From the Archives
Marooned on the Barrens
BY ANDREW VOWLES
“A chapter of unlucky incidents including snowstorm and no safe landing forced us north of our course . . .” So wrote the leader of the ill-fated MacAlpine Expedition in a telegram from the high Arctic, announcing to a waiting world the safe return of his eight-man party in late 1929. After one of the largest aerial searches in Canadian history to that point — involving a fleet of planes scouring about 30,000 square miles of barren lands for almost two months — the marooned crew of two bush planes walked across an ocean strait to safety, suffering nothing worse than bad frostbite and hunger.
It was a group of Inuit camped at the planes' landing spot on the shore of the Arctic Ocean that probably saved the party from a worse fate. So wrote a number of authors in material collected in a file about the expedition in the U of G Library archives. The MacAlpine Expedition is part of a larger file box of archival materials that belonged to the late radio broadcaster Allan Anderson, who had planned to write a book about the adventure.
By the late 1920s, bush pilots were venturing into the Northwest Territories on surveying flights for lumber and mining companies. Dominion Explorers was a company headed by Col. C.D.H. MacAlpine whose pilots criss-crossed the northern frontier in their Fokkers and Fairchilds in what might be considered a 20th-century version of the earlier canoe voyageurs.
MacAlpine was among eight men who took off from Baker Lake in early September 1929, bound for Bathurst Inlet. Wrote MacAlpine's grandson in a biographical sketch in 1976: “The start was uneventful enough, but this journey was to turn into one of the truly heroic episodes in the opening of Canada's North.”
The trip had already been delayed by bad weather and bad luck, including the sinking of one of two planes at Churchill on Hudson Bay. The replacement craft arrived Sept. 6, and they flew to Baker Lake a day later. On Sept. 9, both planes headed north. Poor visibility and strong winds pushed the aircraft eastward, and they had to land at an Inuit hunting camp on the Arctic Ocean.
More bad weather and plane trouble were capped by what Anderson's notes call a “chilling discovery”: the planes had too little fuel left to get to the Dominion Explorers base at Bathurst. Instead, the men would have to wait for freeze-up before they could cross the strait northward to Cambridge Bay, located on Victoria Island.
They built a hut of stone, mud and moss and resigned themselves to co-operating with the Inuit hunters until they could attempt their walk out.
Between touching down at the Dease Point camp and making that last dash across the frozen Arctic strait, the group spent almost two months living on rations salvaged from the planes and on fish, ptarmigan, ground squirrels and other game. Although never threatened by outright starvation, the group lived for about a month on daily rations of mere ounces until the day their Inuit companions returned to the camp with caribou.
In a brief memoir, one of the pilots, Stan McMillan, wrote: “It has often been said that even among the most enlightened peoples of this earth, the veneer of civilized behaviour is thin. We didn't suffer any conspicuous peeling of this veneer, but incidents did occur where one might say fractures developed.”
Their days were spent hunting and fishing, collecting firewood, maintaining their makeshift quarters and waiting for freeze-up. That experience was recorded in a diary kept by Richard Pearce, editor of The Northern Miner in Toronto, who had gone along for the trip. (In a title reminiscent of Farley Mowat's adventure novel Lost in the Barrens, Pearce's diary was published as a book called Marooned in the Arctic, contained in the U of G Library stacks upstairs.)
When the group failed to show up in Bathurst, a massive aerial search began that lasted for weeks. “The world gobbled up every detail of the search,” wrote MacAlpine's grandson. That effort was called off after the team finally sent word in early November that they had made the 80-mile trek to Victoria Island, including covering the last 25 miles across the frozen strait. They announced their return over the wireless on the Bay Maud, a ship wintering in Cambridge Bay.
A possible tragedy in the North had been averted. It took some time before the group realized that the outside world had been weathering a different kind of disaster during their ordeal. Notes a writer in the archives: “While the group was missing, the stock market crash of 1929 took place, and such investors as were on board the two aircraft who had left a buoyant, albeit nervous, stock market situation encountered glum news indeed on their return to civilization.”