Gimme shelter

Radical armies, North Korea and Donald Trump are all igniting fears that the end is nigh and doomsdayers are spending big bucks to keep themselves bunker safe.

In late 2016, receding arctic ice unveiled a long-hidden US military secret: Camp Century.

Located less than 1,300 kilometres from the North Pole on Denmark-controlled Greenland and constructed in 1959, Camp Century consists of approximately three kilometres of tunnels beneath the tundra. There are 21 trenches, each one covered with an arched roof and assigned a purpose: there are ops rooms, bedrooms, a church, a hospital. When the US government sold the Danes on the idea, the official purpose of Camp Century was to test construction techniques under Arctic conditions. It was actually used as a nuclear-material storage unit.

The project was decommissioned in 1967 but concealed from view until last year, when melting ice exposed Camp Century to the world. (You will no doubt hear more about Camp Century. The US and Danish governments now have to hash out who is responsible for the radioactive and chemical waste left on-site.)

Among the people who were first to set foot on what would become Camp Century some 60 years ago was control tower operator (and later a radiological scientific officer and professor of economics) Bruce Beach.

Beach, now in his mid-’80s, lives with his wife, Jean, in a tiny picturesque village called Horning’s Mills, Ont., 90 minutes north of Toronto. “I’ve never talked about this with anybody,” Beach told me when I visited his property in September. “I walked with the team that did the first survey of Camp Century.”

And that’s why, exactly 1.2 kilometres from Beach’s tiny house, buried under five hectares of grassy farmland, there is essentially a Camp Century clone planned and paid for by Beach and constructed by hired workers.

He calls the installation Ark Two and it’s a big fallout shelter, designed to provide safe harbour for at least 500 survivors of the nuclear holocaust that Beach believes is imminent. In a sense, Beach is following a millennia-old tradition of predicting that “the end is nigh.” Astrologers, seers, numerologists and others who claim to have superhuman prescience have long employed Biblical citations to figure out exact times and dates for when the world will, in fact, come to an abrupt and, typically, fiery demise.

PRE-DOOMSDAY PREPPING

This time around, it’s different. Many of the people preparing for and investing in The Big One are not just bushy-bearded eccentrics. More and more regular people who look just like you or your neighbour are spending money on post-meltdown gear.

Stateside, Silicon-Valley types and one-percenters are spending huge bucks to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.

Dwight Bulloch owns Calgary-based Bridon Solutions, whose motto is “Helping Canadians obtain high-quality survival supplies since 2009.” Bulloch says business is easily double what it was five years ago. Mostly, he caters to “preppers,” i.e., men and women preparing for the big meltdown. Preppers tend to reinforce their homes. They also hone outdoor survival skills. They often buy special freeze-dried storable food, vehicles, guns and ammo. Bomb shelters, too.

Reasons for pre-doomsday shopping are clear. These are anxious times. The melting ice that disinterred Camp Century is proof positive that the planet is changing rapidly. Radical armies and North Korea are threatening the West with nukes. On January 26 of this year, the BBC made the following statement: “Scientists say the world has edged closer to apocalypse in the past year amid a darkening security landscape and comments by Donald Trump. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the minute hand of the symbolic Doomsday Clock from three minutes to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight.”

Since Donald Trump’s election, sales of underground bunkers have leapt approximately 300%.

Exhibit A: Vivos is a California startup that turns old fallout shelters into condominiums for preppers who think they can spend their way to post-apocalyptic splendour. On offer from Vivos, in South Dakota, are 575 “bomb-resistant bunkers that can comfortably sleep 10 to 20 people each,” writes The Telegraph. The bunkers go for US$25,000 for a 99-year lease, with a US$1,000 annual maintenance fee. (Lessees pay for plumbing, electrical and air-filtration systems.)

Instead of life insurance, Vivos sells “life assurance.” In Vice magazine, Vivos CEO Robert Vicino says his clients include a top surgeon, a colonel in the US military and a movie star. Most tend to be, he says, conservative types who don’t trust the government to deal with a disaster.

Here’s Vivos’ pitch for a unit it called Vivos Indiana: “Like a very comfortable 4-Star hotel, this massive shelter is tastefully and comfortably furnished and decorated, completely outfitted, fully stocked with food, toiletries, linens, medical supplies, a one-year supply of fuel, a deep-water well, NBC filtration systems, geothermal heating and cooling, bedroom suites, full-size showers and bathrooms, a theater area, dining area, lounge area, exercise equipment, kennels, a garden area for fresh vegetables, laundry area, abundant storage areas, ATVs, bicycles, tools, a workshop, security devices; and just about everything else that may be needed to ride out virtually any catastrophic event. You only need to bring your personal clothing and medications. We’ve thought of everything else!”

In Kansas, an Atlas missile silo that has been rendered into post-meltdown luxury homes is called Survival Condo. A top-of-the-line penthouse unit will set you back about US$4.5 million. It can be completely customized, but standard equipment includes an indoor pool, an indoor shooting range, hydroponic food and, of course, military-grade security. Not coincidentally, the underground entranceway to Survival Condo looks a lot like the gateway to Beach’s Ark Two.

Clyde Scott is president of Texas-based Rising S Co., specializing in fallout and tornado shelters that come in 18 models, ranging in price from US$10,000 to, he says, “the sky’s the limit.” (A rumour — that he will neither confirm nor deny — has it that Kanye West and Kim Kardashian have ordered a shelter from Rising S.)

And, he says, he now includes Canadians among his customers. “I sold two in Montreal last week but most have come out of Toronto. I have a dealer setting up soon in Red Deer, Alta., one in Saskatchewan and a few in BC.” Scott comes up to Canada for, he says, the great duck and goose hunting.

