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Bookends: Remembering the 1970 Dempster Patrol November 25, 2014

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The Last PatrolBookends: Remembering the 1970 Dempster Patrol

By Dan Davidson

April 29, 2014

– 735 words –

 

The Last Patrol:

Following the Trail of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police’s Legendary Lost Patrol

By Keith Billington

Caitlin Press

192 pages

$19.95

 

There seems to have been a fondness for new books related to the Lost Patrol over the last year or so. Back in February I reviewed Kerry Karram’s Death Wins in the Arctic, an informative book that mentioned a few of the commemorative runs that have been made along the Dempster over the years since Inspector Fitzgerald’s ill-fated patrol.

One run that she did not mention was the one that is the subject of this book, the 1970 expedition from Fort McPherson to Dawson City.

Keith Billington, the instigator of this adventure, spent several years as a nurse posted in Fort McPherson, and was spurred to activity by an initiative launched by the NWT government in 1969 to look “for projects that would typify life in the Territories in order to celebrate their centennial the following year.”

Billington sent off a proposal to the government for a patrol reenactment that “should honour the Gwich’in men who had worked as guides and special constables for the RNWMP (Royal Northwest Mounted Police) patrol system and provided much of the skill that was required for the members of the force to survive long trips in adverse weather and inhospitable terrain.”

The project was approved and Billington recruited ten local men to join him in the long trek by dog team to Dawson. Things got a little complicated by the fact that Billington, his wife, Muriel, and their family had finished their six year stint in the NWT and were being relocated by the federal department which controlled most northern health posts at this time, to a new post in northern British Columbia. Still, he managed to keep the project on track and selected a group of men who ranged in age from young men to elders.

Billington has told part of this story previously in his 2008 memoir House Calls by Dogsled, which I reviewed here some years ago. Subsequently I learned a bit more about the adventure from the late Archdeacon Ken Snider, who was the parish priest at St. Paul’s Anglican Church at that time, and one of the folks on this end of the adventure who helped to make it happen.

Billington has assumed that some readers might not be familiar with the original account as recorded by the late Dick North and some other scribes, whose books I recommend if you want that whole story. You’ll get enough here to whet your appetite for more.

After spending the first 66 pages providing details of the background and planning for what came to be called the Dempster Patrol, including sketches of the participants, he falls into a pattern of alternating chapters. Short chapters, usually only 2 to 4 pages, indicated by a thumbnail photo of the Inspector, retell an abbreviated version of the 1910 debacle, while longer chapters tell the first person story of the 500 kilometre Dempster Patrol.

The commemorative patrol was difficult enough, but it was larger as well as much better provisioned and equipped than the original. It had everything it needed to live off the land, as well as several supply caches stashed along the way. Most importantly – and everyone agrees that this is what killed the 1910 patrol – the 1970 trek had experienced First Nation locals who knew the trails and knew how to survive in the bush.

Meals on the Dempster Patrol may have become predictable after a time, but never got down to the “dog meat and tea” that was recorded so often in Fitzgerald’s increasingly sparse journal.

There are lots of Dawson names in this account, including the mayor of the day, Fabien Salois, Percy and Joe Henry, Chester Henderson, Ken Snider, Barb and Henry Hanulik and Richard Martin. It’s a fascinating and lively account, sprinkled with enough pictures to give a good sense of what the trip was like.

The Billingtons ended up in Prince George, from whence they venture forth to cross country ski and travel by snowmobile in the winter and double sea kayak in the summer. This is the fourth book Keith has mined from their time in the north. At this writing he is one of two surviving members of the Dempster Patrol.

 

-30-

 

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