The Hudson Strait Patrol
Recording the adventures and achievements of the winged explorers who proved the navigability of the waterway leading to Canada’s inland sea
A. G. DEXTER
IN THE closing years of the twentieth century when the Hudson Bay route has become one of the great maritime highways of the world, who will remember the sheer courage and unswerving tenacity of six men who undertook, at peril of their lives, to rend the veil which, since the beginning of time, has shrouded the Canadian Northland?
Ten years ago, if a cabinet minister had called for volunteers to patrol daily 1,200 miles of subarctic wilderness, he would have been deemed a madman. History records many Arctic tragedies, and the barren rock-bound steppes of the northern wilderness are dotted with a score or more of cairns—landmarks commemorating the defeat and death of the most intrepid explorers. Indeed, in Ottawa today there is in process of formation a museum in which the relics of those who pitted their strength against the northland and failed are being collected. Human bones, bleached white in arctic waters; crumpled, discolored bags of pemmican; rusted rifles and odd bits of leather and clothing—these are the dumb witnesses of the terrible toll which the Arctic exacted from those who dared to read its secrets.
Many brave men of foreign lands are buried under northern snows; but history has repeated itself, and once more it has remained for Canadians to overcome the natural difficulties of their native land. Who now remembers the man who succeeded where the British Admiralty failed, and to whose natural sagacity is due the fact that Montreal is a mighty seaport? Where the greatest marine engineers tried in vain to find a navigable channel across the shallows of Lake St. Peter, this man solved the problem by chopping holes in the ice at various points and taking soundings which revealed the course travelled today.
The Hudson Bay route is older than Canada: a once more railway to the Bay was envisaged long before the Bay, the Canadian Pacific was dreamed of. But with the advent of steam and improvement in navigation, it became more and more doubtful if the northern route, with all its great promise to the western provinces, was economically feasible, due chiefly to the question of navigability owing to ice conditions. And the key to the problem was in the narrow sea lane which connects the Bay with the wide Atlantic—Hudson Strait.
The Mystery of the Strait
YTTHAT of the Strait?
In recent years when the Dominion Parliament resumed the building of the railway to the question of the navigability of the Strait became a matter of endless controversy. Whichever way a ship might travel, east or west, the Strait was the neck of the bottle through which it must pass; and if the Strait was icebound from early autumn until late summer, obviously the route could never be established. In the past, little was known of these northern waters and that little was confusing and contradictory. Northern mariners held different opinions, and the logs of vessels sailing into the Bay told widely varying stories.
Finally, in 1927, Hon Charles A. Dunning, Minister of Railways and Canals, decided to make an effort to cut through this confusion and conflict of opinion. The policy he evolved, in all truth, was more daring than he himself cared to contemplate, but he placed it before the cabinet and asked for the co-operation of other departments of the government.
And so this country became pledged to a great adventure. It was this: to take flesh and blood and maintain it high above the northern sea lane, day in and day out, until the truth was known. That was Mr. Dunning’s policy. Strongly suspecting that no one would risk his life to become the mere eyes of the government, the Department of National Defense hung out a “help wanted” sign. Any aviator willing to forsake civilization, invade the wilderness and fly hun dreds of miles over territory where there were no forced landing fields, no settlers to
succor the man who fell; or high above the green arctic seas with never a sail within a thousand miles—any aviator willing to undertake such an adventure was invited to apply to the government.
While the government proceeded briskly with the plans for the expedition, the fact is that most of the cabinet ministers were of the opinion that no volunteers would step forward. The event proved conclusively that they misjudged the younger generation, so often held to be effeminate and deficient in the sterling qualities of the early pioneers. Within a fortnight, upwards of forty applications descended upon Ottawa. Mere striplings barely out of aviation school clamored for a place in this expedition. Middle-aged war-birds, some of them crippled by enemy bullets, felt the blood sing in their veins at the prospect of one last adventure in the clouds. But only six were wanted, and the ministers had more difficulty in selecting the men than if a senate vacancy or a prize post in the civil service was being filled. Political wirepulling was resorted to; members of parliament became active lobbyists; and more than one minister, by declining to support the application of a constituent who was pronounced medically unfit, did himself serious harm politically.
