Taken Out of Grant McConachie's Biography. A Story of Isolation and
In the deep interior of British
Columbia, well up on the Pacific shoulder of North America, is a strange,
forbidding and little-known land. The region is flanked by two mountain
ranges, the Coast to the west, the Rockies to the east, with a third
granite spine, the Stikine, writhing through it.
For nearly two hundred years, white men
have known and travelled the Coast range and moved through the relatively
easy passes of the Rockies. But it is the Stikine, the central barricade
running south from the high ramparts of Alaska and the Yukon, where the
adventurer has consistently run out of luck. Indians say the Stikines are
bad country and avoid their more forbidding regions . . . sheer granite
peaks, deep and desolate canyons, high mountain deserts.
But even hostile territory will lure men if
there are furs to be taken and gold to be found, and there were fur
animals and game in the lower valleys of the Stikines, and granules of
free gold in the gravel beds of the mountain creeks, so there had been a
few white trappers and prospectors dribbling through the more accessible
parts of this bleak land. Mostly, however, it was still unexplored, larger
than half of Europe but so isolated it might almost as well have existed
on another planet. Huge fires could burn through forests all summer and no
one would know of them. It was a great, silent, lonely land whose
mysteries conveyed an implicit warning to the intruder: Trespass at your
And then came the bush plane, a buzzing dot
against the high blue sky. It was the easy access offered by the bush
plane that lured the professional gold-seekers like Barney Phillips to the
Stikine country. And it was Phillips who placed a mysterious phone call
late in February 1933 inviting Grant McConachie to a late-might rendezvous
in the tiny Independent Airways office in Edmonton. It was a strange way
of doing business, but the young president of the world's most rickety
flying operation scented adventure and revenue. Now that he was back in
shape he was ready for adventure. And Independent Airways was certainly
ready for revenue. With one of the Fokkers wrecked and the other unable to
keep up with the fish-haul contract, the company seemed to be staggering
towards a financial crack-up.
In the privacy of the small office that
night, Barney Phillips revealed part of his secret to McConachie.
"I've got a gold creek, a rich
one." They were alone but he spoke in hushed, almost furtive tones.
"It's away up in the Takla Lake area of the Stikine country, next to
hopeless to get at except by plane. That's why I've come to you. I need to
bust in there with a work party, supplies, equipment. It's got to be done
soon before the spring break-up because I want my gang there ready to work
the sluice boxes on the creek as soon as the ice goes."
"But why me?" McConachie asked.
"All I can put on the job right now is a Puss Moth."
"That's just it. You're a small
outfit. I don't trust Mackenzie or Canadian Airways because they fly for
some of the big mining companies. They've got too many contacts, and they
might talk. I need somebody who'll keep his yap shut till I get my claims
The deal was made. Phillips unfolded a
large map of British Columbia on the desk, stabbed it with a forefinger
and said, "Prince George." Another stab, "Takla Lake, one
hundred sixty miles northwest of George. When we leave George we leak the
word we're heading for Finlay Forks country, but of course we're going the
other way. That'll fool the bastards."
McConachie nodded but didn't reply. He was
frowning at the map of the Takla area, noting the closely-spaced brown
contour lines depicting near-vertical landscape and the black numbers
denoting peak elevations. High granite . . . the Stikine range. All of
McConachie's 720 air hours had been flown over undulating bush or flat
prairie. Mountain flying in the underpowered Moth, in strange territory,
and on a mission so secret there could be no hope of search and rescue,
well . . . it would not be a dull assignment, he decided.
"It sounds great, Mr. Phillips, but if
you've never been in to this fabulous gold creek, how do you know for sure
there's actually any pay dirt there?" the young pilot queried.
It was a fair question and Phillips, a
gold-hunter for most of his life, was only too pleased to answer it at
some length. Some years back, in 1925, "Black Mike" McLaren had
spent a summer in the Stikine range and come back to Seattle with $17,000
in his poke. The next year Black Mike had gone in with his wife and had
just as much luck, but then had lost everything when his raft was wrecked.
The next year Black Mike went in with a partner, and neither of them ever
came out. His widow was flown around the area by Black Mike's friends but
was unable to recognize the creek where the gold was.
It seemed that Black Mike's secret had died
with him. Then Thomas Thomas, known to all as Dirty Tom, decided to take a
hand. He figured that the Indians of the area would know where McLaren had
camped. For two years Dirty Tom lived with the Indians there until,
finally, he persuaded one of his Indian friends to show him the creek
where Black Mike had struck it rich.
But winter was moving in fast and Tom just
made it out of the mountains before snow choked off the passes. He got to
Edmonton where he told the story and gave the map to his grubstakers, the
McLelland brothers. Then he died.
Barney Phillips, in turn, had purchased the
treasure map from the McLellands. Grant would be shown the secret map once
they got to Takla Lake.
