Chapter 3: Hope in the Sky

Polar Winds: A Century of Flying the North


 

CHAPTER 3

 

Hope in the Sky

 

By the 1930s the promise of aviation in the North dovetailed with a mineral boom that turned campsites into towns within months. Bush pilots loaded (and often overloaded) planes with prospectors, canoes, and a variety of colourful cargo. At times they learned the hard way about weather conditions, appropriate gear, and which lakes, rivers, and fields made for good landings. Even so, aviators pushed ahead to create mail routes, test the Great Circle Route to China, and help the Mounties “get their man” in the distant reaches of the Western Arctic.

 

Northern Riches

 

It may have been the Great Depression, but there were riches to be found in the North and a lucky few made a fortune — often with the help of airplanes. In 1930 a new prospecting rush was touched off in the Northwest Territories when pilot Punch Dickins dropped off Gilbert LaBine near Great Bear Lake, about 140 kilometres north of LaBine found a large mineral deposit of pitchblende, also known as Uraninite. Radium could be extracted from the pitchblende and used for cancer treatment and on instrument dials; it was worth more than gold at the time — the Belgians, who until then had a monopoly on the mineral, had charged up to two hundred thousand dollars a gram. By 1932, the worst year of the Depression, three hundred men had staked claims in the region and LaBine’s mine at Port Radium — aptly named Eldorado — “became the hope of a stricken nation.”

 

Everett Wasson poses with Treadwell-Yukon’s Bellanca CH-400 Skyrocket, CF-AOA, at Mayo, Yukon, in 1932. ’AOA crashed near the Queen Charlotte Islands (now called Haida Gwaii) off the coast of British Columbia in October 1941.

Claude and Mary Tidd fonds, YA/7395

 

     While radium was incredibly valuable, it did not have the same romance as gold. So when rich deposits of the yellow metal were discovered near Great Slave Lake in the early 1930s, it sparked the imaginations of prospectors everywhere, and individuals as well as large companies like Cominco and Consolidated Mining and Smelting, turned to aviation to reach the new gold

     Mining engineer George M. Douglas was one of those heading north in 1932. He was no stranger to the area, having undertaken six prospecting trips in the region over a span of twenty years. In February 1932 he was amazed at how much transportation had changed: in 1912 it had taken him eighteen months to travel from Toronto to Coppermine, hauling all his own supplies. Twenty years later, his heavy freight was flown in by Paul Calder of Canadian Airways Limited (CAL), and after three days on a train to Edmonton, Ronald George flew him north aboard a CAL Bellanca (likely a Pacemaker, CF-AKI). Douglas’s biographer, Enid Mallory, writes, “As they flew over the Athabasca, Douglas, with his nose pressed to the cabin window, could recognize each rapid which cost such labour and frustration 20 years earlier.” From their first stop at Fort McMurray in Alberta, Walter Gilbert flew him to Great Bear via Forts Rae and Resolution. Douglas noted in his diary, “Four other planes loaded with prospectors and their gear were at Fort Rae following the same course to Great Bear.” They reached their destination of Fort Smith in the late afternoon of March 7. Instead of taking a year and a half as in 1912, the journey lasted only a

     This compression of time and space through aviation made it much easier to reach the area, and Winnipeg journalist Allen Bill was right when he forecasted that it would be a frenzy of activity once the lake ice broke up. Three oil wells at Fort Norman, as well as another to the north, had been reopened to provide fuel for the Eldorado mine’s operations, and while much was freighted by water in summer, aircraft were pressed into service in all seasons. Pilot Duncan McLaren remembers that he and “Con” Farrell routinely flew 1,500 kilometres a day during the summer for CAL. Every Monday they would depart Edmonton bound for Yellowknife. The next day, they would reverse direction, “we hoped, terminating in Edmonton.” They were supposed to have Sundays off, but McLaren noted, “with weather delays and side trips, we often ended up flying the seventh day to make up for lost

     In the summer of 1932 Yellowknife was, as Douglas and prospector Rene Hansen remembered, “a collection of tents surrounded by From their campsite on an island across the lake, they watched it grow: “Frantic building, planes more than I’ve ever seen in one place before — RCAF, Can Airways, Mackenzie Airways, private planes — water taxis running between the town and the mines.” As they paddled back to their campsite after being in the bush for a month, “they sat in their canoes blinking at the transformation. A helter-skelter, hodge-podge city had replaced the tents.” There was even a hastily built thirty-two-room hotel, which had opened just in time for Ontario Premier Mitch Hepburn’s visit, and a brothel commonly known as “The Library” operating out of a log building.

     By 1935 there was a full-on boom centered on Yellowknife, which meant air freighting of all kinds. McLaren recalled flying out of Yellowknife at the time with Rudy Heuss in CAL’s Fairchild 82, CF-AXE, hauling “mail, dogs, passengers, food, mining equipment and dynamite…. Rudy always wrapped the dynamite caps in his sleeping robe to minimize the risk of inadvertent explosion and we tried to fly the caps and dynamite on separate Once they moved a complete sawmill. Wop May, who became superintendent of the Mackenzie River District for CAL, told a radio interviewer: “One chap asked us to bring rings for his marriage and bring the lady as well. One lady insisted she bring her canary along for the ride. We even carry ice cream beyond the Arctic

 

Rex Terpening and Duncan McLaren in 1937 at the Cooking Lake float plane base near Edmonton, Alberta. The two worked for Canadian Airways at the time as air engineers, and both went on to long and distinguished careers in civil aviation.

