Fran and Bob Gauchie photographed by Deddeda Stemler
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 14, 2009
Bob Gauchie pilots his wheelchair along the pathway of a hospital garden, where a thermometer records the noontime temperature as a tolerable eight degrees.
The instrument can go as low as -50, a temperature unknown to the city, but not to Mr. Gauchie.
“I don't suffer from the cold,” he said, “but I hate snow.”
Once, he endured a trial beyond the experience of any surviving human, a test of will so dreadful that people called him The Man Who Refused to Die.
His survival was described as a wonder and his story appeared on the front pages of newspapers across Canada and around the world. But even the miraculous comes with a price.
“I'm starting to get paid back for it now,” he said yesterday between sips of hot coffee.
The former bush pilot has arthritis and diabetes, and can find it difficult to take a deep breath. He is no longer able to walk, partly due to the loss of toes on both feet.
A handsome man whose wispy hair falls across his forehead, he wears a brush mustache and a forearm tattoo. He celebrated his 81st birthday last month, an accomplishment for someone left for dead in the Far North some 42 winters ago.
Born in Edmonton and raised in Barrhead, Alta., he joined the military at age 17 as war raged overseas. He married a pretty young woman from Saint John, and took a job as a truck driver. It was his dream to fly, however, so he re-enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force, becoming a pilot while based at Cold Lake, Alta. He left military service to become a commercial bush pilot with Northern Mountain Airways.
He fought fires, hauled freight, delivered prospectors to isolated claims.
Flying in the north in winter is a test unlike any other. Sometimes, firepots were needed to warm an engine. Mr. Gauchie remembers sending passengers home for warmer clothing, because heaters were not to warm people but to keep frost off the interior of windshields.
“Winter flying is really, really tough,” he said. “And cold.”
On Feb 2, 1967, on a solo return flight from Cambridge Bay, NWT, Mr. Gauchie became lost in a whiteout. His compass failed. With fuel running low, he decided to land his single-engine, propeller-driven Beaver. He transmitted a radio message, receiving a faint acknowledgment.
He then put the Beaver down on a frozen lake, finding to his horror that both emergency beacons were broken. The radio failed on all frequencies.
He took inventory. He had a rifle, a flare gun, some matches, a ballpoint pen and an emergency kit with some dried food. He also had some white fox furs and about 18 kilograms (40 pounds) of arctic char that he was bringing home to Fort Smith, NWT, for his wife.
There was not much to do but await rescue.
He slept fitfully in a parka and mukluks wrapped in several sleeping bags.
A day passed. Then another.
The first week ended with him still isolated and alone.
A second week passed.
On Feb. 18, he noted his youngest daughter's 13th birthday in his log book.
The official search was called off. Back home, friends and family raised money for a private search. It was called off after a third week.
On the 25th day, Mr. Gauchie heard a plane.
“I fired a flare,” he said. “He just carried on.”
A fourth week passed.
He heard and saw aircraft. He had even fired a flare at a plane that seemed to fly directly overhead.
His wife, Fran Gauchie, talked to a priest, but resisted holding a funeral.
“I didn't have a service for him at church,” she said. “I just knew he'd come back.”
Mr. Gauchie bade farewell to his wife and three daughters in the diary, listing the family's assets.
A fifth week passed. And a sixth.
His only company were wolves who seemed not to fear him. He shot once at a wolf, missing though the animal was a few feet away. He instantly regretted the act, feeling the creature shared with him the desire to survive in so inhospitable a place.
A seventh week passed.
He had eaten so much raw, frozen char he could barely stand the thought of placing another piece in his mouth. On some days, he preferred not to eat.
The emergency rations were exhausted. One night, his meal consisted of licking the inside of an instant onion soup bag.
An eighth week passed.
As the sun set on April 1, another aircraft flew overhead. The setting sun reflected off the windshield of the Beaver. Mr. Gauchie fired off two flares. The plane returned.
The two pilots overhead would look down on the sight of a thin, hairy man standing with a suitcase in hand, looking like a man waiting for a bus.
“Have you got room for a passenger?”
Those were the first words he had spoken to another human in 58 days.
In Fort Smith, a fellow ran into the Legion Hall with news of Mr. Gauchie's rescue. He was hooted down by disbelieving veterans.
The family reunited at his hospital bedside, where the youngest daughter commented on the stench from his five rotten, frostbitten toes. They were amputated. He had been prepared to chop them off with an ax himself to save his life.
After several months of recovery and recuperation, Mr. Gauchie launched Buffalo Airways, which he later sold to one of his pilots. He learned to fly helicopters.
His home today is a room in the tidy Mount St. Mary Hospital in downtown Victoria. It is more spacious than the cockpit that once served as his home for two months.
To this day, he does not eat fish.
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