The fuel would have to be cached at Takla,
Phillips explained. From there, he and his crew and their supplies would
be airshuttled in to the secret strike deeper in the mountains.
Setting course northwest out of Edmonton
with Phillips in the Puss Moth, McConachie crossed the snowy monotony of
the farmlands of the Peace River Block and flew through the rock-walled
pass of the Rockies to emerge into the heavily forested valley of the
upper reaches of the Fraser watershed. They refuelled at the thriving
logging community of Prince George.
Westward again, he followed the twin
ribbons of the Canadian National Railroad tracks, and at Burns Lake,
Phillips arranged for fuel and provisions for the air-supply shuttle. But
he was still far from the gold strike. Fuel (in forty-five-gallon steel
drums) and supplies would have to be air-staged ninety miles north into
the mountains to Takla Lake.
The first task was to get Phillips and the
first load of supplies up to the gold site so he could set up camp and
prepare for the spring sluicing while McConachie ferried in the miners and
their supplies. It was a huge job for a tiny plane and an inexperienced
The ninety-mile flight north was
uneventful, through broad passes, but as the red Puss Moth sloped down
towards the narrow strip of lake ice at Takla Landing the rugged sentinels
of the Stikine range towered more than a mile high. To the north the pilot
could see nothing but a sheer and solid phalanx, rank on rank, of mountain
peaks. To the prairie pilot, it was full of mystery and menace.
The Stikine country in winter! He had no
experience in the complexities of mountain flying. He had heard reports of
violent turbulence in the narrow valleys, of strange savage whirlpools of
air, and of sudden down-drafts that could slam a small plane against the
wall of a gorge like a slapped mosquito.
The country was so poorly mapped that a
flatlands pilot could easily get confused and lost in the labyrinths. A
wrong turn could end in disaster. There were many dead-end canyons that,
in poor visibility, would be certain death.
He left his mechanic at Takla, to make more
room for supplies. As he took off into the unknown with Phillips, he knew
that the slightest mechanical failure would strand them in that rock-bound
wilderness without hope of rescue. Once their tiny monoplane vanished over
the first ramparts, they would lose all contact with the outside. Their
mission was so secret nobody would know where to search for them. The snow
in the narrow valleys was shoulder-deep. Walking out would be hopeless.
They would die of slow starvation before the melting of the snows.
McConachie's inexperience was bolstered,
however, by the brash self-confidence of youth. He never seriously doubted
that his own resourcefulness and flying skill would get him through any
dangers awaiting him in the high mountains. And whatever misgivings he
might have had were brushed aside in the excitement of this new adventure.
But he did have two reservations: Could
Phillips find his way in to the secret gold mine, and would he himself be
able to thread his way back out through the awesome mountain maze alone?
The route took them deeper and deeper into
the mountains, through terrible chasms, past eternal glaciers, sometimes
almost brushing the naked rock of towering peaks with the wing tips,
northwest over Bear Lake, up Sustut Pass flanked by seven thousand-foot
pinnacles, over the middle-high ice plateau of Thutade Lake, then along
the frozen water course of the Injenica to Toboggan Creek. Finally,
Phillips pointed down. There lay a small lake blanketed with deep snow, a
mile above sea level in a cradle between the twin peaks of Two Brothers
Mountain. Here goes, Grant thought, and slanted the Puss Moth into a steep
glide towards Two Brothers Lake.
He levelled into a long power approach and
his wings swished over the tree-tops so low that he could see the tracery
of animal tracks in the snow. Then he was down, where no aircraft had ever
As the skis settled into the deep powder, a
white cascade spumed up over the cockpit to be swept away in the wake of
the slip stream. There was an abrupt jolt of deceleration as the skis went
under and the Moth slewed to a stop, almost buried in the snow.
Sunk to the wing struts, the Moth could not
even be taxied. With the engine snarling at fall power, the small plane
lurched and wallowed like a cow in a quagmire, sinking deeper with every
effort to extricate itself.
This was an alarming situation for the
prairie pilot, who knew nothing of the peculiarities of high-mountain snow
fields. He had counted on taxiing to the shore, off-loading Phillips and
supplies, and taking off without shutting down the engine. He didn't dare
shut down because of a temperamental magneto. Without his mechanic he
might not be able to get the balky engine started again. Then it would
freeze and he would be in real, deep, hopeless trouble.
There was only one chance-leave the engine
idling, dump the cargo, get on snow shoes and tramp out a runway long
enough to get the Moth airborne. It meant what seemed like hours of the
most exhausting toil, but with their lives at stake the men had no choice.
They plodded back and forth on their webbed feet until the snow had been
compressed into the semblance of runway. For McConachie the ordeal was a
nightmare for he still had knee adhesions in his injured leg. Every step
was agonizing. But it was a race against the slow but steady consumption
of fuel in the running engine. Would there still be enough fuel left in
the tanks for the journey back? Or would it be engine failure over the
Stikines-which meant certain death?
