Peace River Ponderings: So – you think we’ve had it cold – what about …

(Pictured above 830.58.09 – Wop May and Vic Horner in Peace River, Jan. 3, 1929, on their return to Edmonton following Mercy Flight to Fort Vermilion. Note: the plane has wheels not skis. In the background of the photograph (l-r) S. S. D.A. Thomas, S. S. Athabasca River, which by at least one account was abandoned, and S. S. Weenusk.)

So – you think we’ve had it cold – what about …

Peace River Ponderings are put together by the Peace River Museum, Archives, and Mackenzie Centre researcher Beth Wilkins. They are a glimpse into the history of Peace River connecting the past to the present.


It is true. The weather we’ve, recently, had was bitterly cold and windy, but not as cold as experienced in earlier times. For instance, the winter of 1968-1969, when the Land of Twelve-Foot Davis felt “the great and frigid forty days of record cold.” So remarkable that the Town of Peace River issued a Certificate of Endurance and Survival, signed by the Spirit of Twelve-Foot Davis and Mayor E. R. Whitmey, Steward of the Frozen Realm.

Christmas week – Dec. 22-Dec. 31, 1968, in which five Peace River temperature records fell, provides an example of the weather people endured and survived. The notable temperatures were taken at the weather office at the Peace River Municipal Airport. Within that time frame, December 23, a temperature of 38 below was recorded, nudging out a previous record of 29 below in 1962. Once, again, on Christmas Eve, it returned to the 38 below mark.

When your scribe first arrived in Alberta – the winter of 1972, she was told January was the coldest month of all. It was. Although it did not discourage venturing to the mountains to downhill ski and enjoy other outdoor wintertime pleasures. Low, these many years, the thermometer continues to register cold weather in the early winter months, whether in Celsius or Fahrenheit, or digitally or mercurial.

Speaking of 1972, reminds one of 200 years earlier – 1792 – when, in November, Alexander Mackenzie, later Sir Alexander Mackenzie, and his crew hurriedly ventured up the Peace River in canoes to beat freeze-up and reach Fort Fork. It was here, Mackenzie, on behalf of the North West Company, received furs and created a base from which he and his crew would reach his goal the Pacific Ocean. It was not too long after their arrival Mackenzie observed on November 22, the “river stopped”. Although the exact temperature was not recorded, one can safely assume it was below the freezing mark. Alas, thereafter, by the fur trader/explorer, there were but a few temperature readings taken. Among them, November 25-28, as low as -4°F (-20°C). Presumably, that was the first recording of weather in the region. But, December 2, “when my Fahrenheit’s thermometer was injured by an accident, which rendered it altogether useless” his temperature recordings ceased. Mackenzie observed, however, on November 27, “The frost was so severe that the axes of the workmen became almost as brittle as glass.”

It was, Sunday, December 23, 1792, when “I this day removed from the tent into the house which had been erected for me.” In the new year, Feb. 2, 1793, “the weather now became very cold, and it froze so hard in the night that my watch stopped; a circumstance that had never happened to this watch since my residence in this country.”

ven earlier than Mackenzie, indigenous people lived in a varied environment – “from the extremes of darkness, deep snow and bitter cold in winter to long, hot days in summer, life in northern Alberta presented many challenges to ancient aboriginal people. They had to acquire adequate food, shelter and tools, and needs and supplies change with the seasons. … To survive, hunters and gatherers had to read the environment as it changed through the year to know where to get the food and raw materials they needed. Their travels were patterned according to what the season had to offer. This seasonal round would vary from year to year depending on the abundance and timing of resources and the interests of the people. … In the winter, people were restricted to foot power, usually on snowshoes, so the distances that could be travelled were limited.”

