New Brunswick

Mystery solved: 'Thing in the woods' revealed as CIA spy camera, 55 years later

Cold war surveillance technology answers family's questions over half a century after discovery of object

"They would have enjoyed this" 0:44

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The mystery that has plagued a New Brunswick family for more than five decades has been solved, with a satisfying Cold War espionage-flavoured denouement.

Declassified documents from the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency in the United States reveal the origins of the white 181-kilogram box found hanging from a rotting parachute in a tree near Moncton in 1962.

It turns out it was a high-altitude balloon-mounted spy camera developed in part by the CIA to secretly photograph Soviet Russia.

"It's hard to put into words," said David McPherson Jr., son of the woodsman who originally found the mysterious box. 

"It's so exciting and it turns out it was a CIA spy camera." 

The family has had its Cold War suspicions for more than half a century, when David McPherson Sr. found the object in the forests of Lutes Mountain, near Moncton, while scouting for timber. 

"There was just too much to it," said McPherson Jr.

"These camera lenses were huge, the secrecy around it. And I guess looking back now, the army probably had no choice — they couldn't tell us what it was." 

Quickly taken by military

Two dozen black-and-white photos of "the thing" carefully preserved in the McPherson family photo album were all that remained after it was brought onto their property and then quickly whisked away by the Canadian military. 

David McPherson and "the thing in the woods"

David McPherson Sr. poses with 'thing in the woods' equipment he discovered in the forest in 1962 moments before the Canadian military whisked it away. Fifty-five years later, it has been determined to have been an American spy camera developed in part by the CIA. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

A handwritten memoir of the events by Lois McPherson, McPherson Sr.'s wife, detailed how the military first tried to steal the box before promising to get answers for the family if they simply relinquished control of it. 

Those answers never came. 

In the decades that followed, the family filed multiple access to information requests with the Department of National Defence, but those filings repeatedly went unanswered.

Public tips lead to CIA  

But hours after the CBC story of "the thing in the woods" appeared on Monday, people started to submit their theories and ideas.

Among the tips were links to the Military Communications and Electronics Museum in Kingston, Ont., and to declassified documents on the CIA website.

Both contained photographs of a AN/DMQ-1 gondola, a portion of surveillance equipment which closely resembled the McPherson find from 1962. 

CIA Camera

McPherson and a friend recover the AN/DMQ-1 gondola in the New Brunswick forest near Lutes Mountain in 1962. (Submitted: David McPherson)

None of that surprised James Rogers, 74, who unknowingly helped McPherson Sr. lug a spy camera out of the forest when he was 19. 

"I never thought it was a weather balloon," said Rogers, who was skeptical of the title the local newspapers had given the equipment he helped carry.

"Otherwise everyone wouldn't have been so secretive about it." 

David McPherson Jr

David McPherson Jr. stands next to the barn where his father stored 'the thing' that turned out to be a spy camera kit. He says the road to answers for this family mystery has been 'a roller-coaster,' but he's very excited to finally have answers. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Rogers said everyone always knew there was something more to the mystery box than officials were telling them.

Project Genetrix

The declassified CIA documents indicate the operation titled Project Genetrix was intended as a method of secret reconnaissance of Soviet Russia and Communist China during the late 1950s.

Then U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower approved the project, which was run alongside a similar balloon operation focused on weather in order to give operators a front to point to if, and when balloons went "rogue."

"If it is from that project I would not be shocked that the wind accidently took it into Canada," said Annette Gillis, a curator at the Military Communications and Electronics Museum.

"And it would answer why the family was never given any information about it." 

More questions 

Despite the recent answers, both Rogers and McPherson Jr. still have questions regarding the spy camera. 

James Rogers

James Rogers, 74, was 19 years old when he helped recover the spy camera gondola. He says he never believed the newspaper reports at the time declaring the find as a weather balloon. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"What I want to know is what was on that camera," said Rogers.

"I would suspect there was film in there, and it would be really interesting to learn what it was taking pictures of." 

But some familiar with the technology doubt the spy camera package recovered near Moncton was taking photos during its ill-fated flight.  

Luis Pacheco is an archivist and cataloguer of stratospheric balloon flights and launches dating back to their creation. 

"If this was one of the 'rogue' and never-recovered camera packages that crossed Soviet and Chinese airspace and survived the trip across the Pacific … it must be orange in colour," wrote Pacheco in an email to CBC News. 

"The 'live' packages containing the cameras were painted that way for an easier recovery once landed."

Pacheco suggested the box recovered near Moncton could be one of several launched for training purposes in 1955 from the Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado.  

Mixed emotions 

Regardless of where the spy camera kit ultimately originated, the McPherson family said the answers are bittersweet. 

"This has been a roller-coaster … I wish mom and dad were here, because they would have loved that, knowing what it was," said McPherson Jr, whose mother died in 2004 and father died 18 months ago. 

"Dad would have been going around saying, 'I told you so! I told you so!' He would have been pretty excited."

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