The job was done. Under full power, the
Moth lurched along the makeshift runway, gathered speed and planed up over
the forest to wheel in a wide arc and head back along the tortuous route
to Takla Landing. After the brutal labour, the take-off turned out to be
simple. And the gas held out.
In all, McConachie was able to complete
seven flights in to Two Brothers, enough to deposit the members of
Phillips' three-man work crew and a load of supplies to last them until
the middle of June.
Despite the success of the most difficult
flying assignment of his young career, Grant McConachie's return to his
Edmonton base was anything but triumphant. As he taxied the red Puss Moth
'up to the hangar and shut off the engine, the airport manager, Jimmy
Bell, stepped forward in the company of a middle-aged stranger with a look
of no-nonsense efficiency. He was efficient, too.
Before McConachie had time to manoeuvre his
lank frame out of the cabin, the stranger had pasted a large white sticker
across the windscreen of the Moth, seizing it on behalf of the creditors.
In the hangar McConachie found that the sheriff had already got to the
remaining Independent Airways Fokker, plastering it with a bankruptcy
Things were desperate. But McConachie could
still talk: "I got the more important creditors together and
explained the situation. If they would just release the Fokker, I pleaded,
we could earn money barnstorming, then as soon as the northern lakes were
open, haul freight for the northern mines. We got the Fokker out of
So far so good. But then his luck ran out.
The pilot he hired to share the barnstorming chores somersaulted the
Fokker on a sand bar in Gull Lake, south of Edmonton, while hopping
passengers at the beach resort on a Sunday afternoon. No one was hurt but
the aircraft was wrecked beyond repair, never to fly again.
Uncle Harry and Princess Galizine, the two
backers of McConachie's enterprise, were engaged in a bitter feud, and
each refused to invest another cent. And thus, with its overload of
misfortune, Independent Airways sank without even causing a ripple in the
business community. But for young McConachie it caused a tidal wave of
"There I was," he later recalled
with a grin, "a failure at twenty-three, finished as an airline
executive, career in ruins. And what could be done to get supplies to the
Two Brothers miners? I was the only man who knew where they were. Their
lives depended on me."
After several weeks of frantic effort to
line up a plane, and disturbed nights fretting over the fate of the
Phillips' camp, McConachie finally got lucky again. A friend, Charlie
Elliot, who had a Junkers low-wing monoplane based at Vancouver, agreed to
meet Grant at Bums Lake and fly a load of groceries in to the gold creek.
The problem appeared to be solved. The Junkers was a rugged plane skinned
with corrugated aluminum, with a dual open cockpit and a roomy cabin.
As they took off with their load from Takla
Landing for the mining camp, McConachie, thoroughly familiar with the
160-mile route to Two Brothers, was relaxed and confident because he knew
that Charlie Elliot was an experienced and skillful mountain pilot, one of
They were still climbing over the
serpentine northern reaches of Takla Lake, with visibility diminished in
heavy rain, when loud explosions shook him out of his complacency. The
aircraft shuddered -as the engine bucked and backfired. The plane began to
lose height. They were on the way down. As they broke into clearer
visibility McConachie was alarmed to see the lake choked with deadfall
But Elliot was unperturbed. Calmly the
pilot banked the Junkers into a final approach, snapped off the ignition
of the faltering engine and stalled the heavily-loaded plane on to the
log-filled water. There was a series of sharp jolts as the floats bounced
off the timbers, then a swish as they settled into the water without
serious damage. To McConachie it was an astounding demonstration of cool
piloting, as well as a tribute to the ruggedness of the Junkers.
Elliot discovered he could repair the
battered floats easily enough; but the engine was another matter. A metal
roller on a rocker arm responsible for opening and closing the valve on
one of the cylinders had shattered. It was an essential part. The engine
wouldn't run without it. More than a hundred miles of tough and mean
wilderness was between the stranded aviators and the nearest outpost with
a radio. And the mid-June date of the supply flight essential to the
survival of the Phillips' party had long since passed.
Meanwhile, at the mining camp at Two
Brothers Lake, all pretense of digging for gold had been abandoned as the
hope of survival diminished. The energy of the men was replaced by a
listless inertia. The miners, Mulvanie, Smith and Johnson, had in early
June been so confident of McConachie's return with supplies they had given
away surplus stocks of moose meat and flour to a passing band of Indians.
When mid-June passed with no sip of the
supply plane, annoyance had become concern and then alarm. They hunted,
but shot no game. Their meager rations disappeared and hunger became
acute. Endlessly each day the men searched the sky and listened. Finally,
the fear of the stranded men turned to resignation as they became
convinced that McConachie had crashed in the mountains. He was dead, and
no one else knew of their predicament or of their location. It was
impossible to walk out. They were in a wilderness prison. Hopeless
dejection took command. They waited for death.
