Penetrating the Barren Lands and finding lost mountain ranges is all in the day's work for the pilot-pioneer
CLARE WARD FARRELL
THE exploit of Captain H. A. Oaks, of Toronto and Winnipeg, in exploring during the past summer the trackless wilderness of the North-west Territories lying between the Mackenzie River Basin and the Yukon, marks a great forward step in aviation—in the development of Canada and in his own remarkable career.
Captain Oaks, who is director of aerial operations of the Northern Aerial Minerals Exploration Company, was one of the first to enter the field of winter flying, proving its feasibility and efficiency in the face of great hardship and often discouragement; and now he has led the way in prospecting and exploring the far-away silent places of the north by airplane, and of bringing these hitherto almost inaccessible areas within a few days—nay, a few hours—flight of the great industrial centres of Canada.
This intrepid flyer not only took engineers and prospectors hundreds of miles from civilization to search for minerals, but during less than two months’ time he explored a nameless range of mountains lying between the Mackenzie River and Rocky Mountains, mapped and photographed the vast uninhabited lands lying between Fort Simpson and his objective in these unknown mountains, established camps and caches throughout the territory, and otherwise completed the preliminaries for concentrated mining exploration in that district next year.
In addition to all that, he proved even to the “diehards” who consider aviation a dangerous luxury, the dependability of the airplane when in the hands of competent pilots assisted by equally competent mechanics.
Considering the state of mind of the average citizen, in spite of the great development of “air consciousness” during the last year, this is no inconsiderable part of Captain Oaks’ achievement.
McLeod’s El Dorado
rT'HE flight had its inception in the story of a lost gold mine.
The tale, surpassing fiction in its romantic possibilities, came from Charles McLeod, of Edmonton.
Following the famous rush to the
Yukon, McLeod said, he and his three brothers had penetrated into this great hinterland, searching for gold. They made a rich strike in a nameless, unmapped range of mountains near the northern border of British Columbia. They erected a cabin at the mouth of a canyon near their mine, and began to develop their “strike”. One day, however, when Charles returned to the camp, he found his three brothers gruesomely murdered. There was no clue as to the perpetrators of the ghastly crime and Charles, appalled and fearing a similar fate, fled for his life, finally reaching civilization in safety.
These events all happened in the year 1903.
Though he did not attempt to go to his gold mine again, McLeod always mourned the lost riches, and hoped some day to return and perhaps develop the mine. Learning of the activities of the N.A.M.E. — the Northern Aerial Minerals Exploration Company — he brought his tale to Jack Hammell, president of the organiza-
tion early in the summer, declaring he was certain that he could find the mine again. He described the range of mountains, not charted on any map he had been able to secure, and told of the almost insurmountable difficulty of getting into that territorydifficulties so great that even trappers and Indians seldom venture there, though game and fur animals abound.
Mr. Hammel was interested, and finally determined to search for the McLeod mine. Accordingly, a party was organized and plans made to cross the frontier into this No Man’s Land in August. Caches of gas and oil were established by river scows along the route as far as Fort Simpson where a large supply depot was maintained.
Arrangements were made for a relief plane to accompany Captain Oaks to Fort Simpson, but there was a delay, and the relief plane did not reach the north until a week after the party had left civilization. Instructions were left at each point, however, for the guidance of the relief plane in case of the failure of the exploring party to carry out its plans.
Captain Oaks, in a superUniversal Fokker seaplane, started from New York on July 20 and flew to Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie river by way of Montreal, Sudbury, Winnipeg, The Pas, Fort McMurray, and Fort Resolution. Picking up his party of prospectors at Fort McMurray, he reached Fort Simpson on August 1, and from there “took off” into the unknown. Over desolate, practically uninhabited country, the party held steadily to a north-west course, fully realizing the hazardous nature of their undertaking. If forced to land in the wilderness there would have been no aid within hundreds of miles; the
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relief plane might not be able to find them; they might not survive the long trek to the outer world; but they pushed on into the unknown.