Marlie McLaren Kelsey

 

     One of the most common — and most welcome — air cargoes in the North was liquor. “There were then no liquor outlets in the Northwest Territories and all of us who were able to come up with an NWT address were entitled to a liquor allotment each year,” McLaren explained. Yellowknife was technically “dry,” he noted, so there were many bootleggers — twenty-six in the winter of 1937–38 — and those working for the air services got involved too. “Those of us who could, ordered our annual allotment for shipping to Yellowknife C.O.D.,” said McLaren. “When the order was picked up at the freight office by the designated individual, the C.O.D. charges, including the air freight, were paid in full. Unlike other C.O.D. merchandise, our Canadian Airways agent Al Pierce had no storage problems with the liquor shipments. They were always a fast-moving They never ran afoul of the law, either, as engineer Sammy Tomlinson noted, “We were taking it to the damn

     Pilots and air engineers also had loads that were more challenging. Often they would fly teams of sled dogs, and crews had to be careful not to get bitten; after all, these were high-strung working animals, not coddled pets. After a few close calls, McLaren perfected a system for avoiding snapping teeth while unloading them after he landed: he would carefully grab the dogs by the scruff of the neck and the tail then throw them out the cabin door into the lake. In another case, prospector Don “Tiny” Ferris recalled the time he had to transport the first forty-kilogram gold ingot from the Consolidated Mine: “I tried to load it into a Norseman and I had it in a silk sack as I stood with one foot on the dock and the other foot in the door of the aircraft, when the damn thing went through the bottom of the sack into 18 feet of water! I think I was in after it before it touched bottom! I couldn’t get it out, so they had to tie a rope around me and then pull me and that $150,000 worth of gold up out of the

     Stan McMillan faced near-drowning in the Northwest Territories as well. He was flying the Eldorado Radium Silver a Bellanca Aircruiser (CF-AWR) operated by Mackenzie Air Service for Eldorado Mines, “carrying mail, machinery, food and men to the mine on Great Bear Lake and bringing out a return load of at least two tons of uranium concentrate per trip to Fort McMurray.” In 1936 McMillan recalled that, “with a load of surveyors and their equipment … I cast loose from the bank of the South Nahanni River, in the calm water just a few yards from the lip of the raging ‘sluice box’ immediately above Virginia Falls. My engine had quit and, after three attempts with the hand crank on the inertia starter, it finally took hold — just in time!” If it had not, McMillan’s engineer and co-pilot, Archie Vanhee, was apparently ready to dive into the water and swim ashore with a line, hopefully before they reached the

     Landing could be as tricky as taking off in the region. Pilots worked with many small-time prospectors trying to hit the motherlode, some with only vague ideas of where they were going — and what landing conditions would be like once they got there. Fred Meilicke recalls leaving Great Bear Lake in a Fairchild 71 with a prospector who wanted to go to a small lake about eighty kilometres away. This prospector assured him someone had gotten into the lake before with another single-engine floatplane, a D.H.83 Fox Moth, but when Meilicke tried to land he found it was an extremely tight fit. “The bloody trees were coming at me at one hell of a rate when, by the grace of God, one ski snagged a frozen caribou skeleton just enough to ground loop the plane,” he noted. “We stopped with the wingtip no more than 50 feet from those

 

Leigh Brintnell, owner of Edmonton-based Mackenzie Air Service, and its Bellanca Aircruiser, CF-AWR, dubbed the Eldorado Radium Silver c. 1935. ’AWR transported minerals from the Eldorado mine site in the Northwest Territories until January 1947, when it crashed in northern Ontario and was abandoned. In 1973 the fuselage was recovered by the Western Canada Aviation Museum and is currently being restored.

AAM

 

     In the summer months, pilots like Meilicke often started flying at 5:00 a.m. and went till midnight, trying to take advantage of every last minute of daylight. Page McPhee, who worked for Mackenzie Air Service, once averaged three hours of sleep per night and logged seventy hours of flying time in one week. The pace caught up with him, though. On one trip from Hay River to Fort Smith he flipped the control column to engineer Ernie Mills to get caught up on his books. “It might not have been quite legal, but I figured if they were going to ride along they might as well know how to handle the aircraft,” he said. “Suppose something happened and they had to take over? Anyway, it worked out nicely and it helped them pass the time. Well, I started in and the next thing I knew, we were over Fort Smith and Ernie had a big grin on his face. I looked at the logbook and saw that I’d done only a line and a half — I’d been so beat, I’d fallen

     In winter, though the flying hours were much shorter, aviators and engineers had to deal with darkness and frigid temperatures. There was often no avoiding working “bare-handed, doing repairs, or refueling from drums, with a hand-operated wobble The layers of clothes pilots like Duncan McLaren wore to keep warm could also make moving, let alone flying, tricky:

     From the skin out it went like this: light-weight pure wool underwear with long legs and long sleeves, a cotton shirt, a sleeveless wool sweater, another shirt of heavy material, melton ski pants, wool windbreaker, two pairs of heavy socks or a pair of duffle socks, felt insoles, moosehide moccasins, parka, wind pans and assomption sash. Usually I wore a ski cap with ear flaps or if it was extremely cold, a leather flying helmet with a strap under the chin. By dressing in this manner, one could easily adjust the layers of clothing to suit the temperature. Later, the ski pants were displaced by wool breeches and the moccasins by mukluks. The assomption sash was multi-coloured….the purpose, aside from being colourful, was to keep the wind from blowing up under the parka….Mitts were usually moosehide and duffle lined, which were worn over woolen gloves or mitts. To prevent the loss of an outer mitt the two were roped together with a cord which went over the shoulders and around the back of the

     Some challenges existed regardless of season. The smart pilots learned from experience or instruction to have the proper equipment on hand should they go down in the bush or the Barrens. Wop May had perfected his tool box and ration kit through years of bush flying, and always carried survival gear such as a Woods three-star sleeping bag, gun, fishing line, and a “tightly sealed case of wax-coated matches.” Getting fuel could also be a life or death issue. Commercial Airways sent avgas up the Mackenzie River by boat as their pilots had to refuel at each of the thirteen stops. Those flying into the Barrens, such Mackenzie Air Service, would cache barrels of fuel at different spots and mark their locations on a map for future use. A bath — while perhaps less crucial — was almost as hard to come by. McLaren recalled it usually “had to be delayed until returning home, except on the rare occasion when there was a stopover at a town with running water and hotel bathroom facilities.”

