Free Lancing in the Air

Even by air, it’s a far cry from the Labrador sealing grounds to a mysterious tropical valley in the wilds of northern British Columbia

C. S. CALDWELL April 1 1927

Free Lancing in the Air

Even by air, it’s a far cry from the Labrador sealing grounds to a mysterious tropical valley in the wilds of northern British Columbia

C. S. CALDWELL April 1 1927

Free Lancing in the Air

Even by air, it’s a far cry from the Labrador sealing grounds to a mysterious tropical valley in the wilds of northern British Columbia




ON RETURNING from the sealing fleet in the spring of 1925, I joined the expedition of a syndicate of United States mining capitalists, for exploration work in the unexplored regions of the Yukon and Northern British Columbia, as assistant pilot-mechanic. Incidentally this was, to the best of my knowledge, the first mineral prospecting party to plan the use of the aeroplane. Colonel Williams, who was in charge of aerial transport and I appreciated quite keenly that the territory to be flown over was isolated, largely unexplored, and but very inaccurately mapped, and realized the hazards and difficulties of such an expedition as we were setting out upon. We dug up all the available data on the country but this was painfully fragmentary and it left us little better off. The machine we were to fly, a Vickers Viking amphibian, was shipped by rail from Three Rivers, Quebec, to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, ready, with the plane assembled, to commence our air trip on June 1. Altogether we made up a party of nine.

We flew from Prince Rupert to Wrangell Island where we refuelled, thence directly over the coast range by way of the Stikine Valley, and on to Telegraph Creek. It was a route of exquisite wild loveliness, as we sailed over glittering glaciers, high white-capped mountain peaks, and saw the ribbons of innumerable rivers winding below. We made a landing on the Stikine River and established camp there to await the breaking up of ice on Dease Lake.

On June 13 word was received that the ice on Dease Lake had broken up and on the following morning we made an early start with the entire outfit, consisting of four men, tents, dogs, and oth r equipment, to fly to our main base which was to be located at the head of Dease Lake. The distance from Telegraph Creek was more than seventy miles over a country absolutely devoid of landing places. A forced landing over this stretch of country would have spelt not only failure to the expedition but in all probability disaster to all of us. We had fortunately no such mishap and the entire miscellany wa transported to the head of Dease Lake in forty-five minutes. Ours was the first machine ever to cross this height of land. An altitude of three thousand feet having been maintained after leaving Telegraph Creek we found we were only five hundred feet above water over Dease Lake, as that body is located twenty-five hundred feet above sea level. After having ascended three thousand feet on the take-off we had to descend only five hundred feet to land.

“Flies Like a Duck and Lands Like a Goose”

/^\UR first trip from Dease Lake was down the Dease River as far as McDames, where there is a Hudson Bay post and where a couple of mining companies are engaged in dredging operations. This distance of ninety miles took us just fifty minutes. We found it quite impossible to convince the Indians of this as it took them one week to make the return trip. They plainly regarded the machine as something diabolical and could not be induced to approach closer than three hundred yards, while they seemed to believe there was something supernatural about us. “It flies like a duck and lands like a goose.” one observing Indian put it. It was the sole topic of the tribes and fresh Indians came in from miles every day to view it. The younger set for long periods sedulously practiced the roar of the engine and with their arms imitated the movements of the plane in turning and banking, evidently in order to be able to take back an accurate and convincing story to their brethern in the bush.

While at McDames we chartered a large scow capable of carrying five tons of supplies and had the Indians bring it up to the head of Dease Lake, where it was loaded with gasoline, supplies, and equipment and sent down the river to Liard Post, located at the junction of the Dease and Liard Rivers. The trip by scow took twenty days. We did it by plane in just under three hours.

Our arrival at Liard caused excitement enough, the Indians collecting on the river bank very much alarmed. One particularly wild-looking fellow immediately started in a panic for the bush, but as we circled preparing to land, the shadow of our machine intercepted his flight. Terrified, he turned, deciding the river was his safest retreat, and made for it. Just as he got to the bank, however, he realized we were landing there and frenziedly turned again and plunged terror-stricken into the bush.