Following the sketchy directions McLeod had given, Captain Oaks watched for the range of mountains. He sighted them without difficulty, though several days were spent in finding the exact location of the lost mine. Great changes had come over the country during the intervening quarter of a century, but “discovery flights” in all directions from a base immediately established on the shore of a lake which the party named “Landing Lake,” enabled McLeod to rediscover his mine. Though the mine itself was not as rich as had been hoped, it provided incentive for the party to continue exploration work both in that country and farther afield over unmapped and entirely unexplored territory, with the ultimate location and staking of satisfactory “prospects.”
The explorers found little indication that white men had ever even passed through the country, and the few halfobliterated traces they did discover were of trappers who had traversed the country thirty to forty years before. They found no trace of recent human habitation, not even of Indians. Anticipating such conditions, the party were prepared for all emergencies. They carried about a month’s rations in the plane, together with axes, rifles and quantities of salt, so that if forced down they could live on the game of the country until rescued by the relief plane, or until they could find their way back to the outposts of civilization on foot. They also carried their own sectional canoes with them into the interior, making their return to civilization doubly safe in case of accident.
'T'HE exploring party included Jack Humble, air engineer in charge; McLeod and three other prospectors, J. Davidson, W. Ridley, and C. Simmons. The latter was nicknamed “Grizzly” on account of his alleged resemblance to a bear. He let his beard grow from the first day out, and being of powerful physique looked more like his nickname implied, every day. Captain Oaks even declares that Grizzly so much resembled his namesake that he was mistaken for one of the family by a small black bear. Grizzly was packing supplies to Ifccation one day, carrying his load with a tumpline and walking in a stooping position, so that he did not notice a black bear sitting in his path. His companion, several yards behind, shouted a warning, but Grizzly either did not hear or de-
clined to heed the call. Thus he almost stepped on the young bear, which even at such close proximity did not seem to realize that Grizzly was a man!
With a startled ejaculation Grizzly leaped back with surprising agility, grabbed his rifle, and fired point blank, twice, at the bear. The bear eyed him for a moment, sniffed, seemed to be very much puzzled, then quite casually ambled away!
The manner in which the prospectors “took” to flying was decidedly amusing, according to Captain Oaks. They were all old Yukoners who had followed “the trail of ’98” with their tump-lines and packs, and had undergone untold hardships in that cruel trek. The airplane was entirely new to them. All were a bit “scarey” about getting into it for the first trip—but after that first flight they were so thoroughly “sold” to the idea it was difficult to get them out!
There was a real reason for their attitude in the nature of the country. Heavy timber and frequent windfalls barred their passage. There wTere lakes to necessitate detours and small streams to cross. But worst of all, the ground was covered with several feet of springy moss which made walking extremely laborious and difficult. The heavy timber was an asset in one respect, however, for there was no difficulty in securing plenty of firewood and logs for camps.
“It’s a great game country,” Captain Oaks reports. “One of the greatest on this continent, I believe. Plenty of moose, caribou, mountain sheep, black and grizzly bears, and silver tips, as well as game fish in abundance—trout and graylings in every stream.”
As soon as the party of prospectors were settled in the base camp at Landing Lake, Captain Oaks flew back to Fort Simpson where he was joined by the relief plane piloted by Captain W. J. McDonough, former British racing pilot, who had followed him north. Together they made several flights into the interior of the country, establishing caches of gas and food at points which seemed convenient for bases in future operations; photographing and mapping the country; and completing preliminary work in several promising areas so that the work can go forward without delay next season.
In addition, several camps were established and it is expected that operations will be started in March next year and continued throughout the spring and summer months.
A Miracle of Speed
TO INDICATE the inaccessibility of the country and the arduous slowness of the usual mode of travel—navigating
] treacherous waters with frail canoes, painfully and wearily plodding afoot over long portages—Captain Oaks told of meeting, on his way out in September, a trapping party which had left Edmonton in May, still slowly pushing on into the wilderness on their way to a good trapping district. These men had traveled by rail to the end of steel, then by river-boat and scows to Fort Simpson from where they had begun their patient march inland. They will spend this winter trapping, and start out with their catches as soon as the ice goes out in the spring, probably not to reach civilization again until next autumn—1929!