     They could, however, usually rely on the kindness of the small northern towns they served. Wop May once told a radio interviewer, “The pilot is the only link between the inhabitants of the North and the outside world, except of course the radio.” The pilots would get room and board; in return, the families received news from Outside and an entertaining

 

Sked Runs and Mail Routes

 

Pilots were especially welcome when they carried letters, a precious cargo to southerners living and working in the North. In fact, mail was arguably almost as valuable as gold or radium at times. George Douglas fondly recalled the day when Wop May and Lou Parmenter circled his campsite in a CAL single-engined Junkers and set down on the water. “They had just flown from Fort Resolution, and Wop was anxious to get back there before it got any darker…. Within half an hour of the plane’s landing, it had taken off again … leaving me alone, but with a big bunch of

     Residents of Whitehorse had tried to get airmail as early as 1920. When the Alaska Expedition flyers left for Dawson City that year, they had a petition for air service aboard for the Commissioner of the Yukon. “On this historical occasion,” Whitehorse citizens wrote, “we wish to express a fervent hope that our Government will keep pace with other countries in the establishment of a regular aeroplane service throughout our Dominion and especially in Yukon where it is so much needed.” Canadian airmen had shown amazing skill and bravery during the Great War, they argued, and were now back home and available for domestic flying duties. The Expedition flyers delivered the petition, and the Commissioner was apparently in complete agreement. Even so, the Yukon would not get its airmail for almost a

     It was not for lack of trying. During the 1920s several companies — including Laurentide Air Service of Quebec — tried to establish airmail service in the territory, but for a variety of reasons Finally, in 1927 Andy and Esmé Cruickshank set up Yukon Airways and Exploration Company with their Ryan B-1 Brougham monoplane — sister ship to Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. With the Queen of the Yukon (as G-CAHR was known), the husband-and-wife team launched the first scheduled airmail and passenger route in the On November 11, 1927, they made Dawson City’s first airmail delivery. While Andy flew the Queen low over the town’s main Esmé dropped a mail sack out the plane’s window to the grateful crowd below. Unfortunately the operation lasted only a year; it folded after the Queen of the Yukon and two of its successors crashed.

     Yukoners would not be deterred, however, and other pilots and companies were waiting in the wings: Klondike Airways, formed by T.C. Richards and W.L. Phelps, soon picked up the Yukon airmail The decade also saw big American companies like Pan American Airways make stops in Whitehorse, with its shiny twin-engined, all-metal Lockheed 10 Electras, while flying the route between Fairbanks and Juneau, Alaska. There were others from Outside making inroads as well: Pacific Alaska Airways, Canadian Airways, and United Air Transport Ltd., all entered the northern fray during the Seeing the future importance of aviation, local companies such as Treadwell Yukon Co., North Canada Air Express, and White Pass Airways vied for contracts. Even entrepreneur George Simmons of Carcross, in the Yukon, who had had “no interest at all in flying” according to pilot Stan McMillan, created Northern Airways and switched from running horse carts and dogsleds to

     To help establish early airmail routes for Western Canada Airways, Punch Dickins undertook several plane trips following the Mackenzie River from Edmonton in 1929. Beginning in January, he flew ten mail trips between Waterways in northern Alberta and Fort Simpson in his Fokker Universal, and also attempted an exploratory flight from Edmonton to Aklavik in the Northwest Territories that While landing at Fort Resolution in forty-below temperatures, however, Dickins hit a hidden ice ridge and damaged the aircraft: “All I could think of, though, was the fact that this one [bad] landing might put mail delivery in the North back a long time. This trip was important to me — but a lot more important to those isolated little places along the way.” He managed to limp back to Waterways in the Fokker and in late June made the first successful flight to Aklavik, one he remembers being “the most satisfying I ever made.”

 

The S.S. Tutshi lake sternwheeler and Canadian Airways Ltd. Junkers W-34, CF-ABK, at Carcross in southeastern Yukon in 1933. The small town was a transportation and tourism hub from the Klondike Gold Rush days through this period.

Eldon Bjerke collection, YA/83_20_1

 

     “The weather was good,” Dickins recalled, “and I really enjoyed the whole thing. I stopped at every village on the way down the river to show the flag for Western Canada Airways. The greetings I received were always enthusiastic, particularly because the farther I went, the less chance that anyone had ever seen a plane.” On July 1 — Dominion Day — he arrived at Aklavik. “The roar of the plane as I flew over and landed brought the entire village out to greet me,” he noted. “There were a couple of Mounties, some priests, nuns, and local fur traders, as well as thirty-five or forty Inuit. None of the Inuit had ever seen a plane before, and they were quite curious about it.” That trip he logged thirty-nine hours flying time over eleven days and about 6,500 kilometres — a trip that Dickins estimated would have taken two years by boat, canoe, and dog team. “It was then that I knew that the airplane was going to change the entire way of life of the people of the North.”

