In 1929, the largest aerial search and rescue operation in our country’s history gripped Canadians for months.
That August, a group of eight prospectors led by C.D.H. MacAlpine flew into Canada’s Barren Lands in the Northwest Territories in search of mineral riches. Instead, they found themselves trapped in an unforgiving landscape without proper equipment or training.
Their rescuers, led by Yukon flying legend Andy Cruikshank, also encountered incredible challenges as they battled bad weather, forced landings, and crashes.
Cruikshank and his wife Esmé had set up Yukon Airways and Exploration Company, the first scheduled air service between Whitehorse and Dawson on wheels, two years earlier. In 1929 he was a captain at Western Canada Airways and considered one of the best pilots in the North.
Kerry Karram brings both sides of the MacAlpine story to life in Four Degrees Celsius: A Story of Arctic Peril.
The seeds for the book were sown when Karram, who lives in North Vancouver, B.C., attended the 2007 Midnight Sun Float Plane Fly-In in Yellowknife for the unveiling of a monument to Andy Cruikshank, the grandfather she never knew. A chance encounter with Gord Emberly, former bush pilot and driving force behind the Western Canada Aviation Museum, put her on the trail of a rare diary published by MacAlpine-party member Richard Pearce in 1931.
Karram tracked down that diary, along with her grandfather’s, which sat in a worn, yellowed envelope in her mother’s basement for 80 years.
Andy Cruikshank had jotted notes each day during the search and planned to write the story for posterity, but died in a plane crash – the first fatal one in the NWT – in 1932. Instead, his granddaughter used excerpts of his diary and Pearce’s, together with archival research and other published sources, to create a lively retelling of events.
Historians and amateur enthusiasts alike will appreciate Karram’s descriptions of what the men ate, wore, and how they preserved their food. The author’s background in psychology makes her particularly attuned to the men’s battle with morale: these men are not superheroes, they’re not impervious to despair and disagreements.
She shows their humanity, and how a “slug of Scotch,” a cigarette, or piece of chocolate kept them from going over the brink.
Karram notes that it was, however, the Copper Inuit who really saved the MacAlpine Party’s lives.
There are a few gremlins in the book. Pilot Stan McMillan and geologist E.A. Broadway’s names are spelled incorrectly, for example. Nevertheless, researchers will find Karram’s index, endnotes, bibliography, and cast of characters useful. And all readers will appreciate the 30 black-and-white images sprinkled throughout the book.
Perhaps most importantly for “rivet counters”, the manuscript was vetted by many top names within the aviation history community: Clark Seaborn, Rex Terpening (Bent Props and Blow Pots) and Shirley Render (No Place for a Lady) all contributed technical assistance.
This narrative history has much to recommend it, and readers will be carried along by Karram’s writing, as well as the book’s excellent structure and pacing.
In Four Degrees Celsius, Karram has not only documented part of her family’s history in thrilling detail, but an important chapter in Canada’s aviation heritage.
The book was published by Dundurn, and retails for $22.99.