By Katharine O’Flynn
On December twenty-first, 1910, a four-man Northwest Mounted Police patrol mushed off from Fort McPherson, bound for Dawson City four hundred and seventy-five miles to the southwest. It would be an arduous journey, but one that Commander Frank Fitzgerald, long inured to the hardships of arctic travels, had no reason to fear. His two constables Kinney and Taylor were capable young men, and their guide, Sam Carter was an ex-Mountie and, like Fitzgerald, had years of arctic experience behind him.
A winter patrol like this was undertaken every year to carry mail and dispatches between Dawson, the northernmost station with regular mail and telegraph services, and the arctic post at Fort McPherson. This year they’d be running the patrol in the opposite direction, from McPherson to Dawson, but that should cause no problems. The route was the same.
Estimating they’d cover the usual fifteen to twenty miles a day, Fitzgerald saw to the packing of a thirty-day supply of bacon, bully beef, beans, flour, lard, dried fruit, tea, sugar and tobacco for the men, and nine hundred pounds of dried fish for the fifteen dogs. That should see them through.
Fitzgerald enjoyed the excitement of a sled journey; it made a change from the sometimes tedious routine of police work at the isolated post. “Hurrah, lads, we’re off!” he shouted, and the three sleds sped away.
The trip started badly. The trail along the Peel River was unbroken by previous travelers and the snow was deep. Mist along the river transformed the landscape into a thick amorphous whiteness, and froze on the men’s clothes and faces, glueing their eyes half shut. In these difficult conditions Carter missed the turn off for the shortcut from the Peel over the flank of the Caribou Born Mountain to the Wind River. It was only thanks to a chance meeting with a Loucheux band that they discovered the mistake. They’d gone miles off route, and hard miles too, and lost a good two-three days. Fitzgerald hired one of the natives to guide them back to their route.
The mountainous terrain and heavy snow made for slow going. Even with the guide, they averaged only twelve miles a day. That was not good enough, not if they were to reach Dawson before supplies ran out.
When they reached the Wind River on their twelfth day from McPherson, Fitzgerald paid off the Loucheux. Carter was sure of the way from here.
Now that they were off the mountain, they’d make better time, Fitzgerald figured.
But travel conditions along the Wind were no better than on the mountain. The temperature seldom rose above fifty below. The snow was deep and soft, the river ice was blocked with piles of driftwood from autumn flooding so thick they had to hack their way through with axes, or else move up on to the banks and cut their way through brush. Their daily mileage decreased instead of increasing. In seven days they covered only seventy miles.
So it was that on their nineteenth day on the trail, when they should have been on the home stretch, they were less than half way to Dawson.
Fitzgerald’s doubts began.
Could they cover the remaining two hundred and fifty-five miles in eleven days? Ought they to return to McPherson to re-supply?
Fitzgerald hated the thought of retreat. The men would be disappointed, humiliated. What fools they’d look turning up at McPherson, tails between their legs, saying: it was too cold, the snow was too deep, we got lost, we couldn’t get through.
A cold spell like this one seldom lasted long. It must get warmer soon. Then they could make up for lost time. And now at least they knew where they were
Fitzgerald tapped the ashes out of his pipe. He’d see how things looked in the morning, make his decision then.
The morning dawned fine. Doubts of the night before vanished as the temperature climbed to twenty-two below, ideal for sledding. The dogs ran well. The sled runners sang on the crisp snow and the men’s snowshoes swished in rhythm, each step sending up a little puff of snow. Fitzgerald trotted along easily. At this rate they’d be in Dawson in ten or twelve days. They might get down to tight rations towards the end, but what was a day or two of hunger to the hardened men and dogs of the Northwest Mounted?
By dusk they’d made sixteen miles.
“Now we’re sledding” the elated men told each other as they worked through the routine of setting up camp: tying the dogs and feeding them, collecting firewood, hacking ice from the river to melt for water, cooking their meal.
The next day, despite a strong head wind and deep snow, they made fifteen miles.
But on the following day, the weather turned against them again. It was too warm. Men, dogs, and sleds sank in snow that stuck to runners, matted itself in icy clumps in the dogs’ paws, clung to the men’s snowshoes. They made only nine miles.
Again that night the thought of turning back came to Fitzgerald. The dogs were tired and thin; two had bleeding paws. They needed a day’s resting up and feeding. But that was out of the question with only eight days’ food left. It now looked pretty much certain that they’d run out of food this side of Dawson.
Unless – and there was a good chance of this – they met some Indian band up past Forrest Creek, or prospectors or trappers from whom they could buy food. They themselves might find game. With any kind of luck they’d get through.
Anyway, considering distances and terrain, it would take about as long to get back to McPherson as to reach Dawson from here.
They went on.
After a morning of trudging through sticky snow and skirting overflow water from the warm springs along the Little Wind River, they took a long nooning while Carter went ahead to scout for Forrest Creek.
