Legendary Wilderness Adventures in British Columbia & Yukon
For generations, humans have gathered around the campfire to seek warmth and comfort from the elements, for social interaction, and for safety. It remains a welcome vestige for camping expeditions. After a day of paddling or hiking, participants look forward to sitting around a campfire, sharing warmth, nursing tired muscles, eating, being introspective, and sharing stories from the day or life’s experiences. Here are some of my favourite characters or historical stories from individual trips or the areas I’ve guided in over the last 25 years.
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Lost Patrol: Discovery of Their Fate
On On the 21st of December in 1910 an RCMP patrol left Ft. Mcpherson to bring the mail to Dawson City in the Yukon in the middle of winter. Four NWMP constables in three dog teams did not reach Dawson as was anticipated and their disappearance was a mystery. What happened to them?
Superintendent Snyder assembled a party, which would be required to investigate the disappearance of the Fitzgerald patrol. He brought in Corporal W.J.D Dempster, an experienced trailman who had been over this route several times. His report also notified the Commissioner that the patrol was leaving Dawson on Feb 28, 1911 and was composed of the following: Reg. No 3193 Cpl. Dempster, W.J.D (in charge); Reg. No. 4937 Cst. Fyfe, J. F.; ex-Cst. Turner, F.; and Indian Charles Stewart.
The following is the report prepared and submitted by Cpl Dempster to his superiors on April 17, 1911:
I left Dawson at 1p.m. on February 28, accompanied by Reg. No 4937, Const. Fyfe, J. F.; ex-Const. F. Turner and Indian Charles Stewart, with three dog teams of five dogs each. Reg. No 4847, Const Brackett, R. with team accompanied me as far as Power Plant some 48 miles from Dawson, hauling the heavier part of our outfit, thus giving our dogs a chance to get into condition before commencing the harder part of the journey. After arrival at the Power Plant, on the Twelve Mile river, we loaded our toboggans, and made an early star on the morning of Mar 2, and followed the usual route.
Expedition leader – Inspector Francis Joseph Fitzgerald
On March 12, we struck an old trail on the Little Wind River, about 12 of 15 miles from its muth. We could only see this trail in places over the bars, as the river was flooding and obliterating it. We could pick up in placed between this point and the mouth of the river. I could not determine whether this was inspector Fitzgerald’s trail or not, as it was possible it might have been an old Indian trail. I figured that if this was Inspector Fitzgerald’s trail he must have turned back, as at one point, some distance above, where the river is narrow and there is three mile portage, I saw no sign of the trail, and again had he gone up the Little Wind and missed Forrest creek, and crossed the divide by any other creek leading to the westward out of the Little Wind, it would bring him to the Hart river, where he would strike an Indian camp or an Indian trail, as there were Indians camped at different points on the Hart River.
I continued on down the Little Wind, picking up the trail and losing it again, and saw no sign of a camp. At the mouth of the Little Wind I could see no sign of the trail, and thinking it possible that he made a mistake and gone up the Big Wind, I left Fyfe and Turner, and with the Indian Stewart I went up the Big Wind for some distance, crossing and re-crossing the river from bank to bank, searching for some signs of a trail but could find no trace of one, so we returned and the whole party continued on down the Big Wind river. We pulled into some timber to camp for the night, and I came across a night camp which had, in all probability, been made by the missing party. We saw old butter tins, corned beef tins, and a piece of flour sack marked ‘R.N.W.M Police, Fort MacPherson’.
The next morning we followed their trail from this point, and had been travelling about two hours and came across another of their night camps. These two camps being so close together, I concluded that the party must have been returning, but for the rest of the day I could find no trace of their trail. The following morning I again picked up their trail, and for the last 20 miles on the Big Wind we were able to keep the trail fairly well. We passed what appeared to be three of their night camps, and these were all within 15 miles. The following morning we came across another at ‘Waugh’s Tent,’ and this was about five miles from their last camp. At the mouth of the Big Wind for the distance of about 100 yards the snow was blown off the ice, leaving the old trail hard and standing high off the ice, and on this trail we could distinctly see the imprint of snowshoes heading down river.