Compared to this, the movements of the N.A.M.E. party seem like a miracle. From the time the party left Edmonton until they reached their location in the nameless mountain range on the border of the Yukon, only two weeks had elapsed, and this included the time spent at Fort Simpson arranging the supplies of “grub” and gas. They had traversed nearly 1,500 miles, more than 400 of which was over unbroken, desolate wastes where the foot of man had not trod for decades, if ever.
The party reached Landing Lake on August 5 and on September 16 the little group of prospectors were brought out of the far north to Fort Simpson. Captain Oaks and Captain McDonough then flew straight across the Barren Lands to Churchill where they completed the season’s work at that post before coming into Winnipeg. They arrived in Winnipeg on October 24 with a record of 20,000 miles of flying over country that no aviator has ever before dreamed of daring. If either machine had suffered a mishap on this flight, the pilots would have been doomed to weeks or even months of hardship before aid could reach them. Weather conditions were such that flying was extremely hazardous. In those far northern latitudes summer was already gone, ice and snow were beginning to appear, and landings were very dangerous for machines that were equipped only for summer flying. Discussing the expedition, Captain Oaks said the journey was undoubtedly a success from an explorer’s point of view, though he was not at liberty to speak of the discoveries of the prospectors nor the possibilities the country offers for mineral development. Prospecting by airplane, however, had been proved safe and efficient. All the prospectors had been removed from the field, and both machines returned to Winnipeg without mishap.
This, the second great pioneer achievement of Captain Oaks in the field of aviation, opens the door to unlimited possibilities. It means that the last great frontier on this continent is now open to man’s march of conquest.
Captain Oaks’ first notable contribution to the progress of aviation was in proving that winter flying could be successfully accomplished even under such adverse weather conditions as blinding blizzards and 50-below zero temperatures. For this, and particularly for his services in making possible a test of the harbor at Churchill in mid-winter, Captain Oaks was awarded the McKee trophy for 1927—in other words, his feat was given official recognition as the outstanding Canadian aviation achievement for the year.
Pioneering on an Aerial Frontier
/'"'lAPTAIN OAKS started flying during the war. He went overseas with the Canadian Engineers in 1915 from Toronto, and was transferred to the Flying Corps in France in 1917. After being trained in England, he was sent to France with the 48th Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, serving on various sections of the western front. Most of his work in France was on offensive patrol, escorting bombers over the lines.
Captain Oaks returned to Canada in May, 1919. He wanted to continue flying, but aviation was at a standstill in . the Dominion just then, so he returned to
the University of Toronto to complete his course in Mining Engineering. He subsequently spent several years in the bush, summer and winter, on prospecting and scouting work. Most of this activity was in Ontario and Quebec. Early in the summer of 1924 he decided to accept a post in South America and was making his way down from the north to Toronto when he met an old friend who was flying in the Ontario Air Service. The young mining engineer changed his plans and started flying for the provincial government forest patrol. In the autumn he left that service to take part in the Red Lake gold rush, going in from Hudson by dog team. He was accompanied on this trip by Major Thompson, of the Air Service, who now is in charge at The Pas for Western Canada Airways. While in the Red Lake district, the two lriends not only staked claims, but secured all the data possible on flying from the lakes in winter, and carefully surveyed the possibilities of air transportation in that district. Leaving the gold fields after two months spent in this way, Captain Oaks and Major Thompson attempted to raise capital to try out their scheme of winter flying.
“It was hard to raise money for flying at that time,’ Captain Oaks said, “so we traded our claims for sufficient money to buy one airplane. Major Thompson returned to the forestry service and I started flying the Lark to the mines.”
Of course, before the actual start of flying, a company was formed—the Patricia Airways and Exploration company.
