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Bookends: Taking another look at the Lost Patrol October 16, 2014

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Bookends: Taking another look at the Lost PatrolDeath Wins

By Dan Davidson

February 19, 2014

– 790 words –

 

Death Wins in the Arctic

The Lost Winter Patrol of 1910

By Kerry Karram

Dundurn Press

232 pages

$19.99

 

Kerry Karram’s fascination with tales of Arctic survival, made evident in her earlier book, Four Degrees Celsius: a Tale of Arctic Peril (Dundurn, 2012), continues with this detailed account of the famous Lost Patrol story.

Her interest in this expedition stemmed from her attendance at her son’s graduation and commissioning as a member of the modern day RCMP, which took place at Depot, in Regina. This is also the home of the RCMP Heritage Centre. It was also at Depot where she met Corporal Sean Chiddenton, who was able to show her the handwritten journal kept by Inspector F.J. Fitzgerald during his last, fatal trek from Fort McPherson down into the Dempster country and almost back again.

This is a document which is not referred to in the bibliography of Dick North’s earlier book, The Lost Patrol (Raincoast reprint edition, 1995), and I can only assume it was not available as a resource when North was researching his account back in the 1970s. Fittingly, his book is one of the sources for this one.

With the journal as a source Karram was enabled to give a day by day account, up to the point where the Inspector was too far gone to make any further entries. Quotations from the journal, from Robert Service’s poetry and from other sources introduce each chapter of the book.

Fitzgerald’s entries are spare, and she pads out the daily jottings with stories of the Force that the men might have shared with each other around the campfire at night before turning in. Aside from providing contextual tales of Royal Northwest Mounted Police history, this is a useful narrative device and helps enliven a story which might otherwise have consisted of repetitions of the same daily round, from the early morning rising, to the noon hour stop, the evening chores, looking after the dogs, having a meal and turning in while trying to keep as warm as possible.

The basic pattern is repeated so many times that it threatens to become tedious, but it does serve to give a sense of the daily grind on the trail in temperatures and snow conditions that eventually did in the four man patrol once they had managed to get lost.

It would certainly appear that they were defeated, for the most part, by overestimating their ability to find their way along the trail without a First Nations guide. The man in the patrol most familiar with the route had only ever travelled it from the opposite direction, and we all know that things can look very different depending on your orientation.

My friend, History Hunter Michael Gates, has pointed out a number of factual problems with this book. Some of them originate with Cpl. Chiddenton, who wrote the foreword. He has the year gold was found in the Klondike off by two years, confusing the Discovery with the Gold Rush.

Some of the captions and text references in the book bounce back and forth between NWMP and RNWMP. By the time this story took place the R had been added to the original name six years earlier. Some of the confusion comes from the telling of tales that take place before this, but it would have been good to clear that up.

Karram is at some pains to show how difficult this trek was in either direction. Inspector Dempster’s relief patrol succeeded because it was better supplied and used a guide, but it was still an ordeal. To underline this fact, Karram briefly tells the story of the 75th anniversary patrol, which was attempted in 1985. It was unsuccessful.

She does not mention the two other successful reenactments. One of these took place in 1969 and is mentioned briefly in Keith Billington’s House Calls by Dogsled (Harbour Publishing, 2018) Billington has since devoted an entire book, The Last Patrol (Caitlin Press, 2013) to this lively tale.

In 1995, to help mark the 100th anniversary of the force in the territory, another successful patrol was undertaken, using Dempster’s relief route from Dawson to Fort McPherson and back. This was also the year that North’s book was revived after its original eight printings by another firm.

Karram tells an interesting story and has a lively style, but the book does suffer from the reader’s certain knowledge that it’s going to end badly for the central characters. There were days when I simply found it too depressing to read about another really bad day. There was, however, never any doubt that I would finish the story.

 

-30-

 

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