The Lost Patrol

Mountie Patrol prepares to leave Fort McPherson for the return to Dawson City in the spring of 1910. Commander of this patrol was Constable Dempster. The man in the center is the Reverend Charles Johnstone, a missionary who accompanied the patrol on the journey to Dawson City. RCMP/NWT Archives/G-1979-002-0001

Mountie Patrol prepares to leave Fort McPherson for the return to Dawson City in the spring of 1910. Commander of this patrol was Constable Dempster. The man in the center is the Reverend Charles Johnstone, a missionary who accompanied the patrol on the journey to Dawson City. RCMP/NWT Archives/G-1979-002-0001

Sled Dog Tales

This story is excerpted from the book Alaskan Sled Dog Tales, by Helen Hegener, published May 14, 2016, by Northern Light Media. $24.95 plus $5.00 shipping & handling. 320 pages, 6′ x 9″ b/w format, includes maps, charts, bibliography, indexed. Click this link to order.

The intrepid officers of the Canadian Royal Northwest Mounted Police regularly traveled the northern reaches of the Yukon and Northwest Territories by dog team, delivering the mail and staking a continuing claim to these remote lands for the Government of Canada. The route was often perilous, with extreme temperatures and dangerous lake and river crossings. On one fateful trip four officers of the NWMP were lost, a disaster which became known as “The Lost Patrol,” one of the northland’s greatest tragedies.

On December 21, 1910, a patrol of four officers, commanded by Inspector Francis J. Fitzgerald, left Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories with the mail for Dawson City, Yukon Territory, a distance of 550 miles. Accompanying Inspector Fitzgerald were Constable Richard O’Hara Taylor, Constable George Francis Kinney and their guide, Special Constable Sam Carter. They left Fort McPherson, near where the MacKenzie River empties into the Arctic Ocean, with fifteen dogs, three sleds and enough food for thirty days.

NWMP Inspector Francis Joseph Fitzgerald, 1905

NWMP Inspector Francis Joseph Fitzgerald, 1905

From the outset, the patrol was slowed by heavy snowfall and temperatures as low as -62°. Upon successfully completing the first leg of their journey, Fitzgerald hired a native guide to lead them through the next section. When they had completed this part of the trip, Special Constable Sam Carter took over leading the patrol, but unfortunately Carter had been on only one previous patrol, and that had been in the opposite direction. He’d never traveled the trail in the direction they were going.

By mid-January, 1911, three weeks into their trip, the patrol was lost, not having found the pass through the Richardson Mountains in northern reaches of the Rocky Mountains. With only four days of regular rations remaining, Fitzgerald made a notation in his journal: “My last hope is gone…I should not have taken Carter’s word that he knew the way from the Little Wind River.” The following day, the patrol turned around in hopes of returning to Fort McPherson, 250 miles away.
Relief party in search of Inspector Fitzgerald's Attachment, 1911

Relief party which set out in search of Inspector Fitzgerald’s Attachment, 1911

When they didn’t show up in Dawson City, on the Yukon River, by mid-February, it was obvious that something had gone wrong. But it was not until February 28 that Inspector William John Duncan Dempster, along with Constables J.F. Fyfe, F. Turner and First Nation guide Charlie Steward, were sent from the Dawson City post to search for the lost men. After almost a month, they found the bodies of the four patrolmen on March 21, beside the Peel River, only 35 miles away from Fort McPherson.

An investigation determined that Fitzgerald’s party perished due to bad weather, sparse game, a shortage of supplies, and the lack of an experienced guide. All four men were buried at Fort McPherson on March 28, 1911. In 1938, the graves were cemented over into one large tomb, with cement posts at the four corners connected by a chain. In the center is a memorial to the Royal Northwest Mounted Police Patrol of 1910.
The Richardson Mountains, on the Dempster Highway

The Richardson Mountains, on the Dempster Highway

As a result of his successful search, Inspector Dempster became a celebrated hero. Today’s Dempster Highway winds northward through the land of the Lost Patrol, where a monument to the winter patrols tells their story.

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Sled Dog Tales

This story is excerpted from the book Alaskan Sled Dog Tales, by Helen Hegener, published May 14, 2016, by Northern Light Media. $24.95 plus $5.00 shipping & handling. 320 pages, 6′ x 9″ b/w format, includes maps, charts, bibliography, indexed. Click this link to order.

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