by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)
The aviators searching for the eight missing members of the Colonel Cyril D.H. MacAlpine expedition had their base at Baker Lake, Nunavut. By the end of their effort, the would-be rescuers would log some 50,000 kilometres flying across Canada’s Far North.
The Free Press on October 12, 1929, reported that another airplane left Cranberry Portage, Manitoba, “carrying additional food supplies and winter flying equipment for the gallant band of airmen who are ready to resume the search ...
“All machines that will engage in relief work have been or are being equipped with skis, and will hop off from their temporary quarters as soon as there is sufficient ice on the lakes and rivers to make long-distance flying reasonably safe.”
Supplies were rushed to Churchill by rail on a special train, which were loaded onto a schooner for transportation to Baker Lake. Among the passengers was Don S. Bruce, a doctor and RCMP officer from The Pas, who was assigned to provide medical assistance to the aviators and, if needed, to the missing men when they were found.
On October 8, Bruce and the supplies reached Baker Lake aboard a tug.
Leading the search was Andy Cruickshank, a former RCMP member who was the superintendent of the Western Canada Airways (WCA) operation based in Prince George, B.C. WCA was founded in Winnipeg by local businessman James A. Richardson.
He was in charge of organizing the pilots, planes and search routes, while Guy Blanchet, a Dominion Explorers field worker, was responsible for the well-being of the expedition members (Four Degrees Celsius: A Story of Arctic Peril, by Kerry Karram, 2012).
Cruickshank was supported by mechanic Alf Walker, and flew a Fokker Super Universal, Francis “Roy” Brown and his mechanic, Paul Davis, also were in a Super Universal. Another Super Universal was piloted by “Bertie” Hollick-Kenyon, who was accompanied by mechanic Bill Nadin. The other Super Universal in the search was piloted by Jim D. Vance from Northern Aerial Minerals Exploration (NAME), who was supported by mechanic-pilot Brain C. Blasdale. A Fairchild was flown by Bill Spence of Dominion Explorers, who was accompanied by mechanic E.G. Langley and Blanchet.
Due to difficult weather conditions and mishaps encountered along the way, the five planes, equipment and 7,000 gallons of gas were not all in place at Baker Lake until October 8. Cruickshank was the last to arrive at the base camp.
On September 26 and 27, Brown and Spence made quick searches from Baker Lake and found that the supply cache at Beverly Lake had been emptied. It was the first encouraging sign that the MacAlpine party had been in the area.
By this time, Clennell H. “Punch” Dickins, the legendary Arctic flyer, had returned to his normal duties with WCA. He was forced to return south by the onset of winter, as his plane was equipped with pontoons rather than skis.
The five rescue planes were grounded by adverse weather and the need for the ski-equipped aircraft to wait until freeze-up to resume the search.
“Flying in the north is no picnic during the winter months,” was a comment in the November 5 Free Press. “Previous expeditions have conclusively proved this. Blizzards are frequently encountered, in which the pilot can only trust to fate to make a good landing and wait till it blows over ...
“Pilots must be cool-headed and resourceful, and from the experiences of those who have made flights in the Barrens, must also be competent navigators. It is easy to lose one’s way when winging over a terrain that for hundreds of miles does not vary in its sameness.”
Mechanics were absolutely essential in the pioneering days of northern aviation.
Veteran bush pilot Dickins said in 1962 that he defined bush pilots as “a pilot and mechanic, who are ready and willing to take any kind of a load to any destination, on or off the map, within limits of their aircraft, and the financial resources of the customer.”
An emergency landing left only three options: fix the plane, take a long hike back to civilization or perish, according to aviation writer Roger Guillemette.
The flight engineer (mechanic) also was essential to fix an engine in the dead of winter or repair collapsed landing gear in the heat of summer, he added.
Brown, along with Blanchet and mechanic Davis were marooned for 13 days at Aylmer Lake, 322 kilometres north of Fort Reliance on the shore of Great Slave lake, until they were rescued by Cruickshank.
“All this talk about an epic flight and heroism is the bunk,” said Brown, when later asked about his ordeal. “We were just doing our jobs. Flying is what we are paid to do. The only unusual thing about it was that we were flying up there at a time of the year we had no business to” (Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, December 6, 1929).
Brown paid tribute to the mechanics accompanying the pilots. “They were the heroes,” he declared. ‘They took the hard knocks and did the real work. You can’t give mechanics too much credit.”
Brown said the mechanics performed great feats in sub-zero weather “on seemingly hopeless aircraft.”
He related that a broken undercarriage was repaired by a bolt from the handle of a wrench using just a file and a hammer. In another instance, the handle of a frying pan replaced a strut.
It wasn’t until November 3 that the first news of the missing MacAlpine party was relayed to the outside world.
As it turned out, the missing men had been stranded at Dease Point after their aircraft ran low on fuel and forced them to land near an Inuit camp. One attempt to fly to Bathurst Inlet for help was made by draining the meagre fuel remaining in one airplane into another, but the party soon turned back, realizing it was suicidal to fly over open water with so little gas in the plane’s tank.
The most fortunate aspect of their forced landing was that they were in the company of Inuit, who helped them survive the rigours of the Far North. But even the Inuit were occasionally short of food until they could complete a successful hunt.
“Our stay at Dease Point and trip out to Cambridge Bay on Victoria Island was one of cycles of famine and plenty,” wrote Richard Pearce, in a diary he kept during the two-month-long northern ordeal.
It took the eight men 12 days for the men and their 10 Inuit guides aboard three dog sleds to finally reach Kent Peninsula, where they were to cross over to Cambridge Bay, a distance of just 40 kilometres. Their first attempt to cross on October 26 was blocked by open water so they had to return to land. It wasn’t until November 2 that there was sufficient ice to make the trip across Dease Strait.
