As the month of November arrives, we collectively look to and commemorate the memory of those whose combined courage, service and sacrifice secured the freedom and way of life that we enjoy today.
On the 11th of November, we observe a national day of memorial – honouring those who served in Canada’s Armed Forces for as long as our military has existed.
Remembrance Day coincides with the anniversary of the Armistice Agreement (1918) and the end of the First World War. Today, the occasion has also grown to honour all veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces, both past and present.
For countless Canadians (myself included), this observation goes well beyond a single day or ceremony. Many of our parents, grandparents, and great-great grandparents served in an overseas conflict anywhere between the Boer War and today. Numerous civilians also worked tirelessly in factories, hospitals and other methods of support on the homefront.
This year’s message from Veterans Affairs Canada says it best: “They are our fathers, brothers, mothers and sisters. Neighbours. Heroes.”
For this particular experience, Heidi and I decided to travel to The Bay of Quinte, to explore Canadian military heritage – and come face to face with a historical saga that has both a direct and personal connection to us all. As we developed the itinerary for this trip, I quickly realized that this was shaping up to be the most important story I’ve written for The Great Waterway yet.
A Stroll Through Bleasdell Boulder Conservation Area
The sun was just beginning to crest the horizon as we left Kingston in the early morning hours of November 1st. The day was turning out to be a rather chilly and grey one but, for the moment, the rain was good enough to hold back as we explored our first destination, Bleasdell Boulder Conservation Area in Quinte West, Ontario.
An underlying goal for this trip was to visit some of The Bay of Quinte’s peaceful and tranquil locales. These pristine and untouched areas – places where people can go and immerse themselves in nature – to me, represent one of our most treasured freedoms.
To stand, and listen to the wind whisper it’s way through the trees, the various songs of birds and the gurgle of a lonely stream. This is what peace truly sounds like. Just the breath of the Earth, and your own heartbeat. A complete and utter detachment from the noise, hustle, and chaos of the urban world.
Afghanistan Repatriation Memorial – Bain Park
Our next stop was Bain Park, another peaceful destination nestled along the Bay of Quinte’s beautiful waterfront just south of the Canadian Forces Base Trenton. This visit, however, came with a solemn and respectful purpose. Located in this spacious open park, is the Afghanistan Repatriation Memorial – a commemorative edification honouring the memory of 162 Canadian soldiers who were killed in action.
Having the memorial set within a public park – is quite fitting really. Nearby, a gentleman was walking his dog. Other people were out for a morning walk. Although these brave soldiers are no longer with us, their valour and dedication are immortalized in a place where we can enjoy the way of life that they fought to protect and uphold.
The National Air Force Museum of Canada
After paying our respects at Bain Park, we proceeded to the main destination of our trip: The National Air Force Museum of Canada.
This massive and newly completed facility serves as both an educational museum, but also an interactive experience, where visitors can learn about the origins and ongoing story of Canada’s Air Force. The museum is also an elaborate memorial to every man and woman who has served in the RCAF since it’s inception in 1924.
This is the largest Air Force museum in Canada and is home to an incredible collection of aircraft, artwork, and various historical artefacts. Each pristine aircraft on display inside the museum has been restored by a dedicated and passionate team of volunteers. Experts who take time out of their retirement or day to day life to painstakingly rejuvenate each of the gorgeous displays you will see.
They are true labours of love.
I hadn’t visited the museum since the late 90’s (more on that later) and was absolutely amazed by the now completed and expanded museum. For our visit, we were treated to a private tour with Public Relations Representative: Josh Bambrough. During our introductions, Josh described the purpose of the museum in a profound way.
“Our focus is on a younger generation. That’s where the interest is, that’s where the future lies – I think it’s an important time in society to remind people, that when push comes to shove, we’re all in this together. This museum tells the story of the volunteers and the people who served. One of the biggest draws for the museum is, of course, the (displays). The artefacts we have were once instrumental in defending our way of life.”
Handley Page Halifax NA 337
When I had last visited the museum, roughly 22 years ago it was an exciting road trip with my dad. He told me that a Handley Page Halifax had been recovered from the bottom of a lake in Norway, and was being restored at CFB Trenton. His father was an airframe technician during World War II – and worked on Halifax bombers, Lancasters, and various other aircraft. He would “patch them up” between missions and help “keep them flying.” Dad would say.
