The stories of a Nahanni gold hunt gone bizarrely wrong were all over the
newspapers and courts from May 1960 to May 1961. Five greenhorns who had been prospecting and sharing cabins on Macmillan Lake in Deadmen's Valley had apparently run out of food when their scheduled aircraft failed to pick them up. Two of the desperate men had gone in search of help and were never found. One took his own life by dynamite. Fortunately for the two remaining survivors, northern bush pilots Jim and Chuck McAvoy of Yellowknife happened to notice an SOS message tramped out on the soft ice of the lake and had rescued them in their Cessna 180. The "Starvation Cabin" episode was added to the legend of the Nahanni.
One person who heard the story firsthand from Jim McAvoy was Angus Blake MacKenzie, an Edmonton filmmaker and himself a pilot, with navigation training from the Second World War and 415 hours on his private pilot's licence. MacKenzie knew he had the basis of his next documentary film.
The film, Nahanni - the Lure of Gold, would focus on this story of the five unlucky prospectors at Starvation Cabin and would also delve into the macabre history of Deadmen's or Headless Valley, which had already been the scene of so many mysterious disappearances and deaths.
In late October of 1961, MacKenzie and John Langdon, a bush pilot and photographer for the film project, leased a Cessna 180 (CF-FYN) to check out the territory and also film some placer mining operations and general scenes in the Nahanni. When the snow fell, Langdon took the aircraft in to replace the floats with skis in preparation for the return to the Nahanni.
At this time the filmmakers met with Nahanni Butte residents Vera and Dick Turner, with whom they discussed their project and hinted at the possibility of finding rumoured lost gold. Dick Turner, himself a pilot, warned the filmmakers that, with the advent of aviation, the curse of the Nahanni had continued to add to its human toll. All northern pilots as well as engineers, trappers and miners could reel off numerous near-misses or crashes. But people still came, the Turners said with a sigh - by boat or aircraft - for adventure. Few left without a story, and some didn't survive to tell their tale.
MacKenzie's own story started immediately, when he and his partner were snowed in for two weeks. They were lucky to find shelter with the Turners. Then, in late December, MacKenzie and Langdon were stranded again, this time for six days at Macmillan Lake. They were eventually found by search aircraft after the storm abated, and were able to fly their aircraft back to Fort St. John. Unfortunately, the filmmakers heeded neither of those first warnings and continued with their project.
The next step was to hire two local prospectors, whose familiarity with
the territory and the gold business would add authenticity to the film. Tom Haggerty was from the Yukon; Jack Mulholland had trapped and prospected in the Liard region from the 1930s. His brother Joe, as well as Jack's former trapping partner, Bill Epler, had both disappeared without a trace in 1936 in Headless Valley, which would lend further credibility to Jack's role in the film. In December, Langdon flew Haggerty and Mulholland north the 92 miles from the Smith River airport to the film crew's base camp at Mickey Lake, NT, one and one-half miles west of Bennett Creek.
On January 5, 1962, needing supplies, MacKenzie took off for the 50-minute flight to Smith River, near the ominously named Valley of Lost Planes. At the time of his return flight the ceiling between Smith River and Mickey Lake had dropped below 500 feet, and visibility was only one-half mile, with snow. But the pilot had continued on. He was never seen again.
When he did not complete his flight plan a massive search was organized, although it was unable to start until January 17 due to weather. Nothing was found after 40 days, although local searches continued when and where possible. Langdon carried on with photography for the film,with the help of the two other men.
On August 14, 1962, the wreckage of CF-FYN was spotted while shooting footage for the closing minutes ofthe film. The Cessna 180 lay nestled right-side-up amid a grove of spruce trees in a valley at the 4,500-foot altitude, just eight miles southeast of Mickey Lake. Signs of MacKenzie's camp were found a short distance away. Search and Rescue personnel of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) returned to make a ground search for MacKenzie, or his body, and take an inventory of his camp. They found 46 notches chopped into the bark of a nearby tree. Inside the aircraft were a chain saw, gas and oil, and enough food to last for 100 days.
As well, police found two diaries, the first written with a pen and the
second with the sharpened head of a bullet. Both were weathered and the writing nearly obscured, but told a story that only added to the Nahanni's mysteries.
One of the first entries in MacKenzie's diaries explained the circumstances of the crash:
Both Clark and Macmillan lakes were visible as I headed north, although there was a pile of stuff north of the Cariboo which I decided to fly under. There were patches of fog but I could see the ground. I made a climbing turn to clear rising ground but the aircraft struck a tall tree because of the down draft.