He didn’t find it.
“Could we have passed it already?” Fitzgerald asked.
“Impossible!” Carter said. “I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled all along.”
By dusk Fitzgerald was almost certain they must have passed the creek. He should never have paid off that Loucheux guide when he did. The Loucheux never got lost. They knew this country better than any white man ever could. Carter was a good fellow, willing enough, but no damned use as a guide. He’d got them lost once and now it looked as though he’d done it again. He went on searching till the very last of the light, poor man, only to come back and confess, “You’re right. We must have passed it.”
The next day was Friday the thirteenth and truly an unlucky day. They followed the creek Carter guessed was most likely to be the Forrest, but it wasn’t. They had to trek back to the river and camp. Another day lost.
And the next day a gale blew so fierce they could not move. Their situation was now perilous. Fitzgerald put a brave face on it. “We’ll rest up today,” he announced, as if that had been part of the plan all along. Around their campfire, he told stories of narrow escapes he’d had in his eventful life. He’d come though the Boer War’s bloody battles without a scratch. He’d faced starvation on other patrols, survived a drenching among ice floes, been lost in a blizzard. Yes, he’d found his way through many a tight fix all right, for hadn’t he the luck of the Irish in him? They’d see this jaunt through.
He spoke cheerfully, but his thoughts were sombre. If this gale continued, they were goners for sure. With hindsight, he now knew, he should have ordered a turnaround back when the doubts first came to him. At the time, though, he’d done what he thought best; he’d had his reasons for going on. And now what could he do but go on further? Once they got past Forrest Creek, the terrain would be easier, the route clearer, more-travelled, and it ran through good game country too. Surely they’d meet up with some party there who could help them out.
The next day the men separated and beat up and down the river looking for the elusive creek. There were so many creeks. Which one was Forrest? What distinguished it from the others? They guessed twice, and both times they guessed wrong.
Men and dogs were exhausted. They had food for only two days. “My last hope is gone,” Fitzgerald wrote in his diary. “We have now been a week looking for a river to take us over the divide, but there are dozens of rivers and I am at a loss.”
On January eighteenth he gave the order: “We turn back.” That night he shot the first of the dogs and fed it to the others, who would not eat it.
On January nineteenth they made nineteen miles and killed the second dog. This one the other dogs ate.
On January twentieth another gale kept them stormbound.
Luck veers like the wind, Fitzgerald mused as the four men huddled hungry by the fire, waiting for better weather and a change in their luck. You can see the change of wind in the trees; you can feel it on your face. But how can you tell the direction luck is tending? You go along thinking things may look grim, but with any kind of luck you’ll get through. You expect to, really, till the times comes when you know it’ll take a lot more than ‘any kind of luck’ to get you through; it’ll take a whole miraculous, impossible sledge load of blessings. When was the moment on this journey when the balance shifted? Was there a stir in the air, a sign in the sky?
And even if there had been, Fitzgerald thought, he probably wouldn’t have acted any differently. He and his men would still have believed in the braver course of going on. Even now they believed in the chance that they’d make it back to McPherson alive. They might do, if this storm ever ended. If the weather was kinder to them. If they met up with those Loucheux again.
Next morning he rallied the men. They had to keep moving. They ate the last of the flour and bacon and went on.
For twenty days more they mushed back towards McPherson through cold and snow such as Fitzgerald had never known in all his northern winters. Every day they, and the dogs, grew weaker. They cached one sled and tent. Their diet now was dog meat and boiled rawhide and tea. Their hands and feet were swollen and black with frostbite, the skin peeling off. They went on.
On February fifth, they reached the Peel River. The rugged mountain terrain, the hardest part of the route, was behind them. McPherson was only seventy miles ahead. With luck, they might yet make it.
On February tenth, Kinney and Taylor could go no farther. Fitzgerald and Carter left them in camp with a stew of rawhide strips and plenty of firewood. “We’ll send help from McPherson,” Fitzgerald promised. “Hold on. Stay warm.” He and Carter cached everything, even the precious mail and dispatch bag, and staggered off on snowshoes, carrying only blankets and the last scraps of meat from the last of the dogs.
At their second camp, Carter died. Fitzgerald covered the corpse. He wondered if Kinney and Taylor were still alive. He prayed he would be able to get help to them in time. It wasn’t far to McPherson. Surely he’d make it. He’d just take a little rest here, and then move on.
In March a search party from Dawson found Kinney’s and Taylor’s bodies beside their rawhide stew. Farther on, only twenty-five miles from McPherson, they found Carter’s body, laid out, hands folded, and beside the remains of that last campfire, Fitzgerald’s, as if asleep.
Katharine O’Flynn lives in Montreal. Although she hates winter, snow and ice, she loves to read (and write) about Arctic and Antarctic adventures. Her work has appeared online in Commuter.Lit, The Copperfield Review, and Arctica Magazine, and in print journals such as The Nashwaak Review and Kalliope.