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1920s Aerial Dusting Campaign Another Muskoka First PART TWO

1920s Aerial Dusting Campaign Another Muskoka First PART TWO

Posted: 2022-08-23 17:08:24 By: jacob

Boyer's Modern History of Muskoka

By J. Patrick Boyer


To continue exploring what Muskoka was like a century ago, during that roller-coaster decade rightly nick-named “the Roaring Twenties,” this article now finishes the story of a precedent-setting experiment that saved Muskoka’s prized hemlock trees by airplane bombardment with poisonous powder of the millions of looper caterpillars devastating them

            As you’ve perhaps noticed, I like pointing out “Muskoka Firsts” – records set in our District by people or events that began something new and different. There are a lot. One was this first-use of aerial dusting of forests with toxic chemicals to save them from deadly infestations of insects because of the aesthetic appeal of trees to people, instead of only doing this for a forest’s commercial value to logging companies, keeping forests healthy so they could cut them down to make lumber and paper.

            Our last program examined how this began, with an unprecedented caterpillar attack on Muskoka hemlocks in the 1920s. The despair of the District’s many powerhouse summer residents, resort owners, and year-round residents who depend on the District’s vacation economy then triggered their unrelenting pressure on Ontario’s Department of Lands and Forests to respond to the crisis.

Muskoka Lobbying Leads to Unprecedented Aerial Dusting Program

People come to Muskoka for its scenic beauty, not devastated forests stripped naked of their foliage. In 1927 and 1928, that spectre was unfolding right before everyone’s despairing eyes, including those of shocked veteran foresters. Millions of “Hemlock Loopers,” caterpillars with insatiable appetites, were devouring the needles of Muskoka’s majestic hemlocks. Virtually all of them.

            As it turned out, high-level lobbying by the powerful and mighty for government action was the easy part – even getting the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests to agree to do something was unprecedented. Flying low over open fields or forests to dust them with poison was nothing like dangerous precision bombing to hit specific trees on islands and near humans at cottages and summer resorts.

In the 1920s, the practice of dusting forests and field crops from low-flying airplanes was in its infancy. The toxic chemicals were in powder form. Aerial spraying of liquid chemicals, as an advance on this way to curb infestations of excessively destructive insects and what we’re familiar with today, would not be developed for another decade.

             Now forest entomologists in Ottawa, who coordinated their work with Ontario’s Lands and Forests Department, saw the hemlock looper through a scientist’s microscope and deemed the panicking Muskoka property owners to be unscientific businessmen fixated on their property values and oblivious to nature’s cycles in addressing food-chain imbalances. But Muskokans, seeing the looper through a big-picture telescope, and treasuring their unique oases for rest and recreation, could not abide the detached passivity of the government’s forest scientists.

            Their standoff only shifted because the government entomologists got orders from above. Political Ottawa heeded the chorus from Muskoka. With many conditions attached, Ottawa’s Forestry Branch and RCAF greenlighted bombing the bugs in spring 1928.

            Seasonal Muskokan Sir Thomas White, who’d been Canada’s finance minister throughout the First World War, now representing the prestigious and powerful Muskoka Lakes Association, met privately with Ontario’s Minister of Lands and Forests, William Finlayson. The minister agreed to purchase “a special aeroplane to be used to dust the areas affected and wipe out the pest that has threatened the hemlock trees in Muskoka.” He added $20,000 for such an aircraft to his department’s mid-March 1928 supplemental estimates which the legislature approved. In tandem, the Ontario Forestry Branch drew up detailed plans for the aircraft’s urgent use.

Using de Havilland’s Modern Plane, Not the Discredited and Dangerous Keystone Puffer

The plane of choice for spreading the toxins in Muskoka was a de Havilland 61, or DH61. The airplane nobody wanted for such a high-profile, high-risk mission was the Department of National Defence’s Keystone Puffer. It had been used just the year before in Nova Scotia’s 1927 experiments and was “unequivocally declared completely unsuited to forest dusting” by everyone concerned.

