“And we should call it Latitude 65,” Magellan said five years ago when he floated the idea of a blog about our travels, the black-sky rains of November pelting our windows on the forty-ninth parallel in Vancouver.
What places, I’ve always wondered, are on the circle of latitude 65° N of the Earth’s equatorial plane?
And if we were nearby, how would we know the exact spot?
“We’ll be at latitude 65 this morning,” said Magellan as we left Yukon’s Tombstone Territorial Park where we’d camped the night before on our driving trip up to Tuktoyaktak.
By then Rove-Inn had wheeled 3000 kilometres north, most of it on pavement. Pure gravel, wide and well maintained, the Dempster Highway stretches northward from Km 0 near Dawson City, Yukon, to Inuvik, Northwest Territories at Km 736.
The Last Great Road Trip brochure was on my lap, The Milepost on my iPad, The Dempster Highway Travelogue somewhere in Rove-Inn. None were going to shout “You’re at latitude 65° N.” Naturally Magellan had it all planned.
“Hold on to the Garmin Explorer and unlock it as we get closer,” he directed. “It won’t be for an hour or so.”
We drove through Tombstone Park, which features the highest point on the Dempster Highway. Past Sheep Mountain (no Dalls) and Two Moose Lake (not even one) to the northern limit of glaciation (the rest of the trip is in the Beringia, the unglaciated land of mammoths, tigers and giant beavers.)
At Chapman Lake, I unlocked Garmin and watched black numerals speeding by on its face, depicting the passing seconds. “Largest lake on the Dempster,” I read aloud from Travelogue, “named after Ernest “Chappie” Chapman, a trader, trapper and prospector.” In mid-October, we might have witnessed the migration of 40,000 Porcupine Caribou. This was a winter crossroad in Ancient times for the Hän and Gwich’in First Nations as they shifted their seasonal camps.
At latitude 64° N near Km 118, I was busy unlocking Garmin every few minutes. Not until after we’d travelled the Dempster (in both directions) did I read a sidebar in Travelogue about “The Lost Patrol”—one of the most famous stories in the Yukon. We knew only a snowflake’s portion of the story—unaware that the fate of four officers of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (RNWMP) occurred less than a degree away from latitude 65° N.
Do you know the story? In 1904, the RNWMP began dispatching winter patrols by dog sled between Dawson City and Fort McPherson and up to Herschel Island on the Beaufort Sea. Why we wondered, did they institute this 800 kilometre journey in arctic weather that hovered around -45 degrees Fahrenheit, often plummeting another twenty degrees? To deliver mail and dispatches, check on residents, keep law in the frontier and protect Canadian interests.
In 1910 the commissioner of the RNWMP decided the trip should be made in the reverse direction. Why? Perhaps so he could have these men on their way south to serve as part of the RNWMP contingent attending the coronation of King George V in England in June 1911.
Chosen to lead the patrol was Inspector Francis Joseph Fitzgerald, accompanied by Constable Richard O’Hara Taylor, Constable George Francis Kinney and their guide, Special Constable Sam Carter. They left Fort McPherson on the winter solstice, December 21, 1910. Why just before Christmas? When none had travelled the route in that direction—with a guide who had been on only one patrol?
Up here, weather rules. Previous patrols had completed the trip in as few as fourteen days. But nasty weather had forced others to endure fifty-six sleeps. Fitzgerald took supplies for thirty days.
After missing a turn on the trail, Fitzgerald hired a native guide, Esau George. But near the mouth of Mountain Creek, George was paid for his work and let go.
Trekking in deep, soft snow with forceful winds and blinding blizzards in the Richardson Mountains during one of the worst winters on record, the patrol was in trouble. Down to less than five kilos of flour and even less bacon, on January 17, 1911, Fitzgerald wrote 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.”
(Little Wind River’s latitude? 65.383° N.)
The next day, the patrol reversed their trail back toward Fort McPherson, a distance of 400 kilometres.
Frostbitten, ill and starving, they killed ten of their dogs for food. On February 5, 1911, day 47 of the patrol, Fitzgerald wrote the last entry in his journal.
At the end of February when they hadn’t returned, a relief patrol was sent out. Corporal William John Dempster was chosen to lead the search, a man known for his trail blazing skills—the man for whom this northern highway is named.
Three weeks later, Dempster’s patrol found Kinney dead of starvation and Taylor of a fatal, self-inflicted bullet wound to the head. The next day they found the bodies of Fitzgerald and Carter, who had forged ahead searching for help. After travelling nearly 1000 kilometres the men had died within 56 kilometres of Fort McPherson. “The bodies of all four were in a terribly emancipated condition, the stomach of each was flattened almost to the back bone, the lower ribs and hip bones showing very prominently,” wrote Dempster. “After the clothing had been cut off, I do not think either of them weighed a hundred pounds.”
To avoid a recurrence of The Lost Patrol’s grim fate, Corporal Dempster led initiatives to mark the Forrest Creek Trail, build cabins and place regular caches along the route, and have First Nations guides accompany patrols. The last patrol was in 1921, all of them successful except for that of Fitzgerald’s team.
(For today’s emergencies, Km 124 of the Dempster Highway also functions as an emergency airstrip. Hold on; it’s a gravel landing.)
Captivated by the airstrip and the scenery, I had momentarily forgotten about the Garmin. We’d overshot—it blinked 65:037° N! Magellan had to reverse into an emergency backup. With no untoward consequences, unlike The Lost Patrol.
Latitude 65° N is at Km 137 on the Dempster Highway. With a petit pond on one side and the Blackstone River on the other, it’s a tiny gem on the geographic necklace of latitude 65° N—and within a degree of history.
“Dempster Patrol Goes Down in History.” Yukon News. December 18, 2008.
“The Lost Patrol of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police.” Explore North.
Karram, Kerry. Death Wins in the Arctic: The Lost Winter Patrol of 1910. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2013.
North, Dick. The Lost Patrol: The Mounties’ Yukon Tragedy. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2008.