“What a tough day,” wrote Pearce in his diary, “hour after hour trying to pick a course through a large ice floe, wandering this way and that for the best going. Sleds were tugged and pulled over ice hammocks that seemed to us, uninitiated as we were, impossible to cross, and there was scrambling out of the way as we tumbled into holes between ice cakes.”
At 4 p.m. that day, they struck thin ice and had no choice other than to spend the night on the ice in igloos fashioned by the Inuit.
The next day, they raced across the thin ice in -27°C weather intensified by a bitter wind.
After staggering into Cambridge Bay to the Hudson’s Bay Company supply depot, at 4 p.m. on November 3, MacAlpine sent the first message of the party from a radio aboard the Bay Maud, which was originally owned by Arctic explorer Roald Admundsen and purchased by the HBC to supply its northern outposts. In the winter of 1926, the ship was frozen in the ice at Cambridge Bay, where it sank in 1930.
“Dominion Explorers Limited Toronto (MacAlpine was the president of the company). All personnel, both planes safe ... Subsequent to leaving Pelly Lake, on account of chapter of unfortunate incidents, including snow storms and no safe landing lake, we were driven far north of our course, landing at first opportunity. Unanimous decision, account gas supply, was to hit Arctic coast. We landed near Eskimo tent in vicinity of Dease Point. All plans to move Cambridge Bay provided futile on account of open sea and we were forced to wait until we could get over the ice and just arrived. With bitter disappointment, but with resignation to inevitable, we began the fight for food and against weather. Out-shadowing our trouble was the worry to those at home and the hazards to those who might search for us.”
There is no question that the Inuit helped significantly to ensure the men survived their ordeal, providing food (fish and caribou) as well as guiding the men at the first opportunity to the nearest HBC post, but only when their knowledge of northern conditions knew it was possible.
MacAlpine later said that he didn’t know what the men would have done without the help of the Inuit. The same sentiment was emphasized in a later newspaper interview with Thompson.
The men built themselves a stone, mud and moss hut, using a tent as the roof, while at Dease Point. They traded with the Inuit for warm fur clothing and other supplies. They also had rifles and ammunition which they used to hunt ptarmigan and ground squirrels. They rationed their scant food supplies carried by their aircraft for special occasions and emergencies.
After the world was informed by radio that the MacAlpine party was safe and sound in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, Brown was among those who picked up the stranded expedition. Brown touched down on December 3 at Halcrow Lake at The Pas with all the party in relatively good shape after their ordeal. The exception was Goodwin, who froze his feet during the last day of crossing over the ice to Cambridge Bay and had to be taken to the hospital in The Pas, where three toes were amputated.
All was not well with the rescuers, who in some instances needed to be rescued themselves. A plane flown by Bill Spence was forced down at Ox Lake and another plane came down about 25 kilometres away and broke a main wing strut. Dog teams rescued the stranded flyers and brought them to Fort Reliance on the east bank of the Yukon River in the North West Territories. Andy Cruickshank flew to Fort Resolution along the east shore of Great Slave Lake for parts to repair the damaged airplanes.
In total, six of the planes taking part in the rescue were damaged, including the MacAlpine aircraft which sunk in Hudson Bay at Churchill and the other that was abandoned at Dease Point, Nunavut.
Ironically, pilot Jim Vance and mechanic-pilot Brian S. Blasdale, who took part in the search for the MacAlpine party, were themselves stranded at Baker Lake for almost six months after their airplane was severely damaged in a fierce snow storm. The employees of Northern Aerial Minerals Exploration (NAME) attempted in December to trek 1,000 kilometres to Churchill by dog sled, but heavy snow drifts and adverse weather conditions forced them to turn back to Baker Lake after two weeks of heavy slogging.
Both men told would-be rescuers, including MacAlpine, not to attempt to fly them out of Baker Lake.
“It is impossible for a plane to go up to get them on account of the shortness of the days at this season,” MacAlpine said (Free Press, December 18, 1929). “It is certainly unfortunate that they are unable to be rescued, but there is nothing that we can do to assist or we certainly should do it.”
Although many pilots had offered their services, Blasdale’s wife agreed that it would be suicidal to attempt a rescue by airplane.
The Free Press reported on March 31, 1930, that Vance and Blasdale had finally made it to Winnipeg, and that the two young men were fit and in good health. They reached Churchill on March 18 with the help of two Inuit guides and their dog teams. Vance and Blasdale had left Baker Lake on January 2, reached Chesterfield Inlet on January 15, after a few days rest, they then left for Churchill.
The men were not disappointed that no one had come to their rescue, as they explained that the storms were too intense at that time of year and it made more sense to travel by land to Churchill, where they could catch a Hudson Bay Railway train for Winnipeg.
Just four months after their return to civilization, Vance was killed in an airplane crash at Humber Bay on the east end of Great Bear Lake when he attempted a landing on the water in fog, smoke and glassy water conditions. He apparently drowned after being thrown out of the airplane he was piloting.
“If we had succeeded and come back without mishap,” MacAlpine said during a Free Press interview (December 7, 1929) in his room at Winnipeg’s Royal Alexandra Hotel, “not more than one person in a thousand would have heard about us. As it is, there is an appalling amount of publicity. The real heroes of this trip are the airmen of Western Canada Airways who rescued us.”
MacAlpine said the lessons learned during the two-month ordeal will be used by others in order not to repeat their mistakes.
In the end, the lessons were rather expensive. Pearce estimated the cost of the rescue attempt was $400,000 (approximately $4.3 million in today’s dollars), all of which ended up being paid by Dominion Explorers Ltd.
MacAlpine, the leader of the party lost on the Arctic barren lands in 1929, died in Toronto on January 27, 1951, at age 65.