All this was in the spring of 1927. Then on July 6, a bright midsummer day, six young men assembled in Mr. Dunning’s office at Ottawa. They were: Flight Lieutenants T. A. Lawrence, of Thornton, Ont., B. G. Carr-Harris, of Kingston, Ont., F. S. Coghill, of Stratford, Ont., A. A. Leitch, of Norwood Grove, Man., A. J. Ashton, of Vancouver, B.C., and A. A. Lewis, of Winnipeg, Man.
A Hazardous Assignment
THEY were assembled to receive their final instructions. “In a certain sense,” said Mr. Dunning, “it is a romantic undertaking you are embarking upon, because in all my reading of history I have not yet found a similar case, where a sort of massed scientific aid was brought to bear in the development of a new navigation foute. We are trying something new in the field of exploratory work of this character, in bringing to bear in this large way the courage and skill of flying men, equipped with the most modern facilities and supported by the best and most complete appliances which this age has made possible. It is an opportunity which will enable you to demonstrate the value of your craft in work of this nature, and if you do it successfully, immediately a new vista opens, world-wide in extent, with respect to aviation generally. You know there is an element of risk about your job. There is at all times in aviation an element of risk greater than the average. Perhaps the risks of those northern latitudes may be greater than they are here. We cannot tell that: you cannot tell that. We can only say that as a Government we are glad you have volunteered with your eyes open to assume those risks whatever they may be. And let me add that as a Government we do not expect you to undertake one inch more risk than is required by the actual necessities of the work itself.”
Risks! Had Mr. Dunning, with prophetic eye, been able to look into the future he would have seen sights to chill the blood. He might have seen one of those young lads, confused and lost far out over the Atlantic wastes, being driven down, by an empty petrol tank, upon a sea surface littered with floe ice. He might have seen another flying through a tempest and finally, beaten by the fury of the elements, seeking sanctuary on the desolate ice of Ungava Bay.
Planning the Expedition
THE expedition was carefully planned by the air and navigation experts of the government. Certain facts in regard to these northern waters were known. For example, it was known that the Strait seldom freezes over entirely because of the strong ocean currents passing from the Bay to the Atlantic. However, each autumn huge packs of ice drift down from Foxe Channel into the western end of the Strait and through the Strait to the Atlantic. Green, tough, Arctic ice which the summer sun cannot melt but only reduces to great irregular chunks. Against such ice the onset of an ice breaker is futile, and it is the presence of this ice in vast fields which has held mariners ice-bound in the Strait month after month. The Strait, however, is 450 miles in length and about 100 miles in width, and the range of vision of a man on board ship, on the clearest day, does not exceed twelve miles. Hence the government experts were bound to consider the possibility of there being open water in the Straits the year around if only a ship’s captain knew where to find it.
This was precisely the possibility which the airmen were instructed to explore. They were to fly above the Strait and watch the course of the ice floes, particularly the Arctic ice drifting southward from the far north. To accomplish this it was decided to establish three flying bases—one at Nottingham Island, at the westerly end of the Strait; a second at Wakeham Bay, about midway between bay and ocean; and a third at Cape Burwell, at the easterly outlet of the Strait. A powerful radio station to be erected at the centre base would give continuous communication with Ottawa and less powerful stations at the other two would permit communication with the main station at Wakeham Bay, Two airplanes were to be stationed at each base and triangular patrols were to be maintained daily. These patrols were to cover a distance approximately 100 miles east, west and north of each base, thus providing continuous contact along the full length of the Strait and keeping its entire surface under daily observation. Moreover, the northerly patrol from Nottingham Island would penetrate into the mouth of Foxe Channel, giving an unequalled opportunity of studying the movements of the Arctic ice pack.