On the following morning, March 16, in a little cabin about six miles up Mountain creek, we found cached a tobogan, wrapper, and several sets of dog-harness, and on searching about I found the paws of a dog and shoulder blade, from which I could see the meat had been cooked and eaten.
Although everything along the Big Wind river seemed to indicate that the party had returned to MacPherson, this discovery was the first postitive proof that they had turned back, and also that they were short of provisions. Even at this time I could not bring myself to believe that they had been compelled to eat their dogs, as I found a very small quantity of dried fish in a corner of the cabin above mentioned, which indicated that they still had dried fish with them, and I felt confident that the party had returned to MacPherson in safety.
In crossing the Big Portage we saw little signs of them; we were able to folllow their trail with difficulty. We saw an occasional camp, but nothing to show that it was one of their camps.
On the evening of March 20 we arrived at a cabin known as ‘Colin’s Cabin,’ between 50 and 60 miles from MacPherson. This cabin is situated on a high bank, and I could see no trail leading up to it, but as it was getting dark I decided to pull up to it and camp. In this cabin I saw a couple of packages on a beam, and I remarked, ‘I wonder that old Colin has each up there.’ Stewart, the Indian, said he would pull it down and see, and we then discovered the dispatch bag and a bag of mail. I took possession of and took on to the fort.
Even with this discovery I did not think that any untoward accident had occurred to the party, but thought it strange that they had not sent back for it. I thought the party had been somewhat hard pressed and put of everything possible to make their load light, with the intention of patrolling back again for their cache. I thought that after finding the seven sets of dog harness they still had two teams of four dogs each.
The following morning, about ten miles from this cabin, on the Seven Mile Portage, I found a tent and stove alongside the trail. There were also tent poles, and a plate and thermometer. I could find nothing else here, so proceeded on for about ten miles when I found a toboggan and two sets of dog harness out on the river, some 100 yards from the bank. I noticed that the rawhide ground lashing had all been cut off. Tied to a willow on the bank was a blue handkerchief, the trail leading towards it. I went over and climbed the bank, and back through a fringe of willows into the timber, and here I found a small open camp and I found two bodies, one of whom I recognized as that of Constable Kinney, and I believed the other to be that of Constable Taylor, which belief was afterwards confirmed.
Constable Taylor had evidently committed suicide by blowing off the top of his head with a 30-30 which he still grasped in his left hand. Both men lay in bed side by side. A fire had been at their feet; each lay on his back; they had three Alaska sleeping bags, one under and two over them; there was a frying pan, camp kettle, a small tin with a few matches in it, an axe a with a broken handle, axe being very blunt. The camp kettle was half full of moose skin, which had been cut up in small pieces and appeared to have been boiled. Beneath the robe on which they lay was a gunnysack containing Inspr. Fitgerald’s diary, some old socks, duff lies and moccasins, also a notebook belonging to Constable Kinney. Three was also a pocket barometer which had been borrowed from Mr. Campbell at Red river. This was found out afterwards.
On Constable Kinney’s person was found a cheap watch and chain; on Constable Talyor’s person was found a small beadwork fire-bag containing $32.00 Constable Kinney’s right foot was bare and the toes had been badly frozen, and one toe appeared to have been cut. We cut some brush and covered the bodies and proceeded on towards the Fort, as I now concluded that Inspr. Fitzgerald and Special Constable Carter had left these two men in a desperate effort to reach the Fort and would be found some-where between this point and MacPherson.
On the following morning about ten miles further down the river a trail appeared to lead towards the bank, and while felling for the trail we kicked up a pair of snowshoes. We then climbed up the bank and a little way back in the woods we found the bodies of Inspector Fizgerald and Special Constable Carter. This was Wednesday the 22nd of March. Carter had evidently died first, as he was lying on his back with his hands crossed over his breast and a handkerchief over his face crossed over his breast and a handkerchief over his face. He appeared to have been drawn from 10 of 15 feet from the fire. Inspector Fitzgerald was lying on his back on the place where the fire had been burning, his left hand on his breast. The right lying almost parallel with the body but slightly extended outwards. Two half-blankets were wrapped around him. A kettle and cup and a blunt axe with a broken handle were near him. There had been a little tramping around, caused, I suppose, by getting firewood. No effort of any kind had been made in making any kind of camp.
