Stranded in the Arctic
Mary Hunter's Journal of her 19 Days lost to the world
The two pilots, Dick Warner and George Gonzales, were up early as it was pretty cold and our beds were hard. Gerald and I have only one sleeping bag between us. It is warmer that way but not very comfortable. The pilots have one each. The weather is poor with low-lying clouds and snow flurries so we don’t think anyone will be out searching for us. We set out our 18 flood fish net in the lake and the pilots tried rod fishing. They could see pike in the clear green lake bu the wretches wouldn’t bite. They went hunting and shot four squirrels and a whisky jack. We have found guns, two 30.06s and two .22s; and both pilots are good shots Gerald isn’t, so he is taking over the camp duties, chopping wood for the fire, etc. We had onion soup and tea for lunch and an early supper because we were hungry. There was a jackfish in the net and we had it boiled with potatoes and coffee. This evening we tried to make radio contact again, but no luck. The temperature has been 28 all day so we didn’t sit around for long. To bed hoping for a fine day tomorrow.
Pilots up at 6:30 AM. Gerald and I are too fond of our sleeping bag to get up at that hour. Had whitefish roe for breakfast. There was a light fall of snow during the night and now there is a breeze blowing and the smoke from the fire is making my eyes water. I am beginning to worry about our parents. They will be anxious about us. Boiled squirrels and the whisky jack for lunch. The men have made two large frying plans out of a gallon gas can cut lengthwise and my water can is another gas can with the top cut off. We added another side to our hut. It is made of branches with willows woven through them and a covering of moss for added warmth. To make us feel more at home we have taken the seats out of the two planes. Fried whitefish for supper and three cans of butter and concentrated, dehydrated apricot bar mixed with raisins and all boiled - quite tasty! To bed early. We are using the mae wests as pillows now - much more comfortable.
We will have to cut down on our food consumption - no more eating our emergency chocolate between meals. Fog completely closed us in this morning and although the temperature is 40 degrees the dampness makes it feel much colder. There are no fish in the net so our spirits are not so high. Dick Warner decided he would take off when the fog lifted and with the last of the gas in his tank make sure of our position. He was only gone 20 minutes as it started to snow. When we first came down on the lake we thought we must be close to Norman Wells, our destination. But the pilots say we may have wandered 100 or 150 miles off our course (as it turned out we were 300 miles of our course, but we did not learn this until our rescue). To bed at 8:30 PM - but at 9PM the drone of a plane woke us up. The pilots went to their planes and tried to make radio contact, turned on their landing lights and lit flares - all to no avail. What a disappointment. We all went back to our sleeping bags very dishartened.
A cold night. We kept all our clothes on. I am wearing red woollen Long Johns, tartan-lined jeans, a T-shirt, a sweater and a coat sweater. During the day I wear my nylon quilted parka. It kept me warn enough up in the Arctic this summer, but it is not a winter parka. Dick and George wear their parkas in their sleeping bags. There isn't room in our bag for Gerald and me to wear ours. Dick tried sleeping in the plane but it was just as cold. Our days have taken on a pattern: Dick and George go off hunting. Gerald adds to our shack and our pile of firewood and I walk into the bush to gather cranberries and crowberries for dessert, cook and try to think of ways to make our rations go further.
Cigarettes have run out. The men emptied all the ash trays in the planes and, having plenty of cigarette papers, re-rolled the butts. Now those two have gone they are trying smoked tea leaves and dried willow leaves! How furtunate I very rarely smoke! We can see where a forest fire has burned not too long ago further down our side of the lake and the boys say this means less likelihood of game.
This evening it was decided to move camp to the other side of our nameless lake. There is deeper shore water, even more wood and better fishing they think. Our main concern now is the possibility that the lake will freeze or a heavy snowfall come.
We are finding the whitefish more tasty every time we eat them, especially when they're barbecued - not so the pike or grayling. There may not be much meat to squirrels or whisky jack birds, but they sure taste good! We talk a lot, mostly about food and what we would like to eat.
