Article: Lost! The MacAlpine Expedition

  • Hudson Bay Building, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut

    Hudson Bay Post, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut

    On August 24, 1929, an expedition party of eight prospectors led by Colonel MacAlpine – president of a Toronto mining company called Dominion Explorers – set out with two single-motor planes and rushed into the Arctic hoping to stake claims in a rich copper find they heard was to be opened up by the government. (It was later opened, but didn’t prove to be rich.)

    Back then there were only half-a-dozen radio stations in the Northwest Territories, no radio-equipped planes and no airstrips. Their plan was a three-week sweep of the Territories – to the Arctic shore and back. But a plane badly moored at Churchill was lost in the wild Hudson Bay tide. The replacement took a week and the delay ran the trip into bad weather and near disaster.


    Carried off course by compasses thrown out of kilter by the magnetic pole, the prospectors had flown to the limit of their fuel and landed at Dease Point. By unanimous vote, the group decided to sit tight until the freeze-up. Stranded beside their out-of-gas float planes – a Fairchild and a Fokker – the missing prospectors were more than 100 miles inside the Arctic Circle. They figured – rightly – that the nearest white settlement was Cambridge Bay, on Victoria Island off Canada’s northern mainland where the Hudson’s Bay Company had a post. From the signs of the Inuit, they calculated they must travel 60 miles west along the coast, then 25 miles across the not-yet-frozen sea to Cambridge Bay.

    The party settled beside an Inuit hunting camp and built a 4-foot high house of stone, mud and moss. It measured 12 x 14 feet inside and was roofed with canvas from a tent that the wind kept blowing down.

    Food and ammunition were rationed. Meals were twice a day. Organized hunting had built up a stock of ptarmigan and ground squirrels. Teams gathered moss and willows for fuel. From the Inuit they received 55 dried whitefish (“awful greasy”) and two dried salmon.

    On October 15, the temperature dropped sharply below zero. The Inuit hunters indicated that the ‘walk out’ could start soon.

    Prospectors’ Perilous Journey

    On October 21, after almost six weeks of waiting at the mud-and-stone hut at Dease Point, the party moved northwest along the coast. With Inuit guides, three sleds and dog teams, the group – 18 in all – scrambled across the rough ice, moving in and out among the coast floes. It was 15 below zero.

    At night they camped in igloos fashioned by the Inuit with blocks carved from snow. They ate boiled trout and salmon with bacon and sugar from the dwindling emergency rations.

    On October 26, they started across the frozen strait over rough hummocks of ice. They got a quarter of the way across when they reached open water. There was nothing to do but turn back.

    The next six days brought hunger and near mutiny as only dog food remained. The Inuit left to get supplies and returned at 6:00 a.m. on November 1 with tobacco, fresh fish, flour and sugar.

    After a big breakfast on November 2, the group set out again. They spent nerve-wracking hours trying to pick a course across a large ice floe; tugging sleds over towering ice hummocks and crossing narrow leads of unsafe ice after the Inuit tested it with spears. At 4:00 p.m. they struck thin ice and decided to camp for the night on the floe.

    The last day of the trek, November 3, opened with a race across thin ice in bitter wind at 27 below zero. The group fanned out and ran over the rising, falling, crackling rubber ice, veering away from the darker, thinner areas.

    On November 4th, the weary group straggled into the HBC post, collapsed, tore off stinking parkas and sodden moccasins and ate.

    The HBC Post Manager sent word with obsolete wireless equipment that he set up aboard the ship Bay Maud that the prospectors were “All Well”. They relaxed and marvelled that most of them were in better shape than when they left the south. Only one of the group suffered permanent injury; three frozen toes to be amputated. They agreed, with gratitude, that without the help of the Inuit their expedition would probably have ended in disaster.


    A Failed Search Effort

    The MacAlpine Party was to have been back south by September 20. But, from Bathurst Inlet on the Arctic shore, one of the few northland radio stations gave word on September 24 that the group, due 12 days earlier had not arrived. A search started that day.

    Famous northland pilots set out as a search party. They scanned the desolate area inside the Arctic Circle, battling mist-banks, rain and snow. They flew on floats over near-frozen lakes and on skis when ice was perilously thin. They navigated by the sun or by the seat of their pants when the nearby magnetic pole affected the compass.

    For more than eight weeks, the search party struggled to rescue the prospectors. They too found themselves stranded in various locations, often with limited supplies and broken-down equipment. Their search was called off when word reached them at the prospectors had returned safe and sound.

    Two Footnotes

    – The rescued party was brought back to the Fokker Universal CF-AAM (which is fully restored and currently on exhibit at the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada).

    – Col MacAlpine and his mining associates footed the cost of the search, which was near $400,000.

    The black and white photos are of Colonel MacAlpine and the Bay Maud at Cambridge Bay, 1929.

2 Responses and Counting...

  • Jamie Oliver

    I did some work for a gentleman today named Bruce McAlpine from Woodville ON., and I inquired about his last name after recognizing it from my youth growing up across Sturgeon Lake from the Col. McAlpine estate and he told me this story about the Colonel almost word for word. Thank you for keeping our history alive.

  • Ian Corkill

    My mother’s uncle was on the ship at the time. He worked for the HBC as a fur trader.

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