What I saw then was the wreckage of the aircraft, in the earliest stages of its restoration. To put things into perspective – here’s some raw video footage of NA 337 shortly after she was recovered from her watery grave in 1995.
Fast forward over two decades, and there I was literally floored with the majestic and reborn aircraft I now was staring at in absolute awe.
Sadly, none of the Halifax aircraft that remain are capable of flight – but I’m not mincing words when I say that NA 337 looks fresh off the line and ready to take to the skies once more.
NA 337 is the most complete rebuilt Halifax on earth and is a true show stopper. She stands today as a brilliant memorial for the over nine thousand Canadian Air Force members who lost their lives in the Second World War – and a magnificent tribute to the crew who operated the aircraft during its final mission in 1945.
So Much to Discover and Explore
The Halifax bomber may be the star attraction at the National Air Force Museum of Canada – but there is a massive assortment of immaculate displays to enjoy and learn more about. Below, for your viewing pleasure is a gallery containing but a few of the astonishing aircraft to discover at the museum.
Walk Among Giants at the Outdoor Airpark
The collection of aircraft inside the museum are just the beginning. Positioned along a beautifully kept walkway is yet another variety of airplanes, fighter jets, and helicopters – each representing different eras of Canada’s Air Force Story from past to present-day.
Most noteworthy among them is the MIG 21 (below, middle). This Russian fighter aircraft was once stationed in East Germany from 1975-1990. It was gifted to the Canadian Government as a gesture of peace after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
Behind the Scenes With Lancaster KB 882
KB 882 has only recently arrived at her new home, and the museum’s team of expert volunteers are already hard at work restoring this fascinating and important piece of history. Heidi and I were honoured to be given access to the workshop and get an up-close look at her. I felt like a kid in a candy store. To see one of my favourite airplanes in this dissected view was truly fascinating.
The restoration project is expected to take between five to seven years, and once completed, KB 882 will be of a similar level of detail as the Handley Page Halifax and other aircraft on display. What is also fantastic, is that this new Lancaster will be displayed indoors where she will be protected from the elements among her new neighbours at the museum.
A View From the Top of Mount Pelion
In total, we spent close to four hours walking throughout the Air Force Museum and Air Park combined. I could have easily spent the entire day immersed in its amazing treasure vault of historical wealth – but there was one last stop on our trip. After taking leave of the museum, we headed to Mount Pelion to look out over the Bay of Quinte one last time before making our way home.
It was while taking in the panoramic view from Mount Pelion’s lookout that I took a moment to reflect on the day’s adventure. I embarked on this pilgrimage of sorts thinking of the members of my family who have served – but quickly realized the sheer gravity of it all. Countless Canadians have answered the call -and fought – and bled to preserve the freedoms that are so easily taken for granted today.
It’s an incredibly surreal experience, to see kids and other people learning about War in a museum – instead of on a battlefield.
Not everyone in the world has this immense luxury. To walk through a park, or stare out over a beautiful vista such as this without fear.
Last Stop: A Late Lunch in Belleville
As we left Trenton and started to make our way back to Kingston, we realized that we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast! We were so preoccupied with feeding our minds, that we neglected our stomachs!
We quickly diverted off the highway, and into Belleville for an epic late lunch at The Boathouse Seafood Restaurant.
After a day spent exploring Canadian Military History, the air seemed a little fresher, the food more flavourful, and the colours seemed brighter as we quietly enjoyed our meal while contemplating the day’s events.
Lest We Forget
This Remembrance Day, take the time to honour our veterans by attending a ceremony, visiting a memorial, or exploring the history surrounding Canada’s Armed Forces. Below, is a custom Google Map that contains the locations we visited in The Bay of Quinte – as well as other locations of interest and historical significance.
Also, to help locate military memorials in your community, and throughout all of Canada – you can use this handy search tool on The Veteran’s Affairs Canada website. As always, thanks for reading!
To any veterans or members of the Canadian Forces who might be reading this, thank you.
Photography: Heidi Csernak & Mike Hector