The planes were of the Fokker universal type equipped with Wright whirlwind engines, similar to the engines used by Lindbergh and Chamberlin in their transatlantic flights and capable of developing 200 horsepower. The maximum speed of the planes was 100 miles per hour.
Flying Under Difficul ies
THE expedition sailed on July 15 from Sydney, N.S., and reached the Strait within two weeks. Two months were required to complete the three base establishments. On October 11, 1927, the first radio message was received, and on October 15 the first flights were made.
Within two weeks the whole question of the navigability of the Straits had been put in a new position. Previous to the dispatch of the expedition, the most favorable authorities ha(|. riever placed the close of navigation later than midOctober. Yet October 15, 1927, in the Strait dawned fair and warm. The airmen climbed into their machines and soared out over the lonely arctic waters. No ice was in sight; not only was the Strait free of it, but none could be discerned in the southern reaches of Foxe Channel.
November came and still there were no signs of ice. The weeks passed, and late in November a patrol northward into Foxe Channel returned with the information that an ice pan was drifting slowly southward. Not until the first week in December did it reach the Strait and not until December 10 came the report that the western outlet of the Strait was completely closed. This information was of vital importance. All previous opinions of the Strait had to be revised in the light of the proven fact that navigation in the Strait in 1927 did not close until approximately the same time as on the Great Lakes. Then raging storms swept down from the Arctic ice cap and flying became impossible.
These flying operations had been carried out under conditions without parallel in the history of aviation. The airmen found themselves in the heart of a vast wilderness. The shores of the Strait, for the most part, are granite cliffs towering high above the dark apd rolling sea. Sheering up hundreds of feet, their pitiless face is pock-marked by the battering of northern gales. No greater peril to an airman could be imagined. True, the cliffs presented no danger1 in fair weather, but in autumn, when fog creeps northward from Newfoundland and visibility is low, an airman flying at 100 miles per hour could not wheel or zoom upward in time to avoid crashing headlong against these beetling crags.
Flying was maintained intermittently throughout the winter, despite the almost insuperable difficulties of maintaining smooth landing fields. Officialdom at Ottawa, having watched the expedition depart with a sigh—for surely all would not return—began to pluck up heart. Perhaps this northern flying was not so dangerous as it had been expected.
A Near Tragedy
THEN in February the radio ticker at Ottawa stammered out a story of tragedy and disaster. It but repeated the terse message flashed from the cockpit of a Fokker plane far out over the Atlantic.
“Engine cutting out. Am off course. Landing on ice.”
Nine words flashed to his base at fort Burwell, on the eastern extremity of the Strait, by Flight Lieutenant Lewis as his failing machine glided down upon a chaos of ice and water. Iron will and steel nerves enabled Lewis to land his machine without further damage than a broken propeller and injured skis. With him were Flight Sergeant N. C. Terry and one, “Bobby,” an Eskimo. Climbing down from the cabin of the plane, the three endeavored to take their bearings. Low scudding clouds narrowed their horizon. On every hand, as far as the eye could reach, stretched the rough, jagged ice-fields, divided here and there by short leads of open water. As nearly as they could judge they were in Ungava Bay, to the west of their base; and leaving the machine to drift on the floes until warming suns undermined the ice upon which it rested and plunged it into ocean depths, they struck out to the east—as they thought toward land. They took with them the collapsible air raft which promised doubtful passage across the open sea-lanes, and the “iron” rations with which every machine was provisioned. All that day and through a starless night they fought their way across the ice floes.
With morning, visibility cleared and the lifting clouds enabled them to see far to their rear the dark crests of the mountain range which parallels the eastern coast of Labrador. To their horror they realized that they were not in Ungava Bay but far to the east in the open Atlantic. The effort of the preceding day and night had carried them seaward to the edge of the ice belt and the black, freezing waters of the open ocean.
