New book revisits the ‘Lost Patrol’

Here is a new northern book that was brought to my attention, just in time for Christmas. Death Wins in the Arctic, a book written by B.C.‘s Kerry Karram.

Here is a new northern book that was brought to my attention, just in time for Christmas. Death Wins in the Arctic, a book written by B.C.‘s Kerry Karram and published by Dundurn Press of Toronto, is a narrative of the ill-fated “Lost Patrol” of 1911, and the subsequent search to find the missing party.

Karram has a son who is a member of the Mounted Police. It was during a visit to Regina to attend her son’s graduation that she was first introduced to the tragic diary of Inspector Francis Fitzgerald, the leader of an ill-fated winter patrol from Fort McPherson to Dawson City. She was captivated by the gripping account and decided to write a book about it.

Based upon the Fitzgerald diary and other documents detailing the events of the ill-fated patrol, Karram weaves a colourful day-by-day account of the patrol, leading to its sad conclusion. She details the harsh weather, the brutal travelling conditions and the numbing routine as the party struggles against blizzards and extreme Arctic conditions to find the trail and arrive in Dawson City.

On December 21, 1910, four men of the Royal North West Mounted Police departed Fort McPherson on their annual winter patrol. This year, however, they were traveling in the opposite direction from the usual trip from Dawson. The party consisted of Inspector Fitzgerald, Constables Richard Taylor and George Kinney and Special Constable Sam Carter.

In addition to carrying 20 kilograms of mail and dispatches, these men had an additional purpose for their patrol: to serve as part of the Mounted Police contingent to attend the coronation of King George V, in England in June of 1911. With them, for a few days, they had Esau George, a native guide, who had been hired along the way, after they had missed a turn on the trail.

Despite this alarming miscue, Fitzgerald was confident they could find their way, so he did not retain George to accompany them for the remainder of the journey. Special Constable Carter had also been over the trail before, though in the opposite direction. Near the mouth of Mountain Creek, George was paid for his work, and he then returned to his home encampment. He was the last person to see the Mounties alive.

Six weeks later, in February, Esau George arrived in Dawson City, but the Mounted Police patrol had not. The Mounties should have reached their destination by the third week of January. Alarmed that the patrol had not yet arrived in Dawson, Superintendent Snyder sent out a search party under the command of Corporal W. J.(Jack) D. Dempster to find the missing patrol.

I particularly liked the way in which Karram describes the growing concern for the late patrol when other parties arrive in Dawson after having travelled over the same trail that the Fitzgerald party should have followed.

It was Dempster, himself a veteran of several patrols over this route, who uncovered the grisly facts: the members of the Fitzgerald patrol had become lost, ran out of food, and perished in their attempt to return to McPherson.

Karram’s account of Dempster’s search is as gripping as that of the Fitzgerald patrol. They battle overflows, temperatures reaching minus 45 Celsius, and rough trails, but eventually begin finding clues to the Fitzgerald patrol: first, a cached toboggan and seven sets of harnesses and dog bones; then, the RNWMP dispatch bag and a mail sack.

Other equipment was found abandoned beside the trail; then the frozen remains of Constable Kinney and Taylor are found beside a burned out campfire. A large kettle contained the partially cooked sled harness that revealed the level of desperation of the dying men.

Karram speculates about the thoughts and actions of the two parties as each approached its distinct destiny. I found this approach thoughtful and enjoyable, and it sustained my interest. The narrative is supported in its 232 pages by 35 well-chosen though murky photographs of dog mushing and trail conditions, as well as key individuals and places associated with the story. These visual prompts enhance the descriptions contained in the story.

Two maps accompany the text. The first one provides an overview of the trail from McPherson to Dawson with significant places and events identified along the route. The second is a more detailed map of the missed trail and the actual route followed by the doomed party.

At the end of the book are brief chronologies of the careers of Fitzgerald and Dempster, endnotes, a bibliography and an index.

Although I enjoyed the story, and found it to be a good read, I was put off by the frequent misstatements of fact that were scattered throughout the text. This is a common flaw in books where the author does not have a strong foundation in Yukon history. In the foreword by Corporal Sean Chiddenton, for example, gold was said to have been discovered in 1898, which misses the mark by two years. Reference is made to the boundary dispute having started in 1903, when it actually began in 1898 and was resolved five years later.

On page 78, the caption incorrectly identifies an RNWMP officer overseeing the packing of supplies on the Chilkoot trail. The photo was taken in 1898, six years before the name of the NWMP was changed. Captions for photographs on the next two pages get this fact correct, although the caption for the image on page 80 incorrectly identifies some of the mounted policemen as members of the Yukon Field Force.

On pages 164 and 165, reference is made to the infamous O’Brien murder case, and misplaces the event by several hundred kilometres, stating that it occurred on the very route followed by Corporal Dempster en route to the Wind River. In the chronology of Fitzgerald found in Appendix “A,” it has misplaced his trip over the trail from Edmonton to Fort Selkirk by a decade.

By the conclusion of the story, I was left questioning the accuracy of other facts scattered throughout the narrative. Clearly, an editorial review by a knowledgeable Yukon historian would have given this interesting story greater factual credibility.

I much prefer the better informed, if less detailed account in Dick North’s classic work, The Lost Patrol. Let’s hope that more Yukon books are written in the future, if not by people who actually live here, then at least by people more informed of Yukon history.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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