     By this time, WCA had established the first scheduled route from the railhead at Fort McMurray in Alberta to Fort Simpson. Once a week, Dickins made the flight, stopping en route at other Northwest Territories communities such as Fort Resolution, Hay River, and Fort Providence. Dickins thought, understandably, after these pioneering flights WCA would get Canada Post’s first airmail contract for the Northwest Territories. Instead, it went to Dickins’s childhood friend and friendly rival, Wop May of Commercial Airways, who had recently flown a well-publicized mercy flight from Edmonton to Fort Vermilion to deliver diphtheria

     On December 9, 1929, May and two other Commercial Airways pilots flew the “Red Armada” — so called because of their three red Bellancas — over a distance of almost three thousand kilometres to settlements along the Slave and Mackenzie Rivers with five tons of mail. The pilots reached Fort Good Hope on Christmas Day, with a frozen bottle of rum and nine-kilogram turkey. Locals provided homebrew till the rum thawed, and the WCA pilots, after trying to cook the turkey by throwing it right into the woodstove, chopped it with an axe and filled pans with snow to make turkey stew instead. The last leg of the trip to Aklavik took them two weeks instead of the two months it would have taken by dogsled. After a town-wide celebration that lasted several days, the Armada returned

     Like their counterparts in the Northwest Territories, Yukoners enjoyed living and working in the territory, but many grew tired of the isolation — and getting newspapers three months after they had been printed. “The only connecting link between Whitehorse and the Outside,” Laura Berton wrote in her memoir, “was the little narrow-gauge railway running over the White Pass to Skagway. The train came in twice a week during the winter, unless, as seemed perennially the case, it was snow-bound, blocked by a rockslide or a flooded river. When this happened … there was no fresh milk, for all the cows were in Skagway. There was no mail and usually no telegraph service, for in periods of bad weather the wires were down. There was no undertaker, for he too came from

 

“Our Route Was New”

 

Routes within the North were valuable, but Pan American Airways (known simply as Pan Am to most) was already looking farther afield. The airline — the largest in the United States at the time — wanted to find a commercial route to China using the so-called “Great Circle Route” from New York to Hankow (now Hankou), and funded an exploratory flight through the North in It was none other than Charles Lindbergh, Pan Am’s technical advisor, and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who undertook the 11,425-kilometre flight in their single-engined Lockheed Sirius on floats (registration NR211). While Canadian authorities tried to convince the Lindberghs that flying the Arctic was dangerous, nothing could sway them.

 

Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, piloted this Lockheed Sirius across the Canadian North to China on a scouting flight for Pan American Airways in 1931. Originally, the Sirius was an open-cockpit landplane, but the Lindberghs modified theirs with a sliding canopy and Edo floats for this journey.

LAC/ PA-062878

 

     They were as prepared as possible for emergencies over land or water, having packed parachutes, camping supplies, and a rubber boat with a sail and oars. They also brought survival gear and enough food for thirty days. The aircraft was equipped with new instruments, including a radio direction finder and extra fuel tanks. They were also very aware of the aircraft’s weight limits. “Every object to be taken,” Anne wrote, “had to be weighed, mentally as well as physically.” Even with all this careful preparation, there were many unknowns. Anne later wrote in her book North to the Orient: “Our route was new, the air untraveled; the conditions unknown; the stories mythical; the maps, pale, pink, and indefinite.” At their first stop in the Northwest Territories, they were faced with a reminder of the precariousness of their journey: on the beach “was a broken pair of pontoons which had brought some flier in to Baker Lake but never took him back.” Even so, they pulled their plane up on the shore and anchored it to fifty-gallon gasoline drums.

     Their next leg was from Baker Lake to Aklavik, which they did in twelve hours without stopping. Throughout the flight Anne took drift and ground-speed observations and communicated with the ground. “I could hear through my ear-phones the noisy chatter of the big cities over the edge of the world,” she wrote. Anne and Charles also alternated napping, one taking the controls while the other slept. During one of these naps, Anne was “jerked awake” when the engine stopped while Charles switched fuel tanks over the wide expanse of Coronation Gulf. Other than that little hiccup, the Lindberghs had a smooth trip, arriving in Nanjing in September. They had proved that air traffic could fly the Great Circle Route to the Far East, and in 1935, Pan Am inaugurated its China Clipper flights between San Francisco and Manila, Philippines using a Martin M-130, four-engined flying boat.

     In 1934 a colourful young Royal Air Force pilot named John Grierson also attempted an international flight over the Canadian Arctic, but had considerably more Grierson’s original plan had been to fly around the world by the so-called “Arctic Route,” but he had run into trouble with Soviet authorities in 1932 and was told that “owing to [his] inexplicable propensity for landing in prohibited areas, we are unable to accede to this request.” He redirected his efforts to make a flight from London to Ottawa via the Arctic instead, converted his D.H.60G Gipsy Moth (G-AAJP), the Rouge et into a seaplane and learned how to fly on floats. He also added navigational and communications equipment, packed the survival gear the Canadian government required (a .256 Mannlicher with fifty rounds of ammunition, pemmican for ten days, and suitable fishing tack) and paid a deposit to the Danish government in case a search party was needed.

     On August 4, 1933, Grierson departed in his underpowered and overloaded airplane and ended up capsizing off the coast of Iceland. As the captain of the ship who came to his rescue said, “I am sorry for you but in a way, I am very glad. I believe this crash has saved your life.” Grierson concurred, realizing that “such a slow machine might have been dangerous for crossing Greenland in any but the finest weather.” On his next two attempts, he switched to a Fox Moth (G-ACRK), which he nicknamed Robert Bruce. His third try was luckier, and in late August 1934, Grierson made a series of stops along Baffin Island. He made his first at Loks Land Island on the eastern tip of Baffin Island’s Blunt Peninsula. Then he continued toward the HBC post at Lake Harbour (now called Kimmirut), but had trouble locating it. He was soon put on the right track. “When I saw several tents and a boat moored in the bay I landed only to find Eskimo women, who waved their arms in an opposite direction towards Lake Harbour,” he noted. “I soon found the houses of the post which I had mistaken in the distance for grounded icebergs.” From there he departed for the posts at Puvirnituq and East Main in northern Quebec, and finally to Ottawa. In the process, he became the first to complete a London–Ottawa flight, as well as the first to fly solo across the Greenland ice cap.