On the body of Inspector Fitzgerald I discovered a gold watch in a little sack suspended around his neck. On Carter’s body I found a Department of fisheries and Marine cheque for $50. and $7 in cash. His toes appeared to have been frozen and his fingers were bandaged. The bodies of all four were in a terrible emancipated condition; the stomach of each was flattened almost to the backbone, the lower ribs and hipbones showing very prominently. After the clothing had been cut off, I do not think either of them weighed a hundred pounds.
Constable Kinney’s feet were swollen to almost twice their natural size: Inspector Fitzgerald’s feet were also very much swollen.
The flesh of each man was very much discoloured, being a reddish-black, and the skin was peeling off. They had put on all the clothing they had with them, each had on two suits of underwear, and the usual outer clothing.
We covered the bodies of Inspector Fizgerald and Carter with bush, and proceeded on to MacPherson where we arrived on the night of March 22, about six o’clock, and gave the police there the first intimation they had of any accident.
The following morning, March 23, Corpl. Somers and Const. Blake rustled three dog teams, as the police at that point had no dogs left, and at noon Corpl. Somers with two Indians left the scene of the tragedy, returning on March 25 with the four bodies, which were laid out in the church at MacPherson. On Monday the 27th, Corpl. Somers started making coffins and this work was completed on the 28th. I assisted him in covering them with black cloth, and the funeral of all four was held on the afternoon of the same date, i.e. March 28, the four being buried in one grave side by side. The funeral service was read by Rev. C.E. Whittaker, church of England Missionary at that point. A firing party of five men fired the usual volleys over the remains of our departed comrades, and even through the funeral was held in the most northern part of the empire, away in the Artic Circle, hundreds of miles from civilization, I am glad to be able to assure you that everything was done in connection with the last sad rites that could possibly be done under the circumstances, and I am sure that the relatives and friends of each deceased will be glad to know that it was possible to have Christian burial services read by an ordained minister of their loved ones.
The grave was left open, and corp. Somers is to obtain a copper kettle and cut out the names of each man and attach it to the coffin, so that each can be identified.
The money, valuables, etc., found on the bodies of the men I turned over to Corpl. Somers, but the dispatch bag, mail, watches, money in dispatch bag, returns etc., I brought to Dawson with me and turned same over to the officer commanding.
The object of the relief patrol having been successfully accomplished, my party left MacPherson, on our return trip to Dawson, on March 30, arriving at the Power Plant on the Twelve Mile on the morning of April 16, and I tried to get the Dawson office of the Yukon Gold Company but was unable to do so, but I left word with the man in charge that if he could get Dawson, to send word to the officer commanding as to the result of the patrol.
I arrived in Dawson on the morning of the 17th, a team and sleigh having been sent down river to meet me. The balance of the patrol arrived on the afternoon of the same date, all in good health, and the dogs in very good condition. The eyes of each man of my party were quite sore from the effects of the sun and snow, and several of the dogs had sore feet. Nothing of special note occurred on the return trip.
In conclusion, I feel called on to make the following remarks. I saw the list of provisions at MacPherson which the ill-fated party took with them, and was much surprised at the small quantities taken, in fact, I feel certain that the party must have been on short rations long before they turned back.
Under the best possible conditions, without any delay of any kind, I do not think the party had sufficient rations to last them from MacPherson to Dawson, but if they had kept on the right trail they would have got through all right, as they wold have met with several bands of Indians from whom they could have purchased ample supplies of dried meat, fish, etc.
As to their dogs I can say nothing, as all the information I could gather at MacPherson was that they were in fair condition. The Indian Esau, employed by Inspector Fitzgerald, was only employed to guide them over the Big Portage, and was then discharged.
At MacPherson, a will was found on Inspector Fitzgerald’s body, which had evidently been written with a blunt stick of wood a very short time before death. Corpl. Somers will collect and pack up the effects of each of the unfortunate men, and have same in readiness to send to Regina when the steamer calls on the opening of navigation.