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When Alaska bush pilot legends brought the movies to Barrow

Colleen Mondor
"Fifty Years Below Zero" is a record of fascinating Alaskan history and aspects of the state's bush pilot past that truly reads like a Hollywood movie. Courtesy: Alaska State Library digital collection

In 1928, Noel Wien's company was contracted to fly a Fox