     In the 1930s the U.S.S.R. also went in search of world During the summer of 1937, after two years of secret preparations, it sent several of “Stalin’s Falcons” (as the Soviet pilots were known) over the North Pole in search of air routes to the United States. In June pilot George Baidukov made the first trans-Polar airplane flight from Moscow to San Francisco in an unpressurized, unheated cabin while battling massive icing. He was largely disdainful of the operation, calling the area between the North Pole and Canada the “Pole of Inaccessibility” and noting that “to the airman the Pole doesn’t really mean a damned thing. We have passed over it, and that is that.”

     The next month several others made a record non-stop flight over the same route. Finally, in August 1937, pilots Sigismund Levanevsky and Nikolai G. Kastanayev along with their crew left Moscow in a DB-A, a four-engined transport bearing U.S.S.R. registration N-209. They were headed for New York, with a refuelling stop scheduled at Fairbanks, Alaska. They had attempted this flight in 1935 in a single-engined Ant-25, but after ten hours the aircraft had sprung an oil leak and they had been forced to turn back. This time they were determined to complete their mission. N-209 was outfitted with the latest direction-finding equipment, enough food to last the crew ninety days, and eighteen tons of fuel — enough, they thought, for the seven-thousand-kilometre journey to Fairbanks. The crew expected the trip to take just over a day to complete, but nineteen hours into their flight on Friday, August 13, the crew reported they were over the North Pole in heavy cloud. That was their last clear transmission.

     Radio operators across the Arctic listened for a distress signal, and the renowned Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson coordinated an international search that included Canadian, American, and Soviet pilots who flew nearly twenty-one thousand kilometres in a thirty-day period. Efforts resumed over the winter, with many of the North’s greatest bush pilots and air engineers taking part, but even with these massive efforts, no trace was ever found. Finally, in March 1938, the Soviet Ambassador announced they were calling off the

 

“Your Aviators, God Bless Them!”

 

This expansion of air services in the North led to other casualties, unfortunately. In the crash of the Queen of the Yukon II (CF-AHD) on November 2, 1929, pilot John Melvin “Pat” Patterson became the Yukon’s first aviation fatality. The “curse of the Queen” also touched Andy Cruickshank, who died — along with engineers Harry King and Horace Torrie — in the Northwest Territories’ first fatal plane crash on June 29, 1932. He had been flying Western Canada Airway’s Fokker Super Universal (G-CASL) from the mining camp at Great Bear Lake to Fort Rae when the engine, which he had felt was not airworthy, died. The plane cracked up on

     Luckily, there were also happy endings. There were numerous mercy flights in the 1930s, including several to Letty Harbour near Paulatuk, Northwest Territories, on the Arctic coast. On January 25, 1935, Stan McMillan of Mackenzie Air Service rescued the captain and crew of the Margaret A from their icebound ship in the harbour. The next year pilot Matt Berry and engineer Rex Terpening answered the prayers of the Catholic mission at Letty Harbour after Bishop Fallaise sent an SOS saying they were almost out of food. Berry and Terpening came to the rescue in CF-ARI, a Canadian Airways Junkers W-34, braving marginal weather and freezing temperatures; they were the first to fly that far north in winter. As author Bruce McAllister notes, “[the] resourceful flight crew had their own survival gear on board, including custom Arctic sleeping bags and a Remington rifle. There were no maps for their destination, so they had to draw their own maps and rely on the few landmarks that were available.” When they arrived, they loaded everyone into the aircraft and headed to Aklavik. Their troubles were not over, however: they hit bad weather en route and were grounded at a fuel cache for ten days.

     While bush pilots were wary of “pushing” the weather, they would take calculated risks. This was the case in November 1939 when Punch Dickins, who was by then superintendent of CAL, received an urgent telegram from Montreal: “Msgr. Turquetil wants badly injured missionary rushed out from Repulse Bay with minimum delay as otherwise man will be maimed for life. Realizes difficult condition but very anxious we make attempt.” The missionary, Father Buliard, had apparently been hunting alone on the ice five kilometres from the mission. He struggled back for an hour in -22°C weather before he was seen and carried to shelter, but his hands had already frozen and now gangrene was setting in. The only chance to save the twenty-five-year-old from getting his fingers or hands amputated was to get him to medical help fast.

     The company generally refused to fly the west coast of Hudson Bay between freeze-up and April. Rex Terpening, along with pilots W.E. “Bill” Catton and A.J. Hollingsworth, however, volunteered to make the 2,200-kilometre journey through “the worst flying country in the North.” Still, they had to wait for the weather to improve, and to receive word about ice conditions and fuel supplies along their route. They also needed to an Inuit interpreter to accompany them. Reports from the RCMP and telegraph service warned them unequivocally against making the trip.

     They were determined, though, so when the weather improved on November 27, 1939, the longest ambulance flight in Canadian history departed Lac du Bonnet, Manitoba. The crew flew CF-ASN, another of the company’s Junkers, as far and fast as they could during the brief winter days. They had to stop several times en route to change over to skis or because of bad weather. At the community of Ilford, for example, “fog and icing held them on the ground for two days, watching the sky” until they could make the next jump to Churchill, Manitoba. From there, they had the trickiest section to fly: 450 kilometres of “vast whiteness” with no distinguishing landmarks or navigational aids to Tavani, Northwest Territories.