He lay hidden there for some while before slinking forth to secure his pail, rifle, and dog, and set about the construction of a rude raft. That evening he set out on a four hundred mile journey to Nelson to tell the big chief of the fearsome thing which had arrived. I still wonder what happened to him.

While the scow was en route, we transported the prospectors by air to various locations. Considering all conditions and the difficulties a forced landing would have put us in, it was not the safest kind of flying to indulge in.

The scow eventually arrived on July 11 and the two redmen who had brought it down intended returning on foot, a matter of five days and nights travel. As we were going back to Dease Lake and had to pass the Indian camp we invited them to go along. At first they would not consider it at all and so strong was their reluctance and so amusing to us the attitude of these two Indians who had piloted the clumsy scow down all manner of rough water that we decided to persuade them to fly if we could. It was hard work.

“No, me weak heart. You big man. You strong heart.”

We at length managed to overcome this objection. Then it was “Me got dogs. No can take the air.”

“Sure we can take them,” I said. With excuses running out, they began to look shamefaced, and we summarily bundled them into the plane.

We had seated them and got as far as putting helmets on their heads and cottonwool in their ears when the nose of one of the two began to bleed profusely. This was regarded as a very bad omen indeed and the trip was nearly off. However, more persuasive eloquence and copious cold water poured down the back of the neck stopped the bleeding, and losing no more time we took off.

These two Indians would have thought nothing of running rapids with a few poles lashed together with moose hide strings, but the plane plainly had them terror-stricken. As soon as we left the water their heads disappeared beneath the cockpit and they did not show again until after we had landed fifty minutes later. It would have taken them five days to cover the distance on foot. I will never forget their expressions as they tried to realize the distance they had come. Yet greater, if possible, was the wonder and bewilderment of their friends who had congregated upon the bank to see the big bird land as they saw two of their own people emerge from the bowels of the monster. I am sure they would either be made chiefs next day or killed as wizards.

Finishing Year’s Job in a Day

ON THE evening of July 5 we picked up the prospectors at French Creek, which runs into Dease River some forty-five miles from Liard Post, and flew them to Liard. As the machine approached this post for the first time the whole population, Hudson’s Bay factor and Indians gathered on the river bank trying to solve the strange noise. Finally they spotted the big bird coming straight for them a couple of thousand feet in the air. The Hudson’s Bay man, so we discovered later, thinking the machine was going to pass and get lost, instructed the natives to get their guns and fire a fusilade, imagining that the reports would be heard by us. We knew nothing about this, but a few hours after landing discovered considerable water in the hull of the machine, and on investigation found a fountain shooting up at the bottom just at the rear of the gas tanks. The fact that the hole was clean, and most suggestively about the size of a 30.30 bullet, caused us to make inquiries and we were informed about the shooting. Little damage was done though it is difficult to say what might have happened had the gas tanks been pierced.

When camp was established here at Liard Post, exploration work was carried out in many sections. The prospectors were amazed and gratified at the marvellous manner in which aerial transport speeded up their work. On one occasion in one day we transported seven men, with sufficient supplies to last a month, including tents and mining equipment, a distance of two hundred miles over country quite unmarked by trails and without any sign of human habitation. The first men were landed at this point and after cooking breakfast were actually working a couple of miles up the creek by 8.30 a.m When the operation was ompleted the whole party was returned to the main bas > in one day. By any other means of transportation, such an expedition, if not altogether impossible, would have taken at least a year.