The Director of Ontario’s Air Service, Roy Maxwell, ordered the DH61 from England, where it was manufactured. Despite having only one engine, considered a vulnerability for poison-spreading operations, the large modern aircraft, first of this calibre for Ontario’s Air Service, was far more powerful than the Puffer, and its payload much greater.

            However, the DH61 was not only late arriving from England but had been badly damaged in shipment and required major repairs. As well, it still had to be fitted with a custom-built hopper to hold the deadly dust, and had to start in June laying down the poison by flying low over Muskoka’s hemlocks. By June 20 the aircraft was still not yet ready. The hatching larvae were spreading fast. The cottagers and resort owners, having been promised complete dusting, looked and listened to empty silent skies. The only thing on the rise was their despair and anger.

Widening Gulf between Government Promises and Aerial Performance

 In early July, island resident Fred Gatewick, who the year before took his own initiative to spray poisons on his Burgess Island hemlocks, became adamant about the missing plane. “A very large area of shoreline is well wooded with hemlock and if these remaining trees are killed, as hundreds of them were a year ago, it is going to ruin the region. When can we expect assistance from the government?” he demanded.  

Another Lake Joseph cottager with an especially confrontational nature, leading Toronto dentist F.J. Capon, confronted Ontario’s deputy minister of Lands and Forests over an aircraft that refused to fly. “LOOPER GAINING FAST WHY DELAY THE PLANE” Capon challenged in a July 12 telegram. The Deputy Minister reassured Capon and others that the damaged plane was undergoing rushed repairs and would “probably be available early next week.”

            However, as Laurentian University forest history authority, Professor Marc Kuhlberg, carefully reconstructs in his new book Killing Bugs for Business and Beauty, this was “wishful thinking on Deputy Minister Zavitz’s part.” The disabled DH61 had been transported up to Sault Ste Marie for major repairs at the Provincial Air Service’s base of operations there. Even once repaired, more time would still be needed while Canadian aeronautical officials certified the plane to be airworthy. Two weeks into July, with shrill complaints from Muskoka now reaching a crescendo, desperate Zavitz made arrangements with Ottawa for a Keystone Puffer to drop the waiting arsenal of stockpiled toxic dust instead.

            The airplane nobody wanted because of its defects would carry out a first-ever experiment with technology and biology. This would severely test a most seasoned pilot’s skill – flying an aircraft badly designed for spreading toxic powder just above treetops. The pilot had to hit specified targets around human habitations in the cross-winds of onshore breezes and propeller air currents. It would prove more an “experience” than an “experiment.”

Keystone Puffer, Despite Everything

Because the Keystone Puffer airplane was entirely unsuited for aerial dusting, based on experience of pilots and foresters in Nova Scotia, National Defence would only send one to do battle against the looper caterpillars.

That immediately presented an entirely new problem. By this late date in the looper’s life cycle, a number of the Puffer aircraft, given their limited load capacity, would be needed to cover all the infected forests of Muskoka in time to deal a deadly blow. A single plane simply could not cover the vast area.

            But, on top of that, because of the airplane’s danger the RCAF refused to provide even a single pilot. Deputy Minister Zavitz, now having committed to the Puffer and having made so many promises to the Muskokans, was clearly in a quandary. He sent a desperate order to provincial Air Service director Maxwell, who in turn commanded G.R. Hicks, one of his pilots, to report for duty at Foote’s Bay, on Lake Joseph’s western shore, where the lone Puffer would be turned over to him. Maxwell told Hicks nothing whatsoever about the mission he was to fly.

            On July 16, piloting the Puffer to Foote’s Bay from Ottawa was none other than Flying Officer C. Bath, the same pilot who’d flown the aircraft in Nova Scotia’s test-flight dustings and who thus knew first-hand its great many shortcomings. His reality-check briefing shocked Hicks. The Ontario Air Service pilot, no longer in the dark about the poison chemical nature of his up-coming flights and about the Puffer’s inadequacies for looper warfare, fired off an urgent protest telegram to his boss. It included information Bath had relayed.