     When they landed at Chesterfield Inlet — still 482 kilometres away from their destination — it was too late to go farther that day. While they were close (at least by northern aviation standards) they could not leave for Repulse for a week because of blizzards and gales. On December 9, they finally landed at the Notre Dame des Neiges (“Our Lady of the Snows”) mission; the next day they began their journey to the St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg, encountering more rounds of punishing weather, delays, and forced landings. On December 20, 1939, they finally made it — and Father Buliard’s hands were saved. Msgr. Turquetil, who had written the original telegram begging for CAL’s help, was overjoyed, writing to the company: “Your aviators, God bless

 

The Fur Trade Takes to the Air

 

Like mission societies, the famous Hudson’s Bay Company — whose acronym was sometimes half-jokingly changed to “Here Before Christ” — also had posts scattered across the North. As early as 1840, it opened its first post north of the 60th parallel at Peel River Post (Fort McPherson) near the border between what is now the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. By the end of its expansion in the 1920s, it operated over 200 posts in the North, including more than a dozen in the Arctic.

     It is not hard to see why the HBC was so interested in the North: reports from 1921 and 1931 show that trappers in the Yukon and Northwest Territories sold about two million dollars in furs those years. This was roughly equal to what minerals had netted, and would be at least twenty-five million dollars today. Along the Mackenzie Delta and Crow Flats in the northern Yukon, Gwitch’in and Inuvialuit began trapping muskrats, beavers, marten, lynx, and wolverine once prices rose — and once the HBC had enough trade goods to make it worth their while. Charlie Peter Charlie of Old Crow recalled, “That last year I trap for him [Lazarus Charlie] I killed one hundred ten marten and ninety-five lynx. The lynx is over one hundred dollars each.” In the Arctic, Inuit trappers caught silver fox and Arctic fox, whose furs were very fashionable in cosmopolitan centres and fetched top dollar. Some Inuit were reported to have made the equivalent of more than one hundred thousand in today’s dollars in one season. Inuit, according to HBC managers, traded their furs for flour, sugar, butter, and canned food at the posts, and the most successful bought gramophones, cameras, sewing machines, high-powered rifles, and outboard

     Getting fur from remote areas to the posts, however, was hard work and time-consuming. Charlie Thomas remembers it took him “about six days from Old Crow to Fort Yukon (Alaska)” by dog team, and Dick Nukon noted it still took his dad four days in his motor By the mid-1930s, that length of time was significantly shortened when Alaska Airlines began flying mail in to Old Crow and bringing fur out. Despite the promise of aviation for the fur trade HBC “refused to participate in a new scheduled air service between Edmonton and the Mackenzie Valley,” as Peter C. Newman noted in Merchant The company had nonetheless begun cautiously investigating aviation’s potential in the North. During the winter of 1930, HBC paid Punch Dickins’s expenses to do a mercy flight to Coppermine, and hired him on contract to fly fur out of Fort Good Hope. Then in September 1932, HBC Governor Patrick Ashley Cooper and three colleagues made the company’s first inspection tour of the Northwest Territories. With Walter Gilbert at the controls, the party covered a distance of almost two thousand kilometres in Canadian Airways’ Fokker Super Universal, G-CASK. What would have taken ten days by water transport only took 10.5 hours by

     During that same time, other CAL pilots were flying on charter for the HBC on the west coast of Hudson While separated by thousands of kilometres, the two operations had one thing in common: bad winds sweeping across the northern part of the provinces and Northwest Territories. Governor Cooper and his party had wisely waited them out for a day; the pilots flying out of Hudson Bay had not — a decision CAL and the HBC would come to regret.

     The contract had begun in late June 1932, when pilot W.J. Buchanan flew CAL Junkers JU-52, CF-ARM, to Arviat (Eskimo Point). From there, he was to haul freight from the post to Padley Lake, 250 kilometres away, and only recognizable in the tundra landscape because of a row of six spruce trees. With freeze-up looming, which would make the float-equipped ’ARM inoperable, CAL sent up crews with two smaller planes (Junkers W-34 CF-AMZ and Junkers W-33 CF-AQW) to help finish the job. Working during the brief northern summer was anything but easy, but the crews managed, operating from open tidal waters without docking facilities. They were down to their last few loads when the gale-force winds hit.

 

Matt Berry and Frank Hartley with a load of white fox fur from the Northwest Territories, c. 1936. Likely in front of Canadian Airways Junkers W-34, CF-ARI, which crashed in northern Alberta shortly after take-off on January 25, 1940.

NWT archives/ Edmonton Air Museum Committee Collection/N-1979-003-0170

 

     The gusts began at 4:00 a.m. on September 14. The crews, worried about their aircraft, left their beds and walked down to the beach. Even in the early morning darkness, they could see that ’ARM had broken its anchor chains and blown onto the rocky shore. Buchanan cautiously boarded it, started the engine, and taxied to a small shelter about three kilometres away to prevent further damage. When the sun came up a few hours later, he saw the floats were torn up by rocks and completely waterlogged. He later wrote in his report that “only the excessively high wind held the machine up.” While the crews worked to beach the battered machine, ’AMZ, which had dragged its anchor as well, drifted into ’AQW, and “broke in two.” Now all personnel feverishly got to work trying to prevent further harm to the remaining aircraft.