But the downed aviators on Takla Lake had a
plan. They had found an Indian dugout canoe beached at the mouth of a
creek. McConachie would paddle twenty miles back down the lake to Takla
Landing. He would hire a boat for the hundred mile journey down the Middle
River and along Stuart Lake to Fort St. James where he could get out a
radio message for help. Elliot would repair the floats and tinker with the
This plausible scheme quickly foundered on
the remarkable instability of the dugout canoe. McConachie was no more
than twenty feet on his journey when the round-bottomed vessel suddenly
turned turtle, dumping the surprised pilot into the glacier-fed waters of
the lake. After five dunkings in as many minutes, he was forced to
conclude that the dugout was not for any white man and most certainly
would never carry him to the landing.
Walking out was impossible. To survive, the
pilots had to rely entirely on their own resources. They were able to
devise makeshift patches for the damaged floats. Then Elliot, who was a
natural mechanic as well as a fine pilot, had the idea that he might
improvise a tappit roller by drilling and filing to size the socket from
one of his wrenches. He devoted five full days to drilling and filing the
hard steel of the socket until it achieved the dimensions of the missing
part. Then he reassembled the engine.
A shift in the wind had cleared the log jam
and soon, miraculously, the sturdy Junkers was in the air. But, obviously,
neither floats nor engine were in shape to venture deeper into the
mountains. The best that Elliot could do was drop his companion at Burns
Lake, then set course for Vancouver where the plane could be properly
"I saw Charlie disappear down the
lake, and I walked back to the town and I was sure I was going out of my
mind. Here I was, with nothing, and there were four men up there at that
damned lake depending on me, but I was getting nowhere while they were
starving to death," McConachie recalled. Every plane in the area was
working and there was no air-sea rescue system to call in. By the time
McConachie's desperate efforts to locate a relief aircraft were at last
rewarded, it was the end of July. The supply mission was more than six
weeks overdue when Ken Dewar, a staff pilot for Consolidated Mining &
Smelting Company, agreed to pick up McConachie and the provisions at Bums
Lake and fly them in to the gold camp.
As their float-plane landed on the open
water of Two Brothers Lake and taxied to shore, McConachie was horrified
to see only one man, Barney Phillips, on the shoreline to greet them. The
tents stood like mute sentinels in the forest. The camp betrayed no sign
"The tents were there, but there was
nobody around. I thought, God, they're dead!"
"Well, Barney looked bad. He looked
like a skeleton with skin! He lifted up his hand and let it drop. We
jumped on to the shore and ran to the first tent. It was empty. in the
second I saw Smith, Johnson and Mulvanie. It was hard to recognize them.
They were sitting like a row of skeletons on a camp cot, emaciated
dummies. When I said, 'Hello, boys, I finally made it,' I knew they didn't
believe me. They thought I was a ghost."
They were suffering not only from
malnutrition but from the shock of hopes deferred and disappointed until
they no longer believed even the reality of their salvation. During the
endless empty hours, stretching into days and weeks of waiting, of
listening, of scanning the skies, they had begun to hear the drone of the
motor they so fervently wished to hear. They began hearing planes every
day, phantom planes that never appeared, until finally, weak with hunger,
past caring, they had taken to their tent. And there they sat, unable to
rejoice or even to comprehend the fact of their rescue. To them the sudden
appearance of the pilots was just another mirage conjured up by their
desperation and hunger.
Days later, after hospital care and
nourishment had restored their strength and rationality, the miners were
able to work up a raging fury over their abandonment. They cursed
McConachie with the full range and colour of their long-nurtured
profanity. Only after giving release to this hoarded bitterness were the
miners content to listen calmly, and with understanding, to the story of
his frustrated efforts to reach them.
The reaction of Barney Phillips was quite
different. He was able to remain casual and unperturbed throughout the
ordeal and his recovery. At no time did he blame McConachie for his
terrible experience. He took a friendly and practical interest in the
plight of the young man, regarding him as a congenial and enterprising
youth plagued with misfortune. Why not, he proposed, organize a new flying
company? He needed air service for his mining venture and would find the
financing to set up the operation. McConachie could provide the flying
ability and the operating experience.
It was in this fashion that United Air
Transport came into existence, with G. W. G. McConachie its
twenty-four-year-old president and general manager.
For a book review by John S Goulet see: Bush
Pilot With A Briefcase.
Note from the Editor. This
chapter was taken out of Ronald A. Keith's biography of Grant McConachie.
The book explains the beginnings of Canadian Pacific Airways and
McConachie's' ambitious drive to connect Canada with China and all the
Pacific in-between by luxury airliner.
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March 05, 2006 .