On the evening of August 17 we departed from the head of Dease Lake and flew to Frances Lake, a distance of three hundred and ten miles, and about one hundred and thirty miles north of the Yukon-British Columbia boundary. There was no sign of human life, white or Indian, here at all, though at an old abandoned Hudson Bay fort on Frances Lake there were several deserted log cabins and a few old caches. My outstanding recollection of that night is of the wolves. They seemed to be everywhere and kept up an incessant howling all night. We did not see them but their unquestionable presence in such numbers was slightly uncomfortable

The game of that sparsely inhabited country is unbelievable. The lakes and rivers teem with the finest fish which in addition to being an important article of our diet furnished us with superb sport. Flying over the country it was a common sight to see moose, sometimes as many as a dozen at a time, standing at the shore line of small lakes. Sailing along close to the mountains, cariboo, goat, grizzly bear and other animals could be seen at almost any time. Sometime it will be a wonderful sporting country. On one occasion I saw a pure white moose. Another time when I was fishing I saw a big moose and called to Col. Williams to come and see it as he was practising on a bannock. As he did not come immediately I went to see why and discovered he had been intercepted by a bear with two cubs which he was busily bluffing. Luckily his bluff wasn’t called.

The Fabled ‘Tropical Valley’

'T'HE last place we visited before coming out was the *■ fabled Tropical Valley’, colored and exaggerated press accounts of which have been so sceptically received. We had heard vague accounts of the valley while at Liard Post, based mainly upon the meagre information of Indians, and also about a prospector and trapper, Tom Smith, and his daughter who had wandered overland from the Yukon, had gone into that region two years before and had not been seen or heard from since. We decided to make a trip to see if the valley really existed and if possible to get trace of the missing pair.

We knew that the mysterious region was approximately two hundred miles from the post and accordingly took off and followed the course of the river, which is punctuated with frequent terrifying rapids. We had flown what we judged to be approximately the distance when we reached a region of peculiar looking lakes. We thought them peculiar but there was perhaps nothing unusual about their aspect. They were striking to us since there were no other similar bodies in the country for some considerable distance in any direction. Deciding this must be the place we made a landing on the river and tied up to a sandbar. With the machine secure we tarted out to scout.

Almost immediately we struck a trail, faint and apparently not used for a long while, but unmistakably a trail. We followed this for about four hundred yards from the river and then surprisingly encountered a board nailed across a tree. Upon the piece of wood painted in rude characters were the words ‘A.B.C. Code’ followed by a jumble of figures and signed Tom Smith. It baffled us for a little while but finally the combined wits of the party deciphered it and spelt out the words ‘Message in bottle at foot of tree.’

We dug at the bottom of the tree and just below the surface struck a bottle which upon opening was found to contain two sheets of paper covered with very legible handwriting. I cannot remember the exact wording of the message, but it started off, To any white man finding this message,’ and went on to the effect that by following the trail back for two miles a cabin would be found near the first hot springs and, a short distance beyond, a garden which ‘we have left planted to potatoes and onions.’ By further following the trail, the message continued, the finder would come to a large hot spring overlooking a meadow ‘in which moose are to be found every morning and evening during the summer months’.

The message, signed Tom Smith, concluded by saying that he and his daughter had been living there for two years and seen no white man and were leaving for Fort Simpson which ‘barring trouble with the Indians we

expect to reach in the Sprang.

We progressed up the trail, the atmosphere becoming more torrid and languorous as we advanced. Shortly we reached the first hot spring and just beyond that found the deserted cabin. A little farther away, was the garden, rank and overgrown. From here we started out to explore a limited area of the valley which appeared to be about ten miles square in extent.

Hot springs sprang from the ground all over. Some of them just bubbled up and ran straight away. Others formed the pools of varying dimensions we had seen from the air. The rich and luxuriant growth and fohage was distinctly suggestive of a tropical region. Ferns grew to an enormous height and size, and vines spread all w ays in a tangled mesh. Berries of many kinds were growing in profusion and of an extraordinary size. Flattened patches indicated where bears came in to dine. About many of the little boiling lakes were large patches of pu: pie violets of a size and beauty I had never befen e know n. Much of the growth was unfamiliar to me and such as I had known in other parts of Canada was of an extraordinary lavishness and production. I was brought up in Alabama and nothing has ever so reminded me of that southern state