     The winds continued for two days, preventing the crews from reaching ’ARM to send out a message by radio to CAL or fix the aircraft. When the wind abated a little, the men walked to the damaged ’ARM to attempt repairs. They realized this would be no easy feat. “Here was a machine which, with float equipment, weighed approximately five tons,” Buchanan wrote. “And it was resting on the floats which had to be repaired. There were no cranes, derricks, or any facilities with which to lift it up so that we could get at the floats. The only feasible solution was to dig a hole among the boulders.” This turned into a Sisyphean task: “Every hole we dug the tide filled in for us, and the water would seep in … One man was fully occupied baling out each hole while the man in the hole drilled the under surface of the floats to put on patches.”

 

CF-ARM was a Junkers 52/1 M flown by Canadian Airways and was known as the “Big Junkers.” CAL used it on contracts around the country, including north of 60. In this photo taken at Sioux Lookout, Ontario, in the 1930s, a mildly sedated horse is being loaded for transport to a Red Lake mine. It turned out, however, that the sedation was a little too mild, and when ’ARM landed at the mine, there were three or four hooves sticking out the side.

Dick de Blicquy

 

     They spent the next day finishing the repairs to ’ARM, using “every spare piece of sheet metal and every bolt that was available in the settlement.” They also unloaded and cached the remaining freight from ’AMZ before dismantling it and loading the wrecked machine onto a tugboat. Finally, at 4:30 a.m. on September 19, Buchanan and his exhausted crew were ready to fly ’ARM south — only to find that the patches had leaked overnight and the floats were once again full of water. While disappointed at this turn of events, they quickly regrouped for a new plan of action: over the next few days, as they watched the lakes around them ice up, they dragged ’ARM over to the HBC post, covered the two floats with duck canvas, and replaced the useless patches with sealskin. On the night of September 22, it began to snow hard and they saw their window rapidly closing. After a few failed takeoff attempts, they decided to try a new strategy to get the plane out by the next tide: they dug two trenches into the ocean that were fifteen metres long, over a metre wide, and half a metre deep. Their final herculean effort worked, and they carefully towed the machine along the shore to the HBC post, reaching it at 1:30 a.m. They did this by hand because they were afraid if they put the engine on the speed might strip the canvas. On September 24 Buchanan noted they were finally able to fly ’ARM out, “we got off, but only just.”

     Though the HBC saw ups and downs during the Depression years due to changing animal populations, weather, fur prices, and fashions, it persevered. It also got over its initial hesitations and expanded its use of planes during the 1930s; it continued to send its managers on aerial inspection tours, ship freight in to posts, and furs out of them. Within a few years a Beaver article would even note that these flights, which had so recently been “items of front pages news value,” had become “plain jobs o’

 

The Mad Trapper of Rat River

 

Despite becoming more common, there were still some northern aerial exploits worthy of the front page. Starting in January 1932, one event in particular was splashed across every newspaper in North America and glued people to their radios as a story more terrifying and thrilling than Depression-era radio plays A man of apparent superhuman strength had shot several Mounties in the Western Arctic and was evading capture in some of its toughest terrain during the depths of winter. The questions on everyone’s lips, from cab drivers in New York City to farmers in Saskatchewan: Who was he? Why had he become violent? And would the Mounties ever get their man?

     Events had been set in motion a month earlier, when someone calling himself Albert Johnson moved to the Yukon. He seemed quite ordinary, people said. No one knew much about him, but they respected his wish for privacy — the North saw its fair share of outsiders down on their luck from the Depression, men who sometimes “simply walked away and, for all intents and purposes, disappeared” from their previous lives. Unfortunately, these outsiders did not always understand or respect the local codes of conduct. As Alfred Charlie, a long-time resident of Old Crow remembers, Johnson “came to Aklavik with a raft and moved to Rat River. He put a cabin right on somebody’s trapline. That winter somebody went to set traps and Albert Johnson went on that guy’s trapline and sprung some When the Vuntut Gwitch’in trapper saw this, he left for the RCMP Detachment in Aklavik to report the tampered-with traps.

     An RCMP patrol set out to They departed Aklavik by dogsled on December 30 for the 130-kilometre trip, and made the rounds of cabins. When they came to Albert Johnson’s, they had no reason to suspect him of any wrong-doing. They knocked, just as they had at the other cabin doors. But unlike the others, despite being able to hear someone inside, no one replied. Suspicious, they returned to Aklavik for a search warrant and assistance in the form of two other constables. This time when they approached the cabin, Johnson fired on them, hitting one of the Mounties — Constable Alfred King — in the chest. The other Mountie on the patrol, Constable Robert McDowell, raced him back to Aklavik by dogsled in a punishing twenty-hour trip, saving his life.

     With this violent turn of events, two more patrols set out. These were made up of Inspector Alex Eames, Constables McDowell and Edgar Millen, five special constables, and a local guide, Peter Alexis. This time they were prepared to take Johnson dead or alive. Johnson was apparently ready as well, and he held his ground, besieged in his cabin, for two days. Even after the Mounties launched dynamite at the cabin, Johnson continued to fire at them. The patrols, unable to budge Johnson from his position, finally decided to regroup back at Aklavik. When they returned to the site five days later, the trapper had burned down his home and was nowhere to be seen.

 

Peter Alexis guided the RCMP patrol that sought to apprehend the “Mad Trapper of Rat River,” Albert Johnson, in early 1932 in the Western Arctic. Vuntut Gwitchin from Old Crow like Alexis were key members of the patrols, working as special constables and guides.

Arthur Thornwaite fonds, YA/83_22_450

 

     The “Mad Trapper” as he would come to be known by the media, had a solid head start on his trackers. It also appeared he knew at least a few evasion tactics, as he left misleading trails and kept his fires as small as possible to avoid detection. He was also incredibly adept at wilderness survival and apparently very fit. As Sheila Reid notes in her book Wings of a Hero, “he had no bedroll, no tent, no stove, no provisions. Only the high-powered hunting rifle he had used against them at the cabin…. [and] he was travelling quickly and continuing to keep well ahead of them in heavy snowshoes in temperatures that remained bitterly cold.”

