From a distance CFB Rivers does not look any different than it did
in its heyday a half century ago.
steam plant that provided heat for the entire base still shimmers under
a hot summer sun. Visitors can make out the old hangers from several kilometres
away. Sometimes small commercial planes can be seen taking off from the
But when visitors arrive at the base gate they are faced with dereliction
and despair. Sadly, this once vibrant Canadian Armed Forces base on the
Manitoba prairie, which sprawls out more than 3,200 acres, is now a crumbling
locale recovering from a recent tragedy, and the scene of a mysterious
haunting that occurred six years ago at the ancient arched hanger.
In the meantime, while scores and scores of former CFB Rivers residents
marvel at the wonderful memories they retain, many choose never to return.
It is simply too sad, too heartbreaking to see the incredible state of
dereliction of this once proud military community five kilometres southwest
of the Town of Rivers.
“It was such a popular base. Everyone who trained there loved it. It
was a tremendous loss to the surrounding communities when it was taken
away. It was like losing a favourite uncle,” said Bill Hillman, a 67-year-old
career educator and musician from Brandon. Before the base officially closed
in 1971 Bill and his wife Sue-On
performed at numerous shows on the base. Bill also worked countless hours
there as a summer student.
“I had an uncle who trained on helicopters there. It meant so much.
But there is not much remaining there now. It is so sad to see.”
CFB Rivers first opened in 1942 as part of the country's Second World
War commitment to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.
The base later became the country's main para-training centre for army,
navy and air force personnel. In 1953, the Basic Helicopter Training Unit
(BHTU) was established and it became the first tri-service flying training
unit in Canada.
In the meantime, more than 450 homes were constructed at CFB Rivers
for more than 2,000 military citizens. The community boasted first-class
amenities, including a full hospital, dentist, two churches, a 24-room
school, bowling alley, movie theatre, a full grocery store, butcher shop,
auto club, gas station and a recreation centre.
But with the Canadian military unifying in 1968 and Ottawa making budget
cuts, CFB Rivers was declared surplus to defence needs, as were several
other bases across the country in subsequent years - including CFB Penhold,
and it closed in September 1971. After the base was abandoned the land
and its buildings were turned over to various community uses until 1988
when it was purchased by Larry Friesen who opened Hangar Farms Ltd., a
hog farm operation.
Sadly, however, it was in the late 1980s when the deterioration of the
old base accelerated. Fires destroyed two old military hangers, and the
condition of many abandoned buildings rapidly declined.
Meanwhile, former residents regularly come back to visit and Friesen
was always happy to chat and give a tour.
But on April 28 tragedy struck the base.
Friesen fell about seven metres to his death while working on a hanger
roof. His death, officially ruled as an accident, shocked and saddened
many in the surrounding area.
“He shouldn't have even been up there. It (accident) was right in my
building, right out my door,” said Gary Ringland, 59, a fertilizer company
supervisor at the base. “Larry was an interesting person. He had stories
Ringland, who has worked on the base for the past 15 years, has many
stories of his own.
He was raised at CFB Rivers from 1951 to 1968. His father was a military
cook, raising an astounding 15 children in a three-bedroom home on the
base. His family was in fact the first and largest on the base.
“It was good. You knew everybody. But If you did anything wrong your
dad knew before you got home. The military police kept tabs on everybody,”
said Ringland, chuckling. “But there was lots to do for kids, just like
a regular town.”
When the base closed Ringland moved with his family for a few years
to nearby Rapid City. He then went to Calgary where he worked many years
for a fibre glass company.
But home kept calling and he returned to work at CFB Rivers in the mid
“It felt funny because I lived here so long and when I came back there
was nothing left and nothing maintained,” said Ringland. “It was eerie
because what used to be there were mess halls and stuff but they were ripped
The eeriness took a dramatic turn six years ago when he was in the old
arch hanger. It was an incident Ringland has never forgotten.
In the evening while loading fertilizer he heard something move above
on a catwalk near an abandoned office.
“It looked like someone was walking across – watching us. I looked at
the guy on the ground and he didn't see anything. And the driver's wife
who was outside had the hair on her arm stand up at the same time. She
never saw but she just had bad vibes,” said Ringland, adding there was
no reason for anybody to be up on the catwalk. “And to this day she still
won't get out of her truck. Her husband does but he doesn't like to get
out either. It is kind of eerie.”
Ringland said when he now enters the arch hanger he still looks up to
see if anything is walking along the catwalk. He also admits to making
sure the loader lights are always on.
These days, however, Ringland has become the ghost base's unofficial
But there is some uncertainty with the future now due to Friesen's tragic
passing. In the meantime the old Second World War site is crumbling fast.
But at least for a little while anyway, and maybe for sometime beyond,
there are plenty of memories to hold on to at CFB Rivers - and a mysterious
and eerie ghost to wonder about.