fliesser. “But we wanted to be forward looking.”

The origins of military engineering in Canada go back to the 1600s when French engineers came to build fortification around Quebec City and Port Royal. In 1763 Royal Engineers from Britain arrived to build up British defences such as Fort Henry, Fort Frontenac and the Rideau Canal between Lake Ontario and what is now Ottawa.

The engineers consider 2003 their centennial because the federal government established the Canadian Engineer Corps as a military branch under military supervision and discipline in November 1903. In 1904 King Edward VII granted them the prefix of Royal.

Some 20,000 sappers were sent to Europe during WW I and took part in constructing tunnels, railways and roads that led to success in such battles as Vimy Ridge and the Somme. At the end of WW II, there were 18,000 RCE members overseas who took part in the raid on Dieppe, the invasion of Sicily and Italy, the Battle of Normandy and most other battles.

The unification of the Canadian Forces in 1968 brought navy, army and air force engineers to form the Canadian Military Engineer Branch in 1971. The tradition has continued with military engineers mapping much of Canada and all of the High Arctic. They have been involved in many United Nations and humanitarian aid missions and have provided emergency civil engineering support to disasters such as the 1997 Manitoba flood and the 1998 Eastern Canada ice storm. Their ubiquitous nature has caused them to take the Latin motto Ubique.

In recent years the engineers have considered Canadian Forces Base Chilliwack in British Columbia as their home base. However Chilliwack has been closed. Instead the Canadian Forces School of Military Engineering in Gagetown in New Brunswick will be used for a homecoming weekend April 24­27 for engineers of all ages and their families. Other events are planned for regional festivals such as the Calgary Stampede.


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