A Chapter Taken Out of Grant McConachie's Biography. A Story of Isolation and Trust. "The High

      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 peril.
      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 staked."
      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 youth.
      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 been before.
      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 sticker.
      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 hock."
      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 anxiety.
      "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 the best.
      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 logs.
      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 engine.
      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 repaired.
      "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 of life.
      "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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Last modified on March 05, 2006 .
           Virtual Horizons, 1996.