The tree sheared off the left wing and sent the aircraft spinning to the
MacKenzie clambered out and examined his injuries: two sprained thumbs and a wrenched back. Not bad. He walked 100 yards to a rise to check his location. His white aircraft, buried in the snow-and-tree-covered slope, would be almost invisible from the air. In order to see it, searchers needed to make a dangerous downward sweep facing into the sun, and they wouldn't even begin to search until after his due-date, one week away. He knew where he was, however. Just eight miles from camp. Not far, as the crow flies.
At first he probably remained confident that he'd soon be found, and set about to make the best of the situation. As he recorded in his journal, he fashioned a canvas shelter from the engine cover and brought out his bedroll. He had a two-burner wood stove, and emergency rations for five days plus the large grocery order intended for the camp. He had an axe, snowshoes, warm clothing, summerweight sieeping bag, and two rifles with plenty of ammunition. While he waited he chopped wood, sent out periodical radio signals and ploughed trails through the waist-high snow.
In his journal, he expressed concern about his partners who were waiting at camp:
They'll need the supplies, so I have decided to make tracks as quickly as possible. I have sent off a series of Maydays on my aircraft radio and will do so again. I have made some trails in the open, headed on toward the mountain. But unfortunately cloud after cloud has obscured the valley since I got out of the aircraft so there is little chance that these trails will be seen.
Snow continued to fall and the wind whipped it into high drifts. The temperature dropped to -50° F. It took MacKenzie 10 hours of trudging over a three-day period to make a trail up to the mountaintop. On January 8 he wrote:
It was brutal work, and it left me terribly weak. I couldn't complete the trip to Mickey Lake, so I'm beginning to have doubts about my ability to ever do so. But at least now I'm sure of my location. I could see Mickey Lake clearly from the mountaintop. I keep listening for aircraft engines, even though I know it's too soon for them to come. I heard voices, and then I discovered I was talking to myself.
Each day, if the wind lessened, he would try again to hike to Mickey Lake. Not possible.
I made three-quarters of a mile in three hours, and I know now that I won't be able to make it. So I returned and fixed up camp for a long stay.
By January 10 his spirits began to falter:
I'm too tired to leave camp. I haven't been sleeping well and it's beginning to tell on me. It tires me to chop down a couple of trees and up here you need 20 of the damned things a day.
The journal entries in the first diary end here. Following a 10-day gap in communication, he continued to write in the back pages of his engine log book, using the .303 bullet.
On January 20, 1962, the temperature dropped to -65° F. This day he
wrote a note to his daughter, Donna, who was attending the University of Alberta:
I have decided to enlarge them [the notes] a little so that if I don't get home you'll know how it was with me at the end. I'm afraid I leave you little else save grief.
Several more attempts were made to hike out, once down the mountain toward Macmillan Lake 10 miles to the south over relatively flat ground to the site of "Starvation Cabin" where the five prospectors had undergone their ordeal two years earlier.
On January 21 he wrote:
My chances of being found are better if I get to the cabin, so I'm spending as much time trail-making as I can. It takes me about two hours to walk to the end of my trail and I spend three more pushing it ahead through heavy brush and five feet of snow. It is discouraging. I can walk back in 20 minutes over the last three hours' trail.
At this point, the first search plane was sighted. MacKenzie quickly lit a signal flare. The plane flew on. Then flew over. The noise reminds me of the Edmonton airport, he wrote.
On January 27, he further noted:
The RCAF were west of here all day, but it was cloudy and I saw not a sign of an aircraft. I stuck close to camp and instead of putting my red sleeping bag out in the snow as I had been doing, I mounted it on a pole and tramped out a SOS in the snow in the open area near my camp. Now a sleeping bag, even a summer one like mine, it not light, but that wind stretched it out straight like a flag.
January 28 brought more heartbreaking near-sightings:
I turned the radio on, sent a May Day with my position, and was beading down the valley when a big twin-engined bomber came roaring up the valley at about 100 feet. They'd heard me! The pilot was following my three-mile long, two-foot deep trail. My fire was belching white smoke. My sleeping bag was flapping in tbe breeze. I was saved! I stood there, waving my toque, an idiotic big grin on my face, and then the bomber flew right over, lifted to clear the mountain ridge, and was gone. I went back and sobbed the story into the radio, but no one heard.
He heard no more airplanes after the first week of February, and knew the
search had been called off. In fact, it was terminated on February 10, after more than 300 hours of flying by both military and civilian aircraft.
