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In Fort McPherson, a memorial to a Northern tragedy
The barrel-chested Mountie became a Canadian icon thanks largely to his service in the North. There was Sam Steele, whose iron fist squeezed lawlessness out of the Klondike. There were the boys in red who famously “got their man” in the epic hunt-down of the Mad Trapper. But the North was also home to the worst RCMP tragedy of the 20th century. It happened on a lonely trail straddling the Yukon and the Northwest Territories nearly 110 years ago.
The horrors of the “Lost Patrol,” as its now called, began December 21, 1910, with a series of small errors. Inspector Francis Fitzgerald and his three constables (Richard O'Hara Taylor, George Francis Kinney and Sam Carter) departed on an 800-kilometre dogsled journey from Fort McPherson, NWT, to Dawson City, Yukon, though none of them had ever travelled the route in that direction.
It was the first of many ill-advised decisions. They shouldn’t have left on the winter solstice, when darkness is total and temperatures touch minus-50. They shouldn’t have dismissed their Dene guide, Esau George, once he’d led them across the Richardson Range. And when they realized they couldn’t find Forrest Creek – the path to Dawson – they should have stopped and turned around.
But they didn’t. When the patrol failed to show up in the Klondike, searchers were dispatched. That spring, their corpses were found – as were their diaries, which told a ghastly tale. By January 12, they’d known they were lost. By January 19, their food ran out and they began eating dogs. After weeks of desperate meandering, they tried to retreat to the Northwest Territories. But by February 5 it was all over. Three starved; one shot himself. They died just 40 kilometres shy of Fort McPherson.
Today, you can drive between Fort McPherson and Dawson City on the Dempster Highway, which follows roughly the same route as the patrol was supposed to follow and was named after the officer who led the search that eventually found the Lost Patrol. If you travel the highway, be sure to visit the graves of the officers beside St. Matthew's Anglican Church in Fort McPherson, and pay homage to one of the most tragic episodes in Northern history.