Moving day! Disk and I taxied across the lake in his plane while Gerald and George paddled across in the other Cessna, fishing on the way. Catastrophe@ They lost the fishing rod overboard and drifted a mile away. Dick had to taxi out and tow them in. This time we built a regular cabin with a lean-to roof, the unfortunate part being only one axe. The fellows took turns chopping trees while I gathered stones for a fireplace. By dusk we had three walls built and plugged with moss. Our new home is 10 feet by 8 feet. For lunch we shared a two pound whitefish and for supper, a gallon can of squirrel and vegetable soup. Dick and George entertain us with the mouth organ round the fire at night and we talk of how we'll never waste food again in our lives. Personally the desire for steaks and so on is nil. I just crave some fresh fruit and to be back home among familiar faces. Hunger is bothering us now and especially the men after their work. I wish I could do more of the heavy work, but no work will hear of it. My shoes are useless. The leather has hardened and cracked from my wanderings in the muskeg all round camp. Feet so sore, I shall not wear them any more. Instead I am trying three pairs of socks inside my rubber overshoes. I bathe my feet each night when I wash my face and hands. Who knows? We may have to try and walk out!
Big event this day! While the pilots were away hunting I washed thoroughly, doing the various parts of my anatomy piece by piece in front of the fire without exposing too much to the cold at any one time. I felt 100 percent better, although it is too cold for a change of underclothes. Whenever the fellows come back from hunting in the woods they have to stand in front of the fire and steam out their clothes. I even have a pair of high-heeled pumps and have promised myself I'll wear them when the rescue plane comes. It must come. George shot a merganser duck which we boiled - best meal since we landed. We have improved our bed in the new hut - a frame of saplings covered with light poles laced with willows and covered in spruce bows - makes it quite springy. It is so cold now that we go to bed soon after 7 o'clock each evening.
A bright sunny day! We are all confident the RCAF will be out searching. To add to our good spirits, there were five fish in the net. We smoked and dried one in case one or all of us has to walk out. It's a good sign to see extra fish hanging up and know there is something for tomorrow. Today Dick could hear Yellowknife and the planes giving their flight plans, but he was still unable to make radio contact. We built a bonfire and, as it was a bright night, lit it at 7:30. We watched it blaze for hours from our sleeping bags and felt more confident of rescue.
Our eighth day stranded at the lake. George Gonzales has christened it Desperados Lake and the name has stuck. Last of the berries. I gathered cranberries, crowberries and the buds from wild roses as often as I could and because they were bitter boiled and boiled them with our remaining stock of sugar and syrup. I thought we needed the fruit, but the boys weren't very fond of it. Our dried soup has run out too. I checked our larder and find we now have left one can of salmon, a can of dehydrated cabbage and one of dried potatoes, a dozen Oxo cubes, six tea bags, five chocolate bars and three cuts of stale dehydrated cheese. The emergency rations wer packed in 1943, so no wonder! Now more than ever we must depend on fish and game.
I felt energetic and washed some socks - oh! how they smelled of smoke. We heard another plane fly over but it was snowing and clouds hung low over the lake so no hope of him seeing us. Our second big disappointment.
Sunday, Oct 7
No church again this week.It started out as a beautiful day; the temperature 39 degrees. Gerald had his first shave and complained of a callus on the palm of his right hand. Boiled fish again for lunch - ugh! I boil it and barbecue it alternately to break the monotony. While the boys were away I washed my hair - it was smoky and full of moss - my morale shot way up. George came back with a fat duck. He shot a second one which fell in the lake and despite all their efforts they could not recover it. Still a little life left in the twice-boiled tea leaves. How my mother in England would shudder at our technique of making tea.
Heard the drone of another plane as we were barbecuing a fish for breakfast, but before we could light a flare or the bonfire it had gone over. It was infuriating and terribly frustrating. The boys actually saw it this time, but it did not see us. Gerald's hand bothering him and pus coming out. I am powerless to do all the things I know as a nurse should be done. The Department of Transport first-aid kit aboard the plane has no antiseptic or antibiotics in it. All summer in the ARtic we carried an elaborate medical kit of our own with penicillin and everything in it. It saved me when I was badly bitten by a dog. But we have sent all our heavy gear on ahead and the medical kit was with it.
