Warm July sun streams through the trees in Susan Moorlag’s crisply-manicured garden.
Wind chimes sweeten the air as her two small dogs scamper underfoot. Outwardly, the scene seems about as far in time and space from the frozen beaches of Spence Bay as one could get.
But sitting in the quiet Whitehorse shade, Susan is back on that coastline over four decades ago, watching with fear as the single-engine Otter carrying her husband Hank plummets behind the rocks towards the waves.
“Everyone was rushing down to the water at a million miles an hour,” she said.
“I had seen the plane coming down, so I stopped somebody who I knew spoke English and said, ‘What’s going on?’ and they said, ‘Plane down! Plane down!’”
But when she reached the shore, there was no wreckage, no trail of debris and shattered life. There was only the plane, cruising on its floats, with her Mountie husband and the pilot safe inside.
One of the plane’s flaps had broken away during the final approach into what is now called Taloyoak, Nunavut. Hank had been returning to policing duties in the community on a routine flight that nearly cost him and the pilot their lives.
“It was all that both of us could do to hang onto the yoke to keep it from pitching over. We managed to flop it into the water, one float and then the other, but of course, what everyone saw was the plane going down behind the rocks,” Hank said.
It was the closest of calls, but it wasn’t the only difficult moment for Susan. Being the wife of a Mountie in Canada’s North is no easy posting, but after almost five decades of it, Susan still said for a wide-eyed girl from Detroit, it was all a sort of grand adventure.
Susan was one of four Yukon wives honoured on Friday with the RCMP’s Unpaid Second Man award. The commemorative broach was inspired by a book written by Ruth Lee-Knight called When the Second Man Was A Woman, which chronicles the experiences of wives like Susan serving with their husbands in remote, often single-officer detachments.
Susan met Hank in what was called Frobisher Bay, though it’s now called Iqaluit she said with a perfect Inuktitut pronunciation.
She was a young American girl visiting from Detroit, and Hank was an RCMP officer stationed in Cambridge Bay. When the weather was rough on return flights, he was often stuck in Iqaluit for days at a time. It was on one such layover that they met in the bank where Susan was working.
“He came in, and that was it. He just walked in off the street,” she said.
The two were only together for three weeks before Hank was flown back to Cambridge Bay and Susan eventually returned to the States. But three weeks was enough.
“So far, it’s working,” Susan said, with a smile.
They spent two years in Cambridge Bay after they were married, before making the first of an eventual 15 transfers, this time to Taloyoak.
It was the beginning of a crazy life, Susan said, but one filled with excitement and joy.
Being the wife of an RCMP officer in the North meant Susan was often pressed into duty doing everything from feeding inmates (sometimes in her own living room) to taking emergency calls, tasks that normally were done by paid officers in southern Canada.
“I felt pretty darn modern, even in ‘68 and ‘69. But we didn’t have a flush toilet, so that probably counts for something,” Susan said.
“Sometimes she acted like the matron as well, if we didn’t have somebody handy that could take care of female prisoners,” said Hank.
“And wash police cars and shine boots and everything,” he added, with a smirk.
“Oh no, I washed police cars but I never shined any boots,” Susan replied, laughing.
She even performed the occasional emergency medical procedure.
“Oh, I also delivered a baby on that Otter,” she said, laughing as the memories come flooding back.
“We were about an hour out of Cam Bay, and I had checked the lady a number of times. This lady in front of me turned around and whispered, “She’s having her baby.
“I said, “No, no she’s not. I just checked and she … she’s … Holy Dinah she’s having her baby!
“And of course, I’m on a single-engine Otter so you had to hold the baby’s head right up to your ear to hear it crying. So I wrapped him all up and made sure she was fine, and about 15 minutes after all the kerfuffle, the girl in front of me turns around and whispers again, ‘She would like to know if it’s a girl or a boy.’”
“I said, ‘Oh. I don’t know. Let me check.”
There were scary times as well, she said, but together she and Hank handled pretty much anything that was thrown at them. They had to, there was no one else.
“Once somebody reported that the school principal was chasing his wife around the house with an axe. That got a little hairy,” Hank said, modestly.
For Susan, one of the best parts of working and living in the North was the people she met there.
“I loved the Inuit, and they felt very comfortable just walking into your house and there they’d be sitting on your sofa. And they’d want tea, so you’d make them some tea,” she said.
The two moved to Whitehorse in 1992, when Hank was transferred to M division headquarters. He would go on to become the Yukon’s ombudsman, and now does mediation and consultation work in the territory.
For him, having the support of Susan and later their three children made his policing career possible.
“It was awesome. It was so much more than just backup in an operational sense. Certainly, that was important, but having the kind of support at home. I never had to worry whether the family would resist going somewhere else.
“In these small detachments, to have someone to confide in, who would welcome visitors and have the kind of outgoing personality that made people feel welcome, that was huge,” he said.
After the decades of cramped detachments and long nights worrying while Hank was on patrol, Susan said she would do it all again in a heartbeat.
“It was so fun, for me. Even if we had to pack ourselves off all the time, I wouldn’t change one thing.”
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