Months of planning and expectations finally came to a successful conclusion. Four Radio Amateurs from the Irkutsk Radio Club along with two of their wives made the trip to Thunder Bay. This was in response to a visit Jim VE3UA and I made to Irkutsk in 1993. For all but two of the visiting Russians this was their first trip outside Russia. Serge, UA0SR was in Mongolia 10 years before, this was his first trip to a Western country. Vasili, UA0SN has travelled to the United States. Vasili's wife Natalia, Alexander UA0SF, Victor, UA0SHR and his wife Lyuda were going to meet more foreigners than they had ever seen before, a daunting prospect. To top off the international flavour of the gathering Ron Thompson, FP5EK and his wife Laura along with their three youngsters, Robert, Nathan and Erica were to visit as well. Bill VE1WWG and his wife Tina, friends of Jim VE3UA, also came to Thunder Bay for the occasion. Since they had a fifth wheel house trailer, they supplied their own accommodations.
The gathering was originally planned for late June. This did not fit in with Ron's plans as he could not leave Saint Pierre et Miquelon until the second week in July. They are correspondence friends with Victor, UA0SHR and his wife Lyuda and looking forward to meeting and visiting with them. We asked the group to delay their arrival in Montreal until at least July 10. Everyone managed to switch their summer vacations for arrival on July 17. Then the fun started. One of the problems in Russia is the postal service, it is even slower than ours. Applications for Visas had to be obtained from the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. Through email Vasili, UA0SN asked me to have the Canadian Embassy fax the application form to Irkutsk so they could make copies and have each member complete one. I requested they fax the forms to Irkutsk, and yes they did fax the rules and application forms. There was only one small problem, they faxed them to me rather than Irkutsk. We attempted to straighten this out but never succeeded. Finally I faxed the documents to the Public Fax Office in Irkutsk so at least Vasili would have a copy of the rules of application. I did not know this cost him about $4.00 US per page and I sent 10 pages.
After reading the rules Vasili said everything looked great and obtaining visas should be no problem. He did not know the Canadian bureaucracy! They arrived in Moscow a week early so there would be time to go to the embassy and arrange visas. Everyone thought this was lots of time. A visa to the United States is issued in a day. Monday morning, a week before their scheduled flight they went to the Canadian embassy. The Canadian immigration rules said a minimum of three days for Russians visiting friends to get a visa. The fly in the ointment was that the Lakehead Amateur Radio Club had issued a formal invitation to our Russian friends. Our invitation mentioned meetings and seminars. This was a mistake. As soon as they saw meetings and seminars (we all know the meetings and seminars were really barbecues and get togethers where various libations could be indulged in) the embassy said the Russians were travelling on business and it would take a minimum of seven days to get a visa. If this held true they would miss their flight to Montreal. Tickets have to be purchased three days ahead, and you cannot purchase a ticket on an international flight without a passport and visa. After numerous phone calls and fax's between Murillo, Ottawa and Moscow a solution seemed possible.
Wednesday after lunch I was driving home and Jim told me on 2 metres that my nephew (who was working in my garage) had received a call from the Canadian government and was told three had been approved with a fax to follow. I thought, we really have a problem. When I got home I checked with my nephew and he said he thought the call was from Immigration Canada, he did not write anything down. I called Vasili in Moscow to see what he had heard. He was told to come back to the embassy on Thursday afternoon to see about the visas. I went back and reviewed the phone call with my nephew. After an extended and very calm discussion (if you believe that, I have a bridge I can sell you) I was walking back to the house when the brain woke up. I had applied, on the Russians' behalf, for reciprocal amateur radio licensing and the phone call must have been from Industry Canada. I immediately called Vasili back and said I think everything is okay. Meanwhile, he had been trying to figure out who was or was not approved and how he was going to tell them. When they went to the Canadian Embassy on Thursday things started to smooth out.
We had managed to convince the powers that be, that the Lakehead Amateur Radio Club was a non profit organization (this was no revelation to us) and while a formal invitation was issued it was not for the purposes of business. After much discussion within the embassy a new ruling and precedent were set. The embassy decided, when non profit organizations invite Russians to Canada they would be treated as if they were visiting friends and relatives, visas would be issued within three days. The embassy staff, after an interview with Vasili, worked overtime to get the visas issued. This while the balance of the group waited outside. They spent a considerable time waiting outside the embassy from Monday to Thursday. You give your name when you arrive and wait until you are called. You don't get to meet anyone until the visas are issued. It is all transacted over a phone. You have to be there and wait because if they call your name and you miss it you are out of luck. Since they may want to interview all the group, it means everyone attends. At the British Embassy people live outside in tents because it takes months to get a visa.