Temperatures again dropped to the -60° F range. MacKenzie stayed in camp, keeping his lifesaving fire going and looking after his frostbitten feet, as his food supply dwindled. I know I ate too much in the first two weeks, and have tried to make up for it since, he wrote. He itemized what was left, then added, so today I'll draw up a new diet sheet which I'll keep rigidly until I'm able to hunt and fish.
I heard an aircraft while I was taking inventory. It sounds like the plane I've seen earlier, going up Flat River way, probably to the tungsten mine [50 miles to the north]. He sometimes flies over Macmillan Lake. The sooner I get there and tramp out a big SOS in the snow, the better. Maybe I'll be seeing you before June. It's not snowing now and I need wood. So long for a while.
The diary entries continue sporadically until the 20th of February.
What happened to this competent and supposedly bush-smart man remains a mystery. There was still a supply of groceries in the aircraft. The terrain was rough but not forbidding. To make his way on foot back to camp he could have hiked 2,000 feet up a gentle incline, walked four miles along the top ridge, then down through a forested area to Bennett Creek.
Steve Villers, a Fort Nelson pilot and owner of Villers Air Services Ltd., participated in the search and still finds some aspects puzzling. "At the time he took off from Fort Nelson we had a very cold spell, minus 40° Fahrenheit, with clear skies and not a cloud anywhere in the area. The snow was deep and it kept falling after MacKenzie crashed, making the aircraft's white paint difficult to spot.
"There was quite a big search with the RCAF using a Lancaster, and
numerous private aircraft. The area was thoroughly covered where the aircraft was finally found."
However, he recalls that the sky stayed clear for more than a week, during which time steam and smoke from camps and oil rigs could be easily seen from over 50 miles away. While MacKenzie's diary entries noted that he had kept a fire going for many days, neither flames nor smoke from his fires were spotted by anyone in search aircraft.
"Strictly my own opinion," Steve Villers adds, "but I think, having
crashed and been unhurt, he intentionally disappeared. Certainly no body or skeleton has ever been found, so your guess is as good as mine as to what happened in the end.
"I am sure that no one would intentionally crash an aircraft, but having
crashed and not been hurt it would have been an ideal opportunity to disappear. It would have been difficult to walk out, but not impossible." Villers recalls rumours of some personal problems. And also rumours of someone spotting MacKenzie in Mexico a year later. "But these were stories that were going around, and were probably just that," Villers concludes, in a typically Northern "let it be" attitude.
But theories persist regarding the fate of Blake MacKenzie: he and Langdon had found gold, and Mackenzie escaped with the booty; MacKenzie hiked out to start a new life in Australia, or South America; he'd found a new partner, a woman. "Find the woman and you will find Blake," says Dick Turner in his book Wings of the North, while acknowledging that weather was a major factor in MacKenzie's fateful flight.
The RCMP declined to speculate, stating simply that the man was missing and presumed dead. His wife reported that he was a heavy sleeper and was subject to sleepwalking. Perhaps he'd wandered off. With a rifle and axe? Not likely. Friends believe he might have been the victim of an animal attack (although no signs indicated this, such as bits of bone or clothing being found). He could have fallen through the ice, and his body washed downstream in the spring run-off. But this would not take into account the disappearance of his snowshoes, axe and rifle, which were never found during searches of the ground or streams.
Northern bush pilot Jim McAvoy adds another twist to this tale. Blake
MacKenzie had personally told Jim that he'd become intrigued with the story of the five prospectors and their plight at Starvation Cabin, which had happened just the year previous to MacKenzie's idea to go to the Nahanni and film his documentary. Could he also have known about the supposed nefarious plans of these prospectors to "salt" their mine with high-graded gold concentrate that Jim and Chuck McAvoy had spied in a box behind their cabin when they'd flown in and rescued the two survivors? Perhaps MacKenzie had heard of the box and its contents when he'd become "lost" in the area shortly after that story broke.
It is known that MacKenzie had withdrawn a sum of money from his bank account in Edmonton before leaving on this trip. "His disappearance had to be planned," states McAvoy, who knows the North thoroughly from a lifetime of flying throughout its most remote areas, and also from his family-owned northern mining ventures.
"He made no attempt to walk back to his camp. I think the diary was a fake, written and dated beforehand; no way had he sat there for 50 days writing in it, waiting to be found."
Some northern residents consider such explanation to be "common
knowledge", but remain willing to let any judgements rest in peace.