His smallest unit, he says, is “about the size of a small bathroom, eight by 12 feet, for two people. It’s an air-tight walk-in shelter with an air system, a single bed and a water barrel.

“It used to be,” Scott says in his thick Texan drawl, “I’d go six or seven weeks without selling a single unit. But now, I’m selling shelters every single day. Not usually the million-dollar ones but the US$60,000 and US$70,000 ones. It’s like a modern-day gold rush for shelters right now. But this is the new normal,” he says.

“If you see some of my pictures, these shelters look like houses. They become man caves; you put a leather couch down there with a 42-inch big-screen TV. It doesn’t feel like a bunker — it feels like a house. They can be wine cellars or gun rooms.” Scott even hinted at one customer who uses one as a swingers’ palace. “So far as I know, it ain’t even got water in it; it’s got Jack Daniels.”

CRACKPOT PREPPERS OR PRACTICAL BUSINESSMEN?

Preppers also spend on vehicles.

Michael V. is based in the US Midwest. “They used to call us farmers,” he told me when I met him at the 2016 Burning Man arts festival in Nevada, a clothing-optional week-long party that’s an alleged hotspot for preppers and other independent-minded types.

“I prefer the word ‘agriculturalist,’” he says. “My most important implement? This Mac computer.” He runs operations in several states and in response to the question, “How much land do you own?” he replies, “Asking an agriculturalist how much land he owns is like asking a stockbroker how much he’s got in his portfolio.”

One of the philosophies supposedly espoused by Burning Man attendees is “radical self-reliance,” which translates to “we can work together to survive but if necessary, I don’t need anybody’s help.” That also translates handily to the prepper set.

Michael is not his real name. As he and many other preppers admit, they don’t want to be known as crackpot preppers. He would rather be seen as a practical businessman who has done his homework. One of the reasons he embraced prepping was that a decade ago, Michael says, he read some Pentagon reports on the likelihood of foreign governments attacking the US energy system. “It made sense to me that our grid is pretty fragile; between EMPs [electromagnetic pulses] and a fragile grid and more demands on the grid, I decided I’d be ready for the electricity to go out.”

So he opted for a more understated approach. His home shows no outward sign that here lives a prepper, but, he says, “all the ground-level windows are impact-resistant. The ground-level doors are steel-framed and steel-reinforced so you can’t kick them in.”

“And when I leave town, the only vehicle I drive is this 12-valve Dodge diesel truck. I picked that truck because it has no computer on it and I picked diesel because it’s so versatile. The truck has a 140-gallon tank so I can literally be anywhere in the country and drive home without stopping. I had a special front bumper made. I put a Faraday cage in there to put my phone in. It’s grounded so the electronics inside are protected. I got a lot of tricky features in my truck but going down the road, it doesn’t look any different than any other truck.

“Outwardly, I hope nobody really sees that I’m a prepper. But I’ll tell you, I’m a bit surprised at the corporate levels of people involved in this. I met a bank branch president who was getting work done to his Dodge truck to have the same aftermarket features as mine.”

ONTARIO’S ARK

Meanwhile, back at the Ark.

If you type Camp Century into Wikipedia, you’ll see a bird’s-eye view of the layout, complete with labelled rooms and connecting passages. If you ask Beach to show you a schematic of Ark Two, you get a drawing that looks a lot like a Camp Century overlay.

When you arrive at the gate of Ark Two, the only outward sign that it even exists is a concrete-encased metal door on the face of a small grassy hill.

Behind that door and under the grass, Ark Two consists of 42 full-length school buses with their engines and chassis removed, fused together, reinforced with steel and cement, buried under southern Ontario farmland.

Like with Camp Century, each bus or dividing room has its purpose. One is a communications room; another is the dentist’s office. There are men’s and ladies’ washrooms and a kitchen with a soup pot so big, Beach says, you could cook enough for 3,000 people a day. There’s a library. A command post. Power is provided by generators, water is pumped from a well and air is piped in from above ground.

Down one dark hall is a kids’ playroom and adjacent to that, row after row of child-sized bunks — enough for 96 kids sleeping toe to toe.

“It’ll probably be an orphanage mostly, an underground nursery,” Beach says. “There’ll be lots of little’uns down here with no parents.”

And after the nuclear holocaust happens, Beach wants the inhabitants of Ark Two to begin the rebuild.

“This is a lifeboat; this is not a luxury liner like the Queen Mary,” Beach says in his Kansas twang. “Nobody’s going to be down here for more than a couple of weeks.”

“We are what I call ‘reconstructionists.’ We’ll be preparing to rebuild civilization after the radiation danger recedes.” (If you’d like to be put on Beach’s list for when the time comes, contact him and offer him some sweat equity. A place like Ark Two requires considerable upkeep, and first choice will be given to those who help the most.)

Jason Kom-Tong got his first look at Beach’s installation the same time as I did. Kom-Tong had read about Beach and because he, like Michael, is an understated but dedicated prepper, he wanted to see what Ark Two offered the post-apocalyptic world.

Kom-Tong describes himself as a “prepper lite” and says he has concerns about the electrical grid grinding to a halt, so he keeps several months’ worth of food and water in storage. “I’m not like one of those guys who’s going to build a fence around the property and haul out my gun,” he says. But still.

“Don’t you think that after spending all this money on prepping that guys might actually want to see something happen?” I asked him. “You know, like testing the airbags in a new vehicle.”

He laughed and then, showing me photos of his beautiful young son and daughter, said, “I sure don’t.”