We stayed two days and then flew back to Liard. Later when flying cut we reported what we had found to the Mounted Police at P'ort Simpson. They told us the rest of story of Tom Smith and his daughter. Coming down the river in a canoe, the craft had capsized in the rapids. The girl had been taken down the river and sw'ept up unconscious on a sandbar. When she came to her senses there was no trace of her father. She had made her way to Fort Simpson and was working for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

With the summer’s work completed we returned to Liard post and left there on the morning of August 28, landing at noon of the same day at Wi angelí, Alaska. From there we proceeded to our starting point, Prince Rupert in British Columbia, covering the distance of over four hundred miles in a little over four hcuis, arriving on August 31. Thus was successfully teiminated the first aerial mining exploration trip in the history of aeronautics and what I think was one of the most striking aircraft operations over isolated country ever carried out without a hitch.

After a winter spent in the comfort of the city with adequate opportunity to become completely surfeited with the things of civilization I was again offered the position of airman to the sealing fleet and quite readily accepted. On March 5, 1926, I sailed out again with the fleet from St. John’s, this time with somewhat greater zest by reason of my experience the previous summer and the more valuable knowledge I felt I had acquired. Northward the sturdy little ships steamed, making a difficult and hazardous way among the ice flees, at times having to blast an ice field apart when progress was altogether barred. At such times the entire crew was landed upon the ice and at the end of a cable: the ship was rocked slowly through the narrow channel made. Seven days the fleet made its few miles a day northward before the look-out on our vessel, with eye glued to telescope, spied a solitary real.

It was taken to be merely a stray animal drifted far away frem the main patches. The sealer captains were of the unanimous opinion that they were yet much too far south to be in the neighborhood of seals. They were all for continuing north. It was a beautiful flying day, however, and I asked the captain to let me make a flight. To this he consented after some importuning. The ship was moved to an ice floe, and the plane landed, and after tuning up I was off. I was away only half an hour from the ship but in that time located a floe approximately thirty-two miles square with seals over its whole extent. I got back shortly after noon with this report, and the other vessels were wirelessed and by evening all had come up to the vicinity.

Killing could not lawfully commence for two days more and, as if to guard against an over anxiety to seize the prize within grasp, a howling, blinding blizzard set up. It raged unre mittingly for two days and drifted the vessels with the floes some fifty miles. On the night of the second day it subsided and the dawn of the thirteenth broke clear. With the first streak of light showing in the sky the crews of the various vessels, numbering about one hundred and sixty men to each ship, were cut upon the ice and making their way toward the seals. The work of slaughter commenced. On the crews went, collecting the skins in pans, marking them with the owner’s flag, until the patches were exhausted, and a return was made to the vessel, picking up the pans en route and dragging them behind.

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Under ordinary circumstances the vessels would now have had to start out roaming again among the ice floes until other patches were located, quite largely a matter of luck, and at best but a very slow and perilous process. After the success of the first flight, however, the captain was quite prepared to let me make a second one, and on March 161 took to the air again. On this flight I discovered very speedily a large patch of seals but a few miles away from the ship, but with a good deal of very difficult ice intervening. In half an hour I was back and reporting this. My observation was valuable in pointing out the best way to get through the ice, and the vessel carrying the plane was in consequence able to reach the seals much sooner than the other vessels wirelessed.

As a matter of fact I made another flight the same day in response to a call for assistance from two vessels which, in endeavoring to come up, had become jammed in the ice. Naturally, the captains were annoyed at being unable to approach the patch and share in the catch. The flight I made was responsible for putting them in touch with another large patch of seals but a few miles from them, of which they had not the least suspicion. They proceeded to the hunt immediately and filled up as rapidly as the others.

These patches were in turn exhausted and there still being space available there was no hesitation about ordering another flight. On March 24, I went up for the fourth time and discovered another large patch of seals and directed the vessel toward it. Days might otherwise have been spent in locating this floe if, indeed, it had not been missed altogether. Working this patch filled the vessel I was on to capacity with oil and skins and we set out to return to St. John’s with what was almost the record catch for an individual vessel in the history of Newfoundland sealing. Not for many years, I discovered later, had the fleet’s aggregate for 1926 been eoualled.