     While the manhunt was thrilling fare for outsiders, those living in the region were understandably frightened. Hannah Netro of Old Crow was a child at the time. Her family was living at a winter bush camp on their trapline and she recalls her father told her and her siblings that if Johnson came while he was out hunting, they should “talk nice to him and give him tea or whatever.” Luckily he never came calling. Dick Nukon was also just a child in nearby Whitestone River. He recalled his father going to visit two non-indigenous trapper friends, sixteen kilometres to the south of their camp. “When he came back he brought the news,” Nukon recalls. “He got big radio, this guy. He hear it on radio, when he come back he told us … a man name Johnson he shot that RCMP last night in Aklavik…. So, next day we just Nukon and his father strapped on their snowshoes and hit the trail for Eagle, Alaska, to warn their friends and relatives there.

 

Jack Bowen, Frank Riddell, and Wop May pose in front of Canadian Airways Ltd.’s Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker, CF-AKI, in 1932, during the hunt for the Mad Trapper of Rat River. ’AKI crashed four years later in a snowstorm at Lake Athabasca, Saskatchewan.

Denny May

 

     The patrols pursued Johnson for weeks in the unforgiving Richardson Mountains to the west of the Mackenzie Delta. Then on January 30, 1932, the patrols cornered him. While outnumbered and worn down from cold, hunger, and exertion, Johnson did not give up. Instead, another firefight ensued and he shot and killed thirty-year-old Constable Edgar Millen. The next day, determined to seek justice for their fallen colleague and realizing they were evenly matched on the ground, the RCMP contacted Canadian Airways for assistance. Punch Dickins, who was working at CAL, received the message at Edmonton. He quickly wired one of the company’s top pilots, Wop May. May had been listening to reports from the Aklavik radio station at the Fort McMurray base, and knew the situation. He readied CAL’s ski-equipped Bellanca, CF-AKI, to fly north for whatever was needed: bringing in dried fish for the dog teams, assisting with aerial tracking, or anything else CAL might be called on to do.

     As it turned out, one of his first tasks was a sad one: transporting Millen’s frozen body from the remote patrol camp back to Aklavik. That flight, while unhappy, was at least relatively smooth. As May discovered, flying in the northern Yukon in February was anything but easy. He encountered whiteouts and fog that grounded the Bellanca on at least one occasion. Even when the weather co-operated more, visibility was poor. “It was very hard to see as there was no sun,” May recalled later. In fact, because it was so hard to see his tracks in the snow, May hoped Johnson would try and fire on the Bellanca during his reconnaissance flights and disclose his position, “but he was too wise for that.” Nevertheless, May’s flights in the area saved the patrols days of work as he was able to advise them about Johnson’s attempts to elude capture through doubling-back and other manoeuvres.

     One day the sun finally appeared and May was able to make out a snowshoe trail leading through Chute Pass in the Richardson Mountains to the Yukon side. “He was fooling us actually,” May notes. “He was using the Caribou trail, running along the centre of the river. He had taken his snowshoes off and was following this Caribou trail so that we couldn’t trace him.” Using his aerial vantage point, May could see Johnson was on the Eagle River. He signaled the location to the RCMP patrol team via radio and the next morning the Mounties left to intercept Johnson.

     “I could not get out as early as I wanted to because of the fog,” May said The ground team left trees down to guide him, though, and once the fog lifted he hurried to join them. Then on February 17, May saw the final encounter between the RCMP and Johnson: “I was overhead when [Inspector] Alex Eames was coming round the bend of the river and Johnson was in the middle of the river. He tried to run up the bank to get out of his way, but he didn’t have his snowshoes on; he couldn’t make it so he came back into the centre of the river, dug himself into the snow and the fight started. We were up on top and circling, watching the fight and taking pictures of it.”

     In the final standoff, Constable Hersey was shot and a bullet passed through his elbow, knee, and chest. May landed near him, and with the help of the other Mounties, carried him to the plane. “He was in bad shape and the blood was just spurtin’ out and there was nothing we could do for him but get him in the aircraft and get him back to Aklavik where there was a hospital.” May jumped back in the Bellanca and while he hit heavy winds and a snowstorm over the mountains, he managed to make it back to Aklavik in under an hour.

     Because of May’s fast flying, Hersey’s life was saved. Johnson did not fare so well. According to local accounts and recent forensic tests on his body, he was shot several times during a final firefight. Author Barbara Smith notes, “The trapper was no longer physically capable of fleeing, but still he managed to continue resisting capture, dropping to the frozen river and shooting as many rounds of ammunition as he could at his RCMP special constable John Moses, a Vuntut Gwitch’in man from Old Crow, delivered the fatal After forty-eight days, the Mad Trapper saga was finally over. Interest in the story continues, however, and Johnson’s real identity, motives, and ability to elude capture for so long still baffles locals, historians, and scientists. What is clear was how important May and his Bellanca were in supplying the teams, evacuating wounded Mounties, and tracking Johnson’s movements from the air.

 

During the 1930s Canada’s bush pilots, especially Wop May, Punch Dickins, and the like, became household names. In a time of dire financial straits across the continent, they offered the hope of reaching gold, radium, and furs. While to many in the South the ground meant drudgery and dust bowls, aviators left those worries behind when they took to the air and were able to fly away to new adventures and new opportunities. No one wanted to hear that flying was hard work and that many pilots lived a hand to mouth existence. To a population that was hungry for escape — and often simply hungry — the bush pilots meant hope.