Everything was all set for leaving Moscow on July 17 for Montreal. Jim and I had agreed to pick them up in Montreal and drive them to Thunder Bay. My brother had a 16-passenger van and this was going to be our transportation. I wanted to get it a month early so I could work on it. Instead I got it four days before leaving. It needed some work. We spent four days working on it to get it cleaned up and in better mechanical condition. There was some exhaust leakage. When we slowed down you could smell exhaust fumes. This, while annoying was not a major problem and would wait until the return to Thunder Bay for repair. The motor ran reasonably well, so on Friday July 14 off we go to Montreal.
We stopped overnight in Sault Ste. Marie with the next stop North Bay for lunch. When we first arrived in North Bay I heard a familiar voice on the 145.11 repeater, it was Ron, FP5EK. This is great, I get a chance to meet Ron and his family before Thunder Bay. We had talked on the radio, telephone and exchanged fax's regularly, but had never met. No go, Ron was in Sudbury and talking on the local link. He was scheduled to arrive in Thunder Bay two days ahead of us. All went well until after lunch. The brake warning light came on when Jim started the van. We debated continuing as the front brakes seemed to be okay. After talking with some North Bay Amateurs on 2 metres it was decided to go to Canadian Tire and see about getting repairs made. There were no mechanics on duty so repairs would have to wait until the next day.
We had planned to overnight in Ottawa and then go on to Montreal. This was Sunday afternoon and we had to try to arrange to rent an 8-passenger van. We were lucky, Hertz had one available, so we switched from a 85 Dodge to a 95 Chevrolet. All it took was a bit of plastic! Canadian Tire said call back the next afternoon and get the bad news. It was a good thing we did not try to drive the van as the front brakes were not much better than the rear brakes. They said, no problem, for $800.00 they would have it ready on our return to North Bay. I said okay, what else is plastic for. Jim and I arrived at the Mirabel airport with the rental van. Excitement started to set in. Was the flight going to be on time? Were they really going to be on it? The flight arrived at 5:10 p.m. right on time. Mirabel is a beautiful white elephant of an airport. We saw the plane land (a Boeing 767 with Aeroflot colours would you believe) and the shuttle busses go out to get the passengers. The viewing area overlooks the arrival and departure area so you could see the passengers lining up for immigration and then customs. We saw some blue baseball caps with Russian call signs in the crowd. Our guests had arrived.
They cleared the authorities with no problem, and after much handshaking and hugs we loaded up the van. They must have thought, what luxury, when they saw the new van. We said it was rented and we would pick up our repaired vehicle in North Bay. I had told Vasili by email we would be travelling in an old 1985 van so be prepared. The Ottawa Valley Mobile Radio Club arranged billets for our visitors. Since our budget was already stretched this would ease our financial crisis and also let our visitors meet some other hams besides the ones in Thunder Bay. Our first stop in Ottawa was at Duncan's VE3OM where he and his wife had arranged food and refreshments. Let it not be said that anyone ever left Duncan's house hungry or thirsty. Robin, VE3YE the editor of The Canadian Amateur met us there to take some pictures. Robin only intended to stay a few minutes, but between our gracious hosts and talking with our visitors he managed to spend the evening. Serge, UA0SR would stay overnight with Duncan. Leaving Duncan's, much later than we thought we would, we started dropping off our other visitors, Victor, UA0SHR and Lyuda would stay with Archie VE3NJY, Alexander UA0SF would stay with Bob VE3SUY, Vasili UA0SR and Natalia would stay with Ralph, VE3BBM. Next morning it was the reverse order to pick everyone up and get on the road.
What can you say about spending two days driving across Canada. The scenery from Montreal to Sault Ste. Marie was not very exciting, but the company was excellent. Our visitors had their first fast food in North Bay, at a small hamburger place while we waited to get the van. This through the whole trip, except for two breakfasts, was the extent of restaurant eating.
We travelled from North Bay to Sault Ste Marie where we had arranged for our visitors to stay with Mike VE3MER and his wife Linda. We arrived a couple of hours later than we expected so did not have time to pick up bread and cold cuts to feed the crew. We had intended to have supper on the road. Mike and Linda came to our rescue with Mike cooking hamburgers on the barbecue by flashlight. He does a heck of job with hamburgers by flashlight, he must be great at it when he can see what he is doing. Jim and I intended to stay in a motel. Mike, however, had arranged to borrow his neighbour's small house trailer. This meant we could stay together and gave us our first chance to relax and swap stories. Tony VE3DWI and his wife Marilyn VE3MXT spent the evening with us as well. After a few libations, things were just getting rolling, when everyone decided the prudent course was to hit the sack and get some sleep. Serge had never slept in something like a house trailer before. To Serge this was a new and enjoyable experience. After a good nights sleep it was pancakes and sausages in the morning and then on to Thunder Bay.