            Ontario pilot Hicks picked up info through the airmen’s grapevine. For example, he learned that Dr. de Gryse, the federal entomologist, said it was futile to dust after July 28, and there was one month’s work even with daily flights. Also, Bath told Hicks he would personally refuse to fly the dangerous Puffer for this work. Success depended on pilots trained in dusting operations, which Hicks was not.

Adding a Second Pilot to the Project

Maxwell summoned a second of his pilots, E.J. Cooper at Sioux Lookout, to Foote’s Bay. He tried to calm Hicks, telling him Cooper would replace him as early as possible.

            The larger De Havilland craft would not be available for the 1928 season because it still needed its custom-built hopper for the toxic dust.

All the while, the influential men residing in Muskoka whom the Ontario government had promised poisonous dusting of the whole area in 1928, grew louder and more persistent. Because the trees were being destroyed, they emphasized, Muskoka’s value was depreciating considerably.

And on another front in the same battle, the Ontario Air Service’s dilemma had become truly staggering. More than 1,500 acres had to be dusted. With the Puffer, that required 30 straight days of dry and windless weather. Without those ideal conditions, two months would be needed. Even if dusting by the de Havilland 61, with its carrying capacity of one tonne of powder per flight, had been possible, it would have had to start July 1 – a date now long since past – because by the end of July the caterpillars stop eating and would not ingest their toxic meal.

Rising to the Challenge, Feeling Used and Betrayed

Pilots have pride. They are not cowardly but courageous. They rise to challenges. Pilot Hicks dutifully followed his orders and, as Kuhlberg says, “faced the inherent dangers head on.”

He took the Puffer for a test flight which confirmed all the Puffer’s deficiencies he’d heard about. Still, he resolutely carried on, at risk to his life, because he did not want to discredit the Provincial Air Service.

The next morning rain washed out any dusting. But by afternoon, pilot Hicks made two sorties dropping 600 pounds of calcium arsenate on hemlock in the southern part of Lake Joseph, most of it in the area Dr. Capon’s land. His flights, too high because he was trying to keep a margin of safety, meant winds carried the poison dust out onto the lake.

A repeat sortie the following day encountered weaker winds, and the fast-learning pilot did not fly over the hemlocks but along the shoreline so that onshore breezes “gently drifted the dust into the target trees, covering them in a thin white coating of poison.” The next day he used his successful technique to side-bomb hemlocks on Loon and Laurie islands with 600 pounds of the chemical.

            “As soon as the hopper is opened,” Hicks informed Maxwell, “the dust pours in from it to the cockpit, and the famous ‘Luxor’ goggles are useless to keep it from my eyes.” Every day, the toxic dust stung pilot Hicks’ eyes and gave him severe headaches. The floats on the plane, he also reported, “are absolutely wrong. She stalls at about 75 mph, and loses speed horribly on turns.”

            Then Hicks discovered via the pilot grapevine that the Canadian Air Board had just decided to scrap all its Keystone Puffers “because it is suicidal to fly the machine on dusting operations.”

It was that reasoning which led the Board to send a lone Puffer, and the RCAF not a single pilot. Pilot Hicks felt used and betrayed.

On July 20 the air was humid and, after opening the hopper door, the poisonous dust again clouded around him, completely blinding Hicks and forming a pasty film on his goggles that he couldn’t rub off, causing him to hit two trees with the pontoons. He survived and, thanks to his flying skill, got the machine down undamaged. He would not take the Puffer up ever again.

Another Pilot Arrives But the Season Closes

Then pilot Cooper arrived from Sioux Lookout to take over. His first test run the next morning was a dusting over Chief’s Island, owned by Colonel Douglas Mason and one of the most ardent authors of long letters about the imperative to kill the hemlock looper. That was followed by a second test which convinced Cooper that the Puffer was unsafe. In landing, the plane became crippled. The project was cancelled, only days into the operation.