Searching Out ‘The Blind Spot’ of Canada

T RETURNED from the sealing expedi-

tion just in time to join another mining expedition instituted by an Alberta syndicate, this time into the Northwest Territories. The party consisted of five, including two mining engineers. I was engaged as pilot. There was also with us an assistant pilot-mechanic. We shipped the machine, the same Vickers Amphibian, to Edmonton and thence to Lac la Biche in Northern Alberta, where it was assembled. From Lac la Biche we flew to Fort Fitzgerald, and from there we set out for a point four hundred miles north-east where we planned to establish our main base. We were unable to make this in one flight, however, and so accomplished it in stages. Two intermediate camps and caches were made, about one hundred and fifty miles apart. We stayed for from a week to two weeks at each, flying the mining engineers out to make prospecting expeditions.

It was a novel enterprise and not without its hazards from a flying point of view. North of Fort Fitzgerald there was no one in the country, not even Indians, and apparently there had been no one there for at least twenty-five years. Meat drying racks we found were at least that old. Farther north we got into that region which has been aptly termed ‘The Blind Spot of Canada’, an immense, desolate stretch of badlands, bald, rolling barrens, with scrub timber periodically occurring. No maps exist of the area and we were able to determine our position only from the sun and the stars. We passed over literally hundreds of lakes and rivers that are as yet uncharted, and in flying from one cache to another these were our only guides.

Having established the main base we spent the entire summer in transporting supplies from the two caches behind us and in making radial prospecting trips, all of which we completed without mishap of any kind. The engineers seemed to be entirely satisfied with their work and brought back heaps of ore samples. While the care of the plane and the maintenance of an adequate supply of gasoline kept us pretty busy, there was time for considerable entertainment. Except for the mosquitoes, which were numerous and voracious, there was no drawback to life in this isolation, completely cut off from the rest of the world.

The resources of this country, even the tithe of them that is known, are immense. The previously unknown lakes teem with the most edible fish. Some day they will have a high sporting as well as commercial value. As we penetrated farther north we encountered herds of thousands of cariboo and flying at a height of two thousand feet the innumerable trails of these animals spread like a mesh over the bleak surface of the barrens. The cariboo constitute the principal sustenance for the Indians and such white trappers as penetrate the area in search of furs. To them the still unexplained migration of these animals is more than disturbing.

On our way out with the summer’s work completed we were forced to make a landing on a lake about one hundred miles from Fort Fitzgerald, and while here waiting for the weather to clear two Indians of the cariboo eaters paddled out to where we were camped and inquired in part English and part French whence we had come. We replied from the barrenlands, or the Land of No Sticks, as they call it, and this amazed them. They were immediately eager to know if we had seen any cariboo and when we replied in the affirmative they were greatly pleased as this meant ‘plenty meat’ for the winter.

One of them was anxious to send a note to some friends at Fort Fitzgerald and asked if we would deliver it. We replied that we would be only too glad and he produced a notebook and with much laborious effort which brought beads of perspiration to his brow he penned a queer geometric note. After its slow completion he handed it to me with a dollar bill. I declined it and asked him how long it would take him to go to Fort Fitzgerald himself, and he replied: “Long time. Lots of portages. Mebbe one month.” When I told him we could get to the fort in under an hour the pair were dumbfounded and incredulous, one of them saying “Far, far, very far; no not far,” evidently intending to convey that what was a long distance to them was nothing to us.

The next day we found the weather sufficiently clear to permit us to resume our way and reach Fort Fitzgerald. From there we flew to the government aerodrome at High River Alberta, after passing over Edmonton. In all we covered about seven thousand miles without trouble or mishap. The staunch little Amphibian is hibernating while I am tasting the things of civilization again.

I have a little time to reflect and certainly there seems to have been a lot crowded into the last four years. But each experience merely whets the appetite for more. Soon the spring will be round again and the Red Gods beckoning back to the romantic and adventurous life of a free lance airman.