Two more squirrels shot and with two saved from yesterday we made a stew - squirrels, the heart and liver of the duck and fish eggs - what a mixture!
This afternoon we noticed that the shallow end of the lake and the water at the shore's edge is frozen - freeze-up cannot be very far away. We are not doing so much talking in camp these evenings. We always sit listening for the drone of a plane. How deceiving the fire spurting and crackling and the water boiling can sound!
The 11th day - our spirits still good but now there is the fear of the freeze-up. We discussed the situation and decided that one of us will have to walk out to Fort Rae, 73 miles away in a straight line, but maybe 100 miles around lakes and muskeg swamps. Gerald's hand is bothering him much more. It is beginning to swell up and apart from hot compresses there is nothing I can do for it. I try to keep it as antiseptic as possible and have commandeered one of the cooking pots to bathe it in. I keep a plastic bag round it, too. He can't go and I can't very well. We heard two planes this evening; one at 6:45 PM and again at 9 o'clock. We flashed S-O-S with the flashlight and tried the radio without result. We know these can't be search planes. We organized a pool - 25 cents each - and drew lots on which of the next four days would bring a rescue plane and that way covered up our disappointment.
What a morning! Three inches of snow - winter has come. At any other time the scenery would be picturesque, but it just seems barren and desolate to us as we wait and wait and wait for a plane to come. The pilots decide to flip a coin and Dick lost so he will make the trip out to Fort Rae.
We gave him all the food we could and he took his .22 rifle, the compass from his plane, flashlight, moccasins, extra socks, sweater, sleeping bag, maps and a small frying plan all wrapped up in a ground sheet and strapped to a pack board. It was a Wednesday when he set off across the musket. "See you next Tuesday," he said and disappeared among the trees.
Our 13th day; a blizzard is blowing. The sum total of our supplies now is three bouillon cubs, two tea bags, one chocolate bar and a package of hot chocolate mix. The snow has drifted knee-deep and the hunting trips have had to be abandoned. On the food we have had the effort is too much for George. As it is, he has to do all the hard work now. Gerald's hand is very puffed and terribly painful. It worries me. Without medical attention it will spread up his arm and into his body. We have never lost faith that the RCAF will find us, but when, when, when! Each day when I go down and break a hole in the ice to fetch water I stand longer and longer on the shore gazing down the lake and over the tree tops for the sight of a plane on the horizon. Each day we pray silently to ourselves that a plane will come.
A marten came round the camp today and George killed it after three shots. He skinned it and hung it up. We can't eat the meat right away. George is saving al the skins from the squirrels to make a hat. There won't be any more. I don't think. To begin with we could hear them in the trees. Now they are all gone.
I find it hard to keep up my diary. We are all three growing lethargic. Gerald and I stay in our sleeping bag for 14 hours a night now with the empty 40 oz run bottle as a hot water bottle. Our sleeping bag was never intended for these temperatures and with the two of us in we can only sleep fitfully. There are footprints around the camp each morning; wolverine or fox, they look like; and the fish guts are gone, but we never hear any animals. If only a bear would come nosing round that George could shoot. All my hunger pangs have gone now. My stomach must have contracted.
The lake has frozen over! If a rescue plane does come, it won't be able to land on the lake. George can't get out to the gill net, the ice over it is too thin to take his weight. He climbed out on the pontoon of his plane but couldn't go any further. We have half a small whitefish between the three of us. Gerald and George tried eating six little pckets of yeast from the ration box and blew themselves up.
Another day. George still can't reach the net. I keep thinking about Dick and wonder how far he has walked. It's Sunday again. We seem to be bickering all the time - whenever we talk. George says the batter is too low for him to transmit on the radio any more. I must do something. I feel so useless.
I made a big "I" for medical aid needed and an "F" for food out of branches and cautiously pushed them as far out on the ice as I could. Gerald wants me to freeze his hand; to stop the pain. But I won't. Not yet. I must get him out. I think he knows himself now that rescue must come quickly.