The Patricia Airways operated throughout the winter of 1926, but in the autumn of that year there was difficulty in financing, and also some difference of opinion among the directors, so Captain Oaks secured the backing of James Richardson, prominent financier and grain merchant of Winnipeg, and organized the Western Canada Airways company. He started with one Fokker cabin plane equipped with a Wright Whirlwind engine—the first plane of this type to be brought to the Dominion. It carried four passengers, baggage, and pilot. Captain Oaks flew the machine from New York to Hudson in December, 1926, on skis designed and built in New York. Though the best procurable at that time, they were found to be unsatisfactory for use in Canada, and Captain Oaks’ next problem was to design and build skis which would be satisfactory for continuous use in Canada’s winter weather.
After some experimentation, he worked out a suitable design which has since been adopted as a standard design for all Western Canada Airways machines, and in addition, was selected by Commander Richard Byrd as equipment for all his Antarctic Expedition planes. These skis are built at Sioux Lookout, Ontario.
The greatest problem encountered in the early stages of winter flying was that of a suitable hangar. Because of the nature of their operations, they were not assured of even five or ten years of life for the project, and the idea of building hangars for temporary use was out of the question. Faced with this very serious problem, Captain Oaks evolved a “nose hangar”—a sort of canvas bag on skis which fitted over the engine—under which a fire could be built for heating and servicing the engines in sub-zero weather.
The Winter Flight to Churchill
f'"''APTAIN OAKS continued operations ^ at Hudson during January and February and had ordered two more planes for service there when the Dominion Government decided to send some men and equipment into Churchill with drills to test the harbor floor. It was so late in the season that they could not get into the country in any way except by air, and the contract was given to Western Canada Airways.
“They fully expected, I think, that we
wouldn’t be able to complete it!” Captain Oaks laughingly remarked.
However, they did. And the exploit is a splendid chapter of achievement in Canadian aeronautical history. A temporary base was established at Cache Lake, the end of steel, 190 miles from Churchill, and quantities of gas and oil taken in by rail. Aircraft spare parts and heating equipment were taken in from Hudson, 800 miles away, over uninhabited wastes of snow and ice. There were no experienced ski pilots in Canada at that time, and in February they had two minor mishaps to two of the planes. Necessity decreed that they must be repaired right on the ice, since a hangar was not available. The late Captain W. J. Stevenson joined as a pilot at this time, and Captain Oaks also secured the services of Bernt Balchen, a test pilot from New York, to assist in the work. Stevenson and Balchen were the pilots for the expedition. All their winter equipment, even clothes, was designed and made at Hudson to conform with the types found most satisfactory by Captain Oaks from his already considerable experience of winter flying.
The expedition got along very satisfactorily, and the government was enabled to complete successfully its test of the harbor.
“I think the government was very much surprised,” was Captain Oaks’ comment on the proceeding.
This was the first successful flying in the Far North, and the methods used have become the standard for all winter flying. Improvements are made, of course, as the fliers gain more experience.
In the spring of the present year, 1928, Captain Oaks began his next great project, joining with Jack Hammell of mining
fame in the organization of the Northern Aerial Minerals Exploration company. The idea had been in his mind for some time. Indeed, it was a clear-cut part of his plans when the Patricia company had been organized, although there had been no opportunity then, of justifying the latter half of the company name—“and Exploration company.”
Before a companysuch as the N.A.M.E. could be organized and successfully operated, it was necessary to demonstrate the feasibility of flying in all seasons, of getting routes prepared and such essentials before capital could be interested. The Patricia and Western Canada Airways projects served to demonstrate the efficiency and safety of flying over all sorts of country in all conditions of weather, and capital was ready for the next forward step.
The Western Canada Airways company had grown in eighteen months from the newest commercial operation, with one machine, to the largest and most efficient unsubsidized airways company in the British Empire. The time was ripe for N.A.M.E.
The pilots of N.A.M.E. flew about 100,000 miles during the last summer, putting prospectors on location from Ungava to Yukon, their efforts culminating in the amazing exploit of Captain Oaks in flying into the trackless wastes of the North-west Territories.
Captain Oaks, like the true Canadian he is, has carried on his work modestly and steadily. Though he has given a tremendous impetus to aviation in Canada, there has been nothing spectacular in his work, no “stunt” flying, no publicity. It has all been part of “the day’s work” to him.