The distant mountain coast seemed not more than a day’s journey, and realizing that the ice pack might break up at any time, they began, feverishly, to retrace their steps. For a week they struggled over the broken ice, frequently having to commit their lives to the frail air raft in order to cross the sea lanes. Finally, even the raft was lost. It slipped away from “Bobbie” and with its going the last hope of reaching land and safety seemed to disappear. Thereafter they had to find small ice cakes suitable as rafts and paddle across the open water. The weight of the rations began to tell heavily upon their waning strength and in desperation they threw the greater part away, an error which might well have cost them their lives, since with the passing of the days the food ran short. However “Bobbie” spotted a walrus and killed it with a single bullet from the emergency kit rifle.
Finally, after enduring unspeakable hardships, the three men, reduced to a condition of physical exhaustion, reached land. The peril of drowning was past but their plight was little better than before. The nearest habitation might be 100 miles away, because the entire population of Labrador is less than that of a small Ontario village. They had no idea of their position or how far it was to Port Burwell. Then, for the first time since they became lost in the clouds, fortune was kind. “Bobbie” spied an Eskimo trapper following his trap lines, and he agreed to be their guide. A two-day tramp finally brought them at dead of night to the brow of a high hill overlooking the Port Burwell air base. In a few minutes they were safe and warm, and the radio was ticking off a message which told their relatives in Canada of their escape from death.
Meantime the entire strength of the Strait patrol had been mobilized at Burwell to search for the missing flyers. When Lewis was lost, Squadron Leader Lawrence, in charge of aerial operations, was at Wakeham Bay, and although a northwest blizzard was threatening he took to the air at once in an effort to reach Burwell whence he could direct the search. However, when about midway across Ungava Bay, the storm became so severe that he was compelled to come down, and for two days it was thought that he, too, was lost. Somehow, however, he managed to fight off the numbing peril of the intense cold, and when the blinding snow had stopped, he “took off” once more and completed his flight.
A Fruitful Adventure
r I 'HE net loss of this first and last serious A mishap in the Strait patrol was one of the six airplanes. The personnel was still at full strength, and the flights over the Strait were continued, Lewis taking his part despite his harrowing experience. The advent of spring brought the breakup of the ice, and early in June of 1928 the huge pack began to move under pressure of the strong tidal current. By June 18 it was reported that ships might navigate the Strait, and early in July the last of the ice disappeared. These events, so important from the viewpoint of the Hudson Bay route, were observed by the airmen in their daily patrols across the Strait and were reported to Ottawa.
The activities of the air expedition were nearing an end. The airplanes, despite expert mechanical attention, were beginning to show the strain of long and continuous service. It was decided to recall the expedition in September 1928, and the original intention of having the planes flown to Ottawa was abandoned and the men were brought home by government steamer, with the exception of Lieutenant Lewis who worked his way down the Bay and across the northern area of Ontario to the Transcontinental railway and thence to Ottawa. Lewis left the Strait before the decision was made to bring the expedition home by boat, and his task was to inspect the supply caches which the airmen would have used, had they flown south.
The recall of the air patrol, however, did not end the work of investigation in the Strait. The radio stations were maintained in operation and although no longer able to fly out over the sea lane, the men stationed at the radio bases watched the onset of winter from the shore and reported navigation closed on November 29, last.
Thus ended one of the most epic adventures in the history of Canadian aviation. Six airmen, in sixteen months of active flying over this northern territory, proved conclusively that the most authoritative records of navigation in the Strait were utterly unreliable. Instead of offering a short two-month period of navigation they proved that the Strait is open to shipping for five months of the year—almost as long as are the Great Lakes.
Because of their courage and patriotism, the Canadian Parliament is now able to push forward vigorously the port development at Fort Churchill and the railroad to the Bay, sure in the knowledge that the millions spent in these works will not be wasted or thrown away.