Hot water for breakfast with last of chocolate grated in it. It's decided if Dick hasn't got through by Saturday, George will set out. Gerald thinks we can all go. If we stay I shall have to cut enough wood for the fire and go out to the fish net. If we go too, I must make some shoes out of the squirrel skins and canvas. I can't go just in three pairs of socks and my rubbers. Temperature is zero - the coldest it's been. If I don't write things down right away I forget what's happened. Gerald keeps saying "You mustn't stop the diary!"
Gerald woke up this morning and said, "For a present, I'll give you a rescue plane." It's exactly seven months since our wedding in Nanaimo! I have never prayed so hard in my life as I did today. I wonder when we'll see Nanaimo again. This afternoon George reached the gill net and found a big pike there. It must weigh five pounds. He is going to et the head and save the body for later. There was also a repulsive looking fish called a Loche. I'll cook that for Gerald and me.
We were in the hut and it was dark when we heard a plane. We rushed outside. I tried to light a flare but I ws so excited I couldn't do it. The plane was quite low and we could see its navigation lights. It was going over and we couldn't light anything. Gerald picked up a gas can with a little gas left in it and hurled it over the mound of our old bonfire under the snow. Then he tossed a match on it. The plane was gone as it flared up. I went back into the cabin and cried and cried.
It must have been 10 minutes later when we heard it again. I went out down to the water's edge where I had stood so often and looked into the darkness and saw the navigation lights coming straight down the lake toward us. This time Gerald had thrust the flare right into the fire inside the cabin. The plane winked it's lights at us and then we knew they had seen us. I can't describe what I felt. There was a tremendous, joyous feeling inside of me. George hugged me and then I rushed to Gerald and he hugged me as best he could with his hand and I think we all wept. I know I did.
As the plane circled I sent up a prayer of thanks. It was an RCAF Flying Boxcar. We could see the shape. They dropped three parachute canisters down in the trees behind us and George and I ran through the bush regardless of the deep snow to find them.
We found two of them and stumbled and dragged them back to camp in the dark. We opened them and it was just like Christmas. There were dry sleeping bags and warm clothes - lots of them. Nothing to fit a girl of course. There were big white felt mukluks for our feet - size 13s! No sevens! But nothing mattered now.
There was food in the bottom of one of the big metal canisters they dropped, but in the darkness last night we missed it! We had just started to eat it when an Air Force Otter flow low over the camp and skimmed down on to the then ice to see if it could land. The Otter couldn't, but the pilot tossed out cans of juice and fresh bread and honey and messages in empty tins. The Otter circled around for half an hour, then flew away. We started to eat the bread and honey, thinking it might be the next day before they could take us out when another plane arrived . It was an old single-engine Fairchild - 1937, I think they said. Jim McEvoy, a bush pilot from Yellowknife, put it down and drove his floats through the ice and taxied along the lake. The plane stopped 50 yards out from shore and we gathered up all our things and walked out gingerly across the ice to it.
I never thought the plane would take off. It did easily. Soon Desparados Lake, where we had waited and wondered and grown cold and hungry for 19 days was just another small black patch lost in the immensity of the Northwest Territories.
The doctors say that two more days without medical aid and Gerald probably would not have survived. The blood poisoning would have spread through hsi body. They were surprised that it had not happened sooner and put it down to the constant hot fomentations.
How thankful I am that Dick Warner was able to summon help. He never did reach Fort Rae. After plunging chest-deep into muskeg and clambering over rocky heights of land, skirting lakes and crossing rivers for seven days, he finally reached a remote uranium mine on the shore of Sherman Lake, 125 miles northwest of Yellowknife. Soon afterwards the RCAF Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Edmonton diverted a nereby southbound C-119 to our camp. That was the Flying Boxcar flying to beautifully down Desperados Lake.
The Air Force had conducted one of the biggest air searches in the history of the Northwest Territories in a vain 17 day attempt to find us. They put in 250 flying hours and covered more than 75,000 square miles. They never did search the area where we were. They could not have anticipated that we would be 300 miles off the normal flight track from Coppermine to Norman Wells.
As for me, I weigh 108 pounds now, 15 pounds lighter than the day we were first lost in the North. And I have just remembered that I forgot to wear my high-heeled pumps to climb aboard the rescue plane.