Looking forward – January 2, 1929. The word emerged from northern Alberta that without an all-important diphtheria antitoxin, the contagion would spread from an already affected Hudson’s Bay manager, who eventually died, to become a community and beyond epidemic. Just think – two men – Wop May, Vic Horner, flying an unheated, open cockpit Avro Avian bi-plane from Edmonton to deliver diphtheria antitoxin to Dr. Hamman in Fort Vermilion on what is referred to as a Mercy Flight. Merciful it was, not only to successfully deliver the precious medication, but also to have the crew of the aircraft survive the flight to Fort Vermilion and back to Edmonton with temperatures at least -33°C, some say in the minus 40s, with only a couple of stops en route. Take it from a scribe, who had the privilege of flying in an open-cockpit bi-plane, it is a mighty cold ride – even in summer.

ne of the pilots’ stops was in McLennan, not only to protect themselves, but also the precious antitoxin, from the freezing temperature.  Imagine that temperature; factor in altitude, and wind chill. Remember, this was an open cockpit Avro Avian aircraft flying in January, in northern Alberta, at an estimated 80 miles (129 miles an hour) with no heater to effectively dissuade the effects of the chill.

This heroic story has several sub chapters, although on reflection. it is in many ways, the main chapter. It tells of two men, Joseph LaFleur, a hauler of mail, and son-in-law William (Che Chum) Lambert “two of the best couriers of the North Country” after a gruelling trek with provisions on a sleigh and toboggan hauled by dog teams, arriving in Peace River with Dr. Hamman’s message of appeal. Prior to the men’s arrival, they endured a misadventure of their own on the way with LaFleur, the older of the two men, falling through the ice. A warming and drying fire on shore helped. Nevertheless, this icy misadventure, with the long frigid journey of more than 300 miles in 12 days, sleeping restlessly in the snow and mushing their dogs as fast as they could, was no walk in the park.

In winter, dog team was the only means of communication between northern settlements and the outside world. There was, however, a telegraph connection from Peace River to Edmonton, used to alert Dr. Malcolm Bow, deputy minister of health, who, in turn, contacted Wop May. But, before Lafleur and Lambert could set out on their frigid venture, Bobby Gray and dad, William, delivered by dog team through 80 miles of cold and snow, the urgent message from Dr. Hamman in Red Earth Creek to Fort Vermilion for its dispatch to Peace River.

Ten years after these harrowing experiences, on a trek of their own, a Record-Gazette, Jan. 6, 1939, article tells of a Mr. and Mrs. Davies of Berwyn. On returning home by car from Grande Prairie, the Davies found their gasline frozen. “And the condition could not be remedied in the 48 below zero temperature.” They walked 12 miles through the snow and frigid weather until they found a trapper’s cabin in which they took refuge – for 24 hours. It was after a day’s worth of hours that a driver of a passing vehicle stopped and drove them to High Prairie. Mrs. Davies’ feet were frozen, but not seriously, so, says the article.

Fred Fox writes in Peace River Remembers under the heading, The American Invasion 1942: “Many of the troops were from the southern States where they had never experienced snow or cold weather and the winter of 1942-43 was a particularly cold one. Until December, their camp, on the west side of the railway bridge, “was made of two tents, one inside the other with a layer of insulation in between. They really tried to keep their stoves well-stoked with wood and it seemed as if every other day a tent would go up in flames.” A more stable encampment was soon built. The American invasion of which he speaks was of the 1,600 or so American Army troops of the 388th Engineer Battalion and the 90th Engineer Battalion. They were part of the Heavy Pontoon Battalion in the area to construct a pipeline from Norman Wells to Alaska (CANOL Project). Before they could do that, though, they needed to build a winter road from the Third Battle (on Hwy. 35) to Norman Wells.

A year later, The Northern Gazette, Jan 22, 1943, heading: “Temperature hits low mark for winter” with sub-heading “Readings between 50-60 below five days, still going strong” – “Coming as it did following the Chinook, the spell of cold weather has caused some hardship and a general scurry for coal and wood was evident.” Train service and milk delivery were also reported disrupted.

So – you think we’ve had it cold – what about …

(Sources: Peace River Museum, Archives and Mackenzie Centre files; Jim Umbach and daughter, Sharon Lynn; Aboriginal Cultures in Alberta: Five Hundred Generations, Northern Life Through the Seasons, Susan Jean Berry, Jack Brink and Provincial Museum of Alberta; Peace River Record; Northern Gazette; Record-Gazette; Peace River Remembers; first, unrevised, published December 2012).