It was now so late in the season anyway that, as de Gryse in Ottawa commented, “to try to shoot a pile of dust on the trees at this time of year is simply laying ourselves open to ridicule.” 

            Yet those watching for the airplane and its looper attacks from their lakeside properties were aghast that the campaign was aborted.

            The hot days of August 1928 did nothing to cool tempers of wealthy summer Muskokans and those running camps, marinas, or cottagers. Nor, based on what had transpired that July, were pilots of Ontario’s Air Service keen about this project in any way. Only completion of the de Havilland, test flights and reassuring experiences for the pilots reduced their intense opposition. Fresh promises from Ontario’s government about the 1929 aerial campaign starting early in the looper’s caterpillar cycle helped calm property owners.

Lessons Learned and a Better Aircraft for 1929’s Campaign

But was the first-ever chemical dusting of forests for aesthetic reasons a complete bust?

            Professor Kuhlberg identifies several positive outcomes from 1928’s bombardment campaign on the Muskoka Lakes. Pilot Hicks came up with a superior method for applying dust by flying close to trees along the shoreline so the onshore breeze could drift it evenly over them for a more effective and efficient distribution, which was also safer than flying low over the forest’s uneven crown.

Also, when forest entomologists tested results of the July 1928 aerial campaign, they discovered even from these small-scale “trials” that young caterpillars readily succumbed to calcium arsenic but older ones needed a much heavier dose. If that much dust could not be applied from the air, then getting the timing right with the larger DH61 providing effective dusting earlier in the life cycle would do the trick by hitting all the caterpillars when they were young and vulnerable.

            Just before spring arrived, Ontario’s Air Service “declared its aircraft battle ready for bombing the looper in Muskoka with toxins,” writes Kuhlberg, noting how this was “a most welcome update for the Ontario Forestry Branch, for the scope of the problem with which it was grappling had grown exponentially.” It had come to light that, while the most vehement concerns had been expressed by Lake Joseph property owners, cottagers and resort owners on other Muskoka lakes, further north and west, had been severely impacted too.

            Although 15,000 pounds of calcium arsenate was still available from 1928, the government ordered another 15,000 because 1929 entailed a much larger coverage area. Some 35,000 pounds were distributed from the air over 1,200 Muskoka acres of looper-infested hemlocks between June 19 and July 10, 1929.

Success in Muskoka Spread Elsewhere

At the end of 1929, Ottawa’s entomologist de Gryse announced “the Muskoka Lakes dusting may be considered a real success.” Soon similar aerial dusting campaigns spread elsewhere in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia to preserve forests, not for commercial forestry reasons, once the only basis for bombing bugs, but now for aesthetic reasons alone. 

A decade later, Canada’s chief entomologist Arthur Green explained to an international conference in Germany how “Muskoka had developed into one of the most popular summer resort areas in Canada, and the hemlocks and other trees have, therefore, a high aesthetic value.” Because the hemlock looper population exploded in the mid-1920s and devastated Muskoka woods, he added “an extensive airplane dusting project by the Ontario government, supervised and directed by officers of Ottawa’s entomology branch” was successfully carried out. For forest historian Kuhlberg, the heart of Green’s message was his conclusion: “This method of control proved effective, and although costly, the value of the trees justified the expense.”

Aesthetic reasons for saving forests had entered the equation because Muskokans forced it. Had it not been for the District’s magnetic vacationland appeal thanks to those very forests, and how the powerful and wealthy chose to become Muskokans, this unique event would not have happened. It again put Muskoka in the vanguard, thanks to the outsized influence of Muskoka’s wealthy summer residents demanding and getting an aerial dusting program, and because carrying it out under extremely difficult conditions produced aviation and aircraft improvements. This Muskoka precedent in forest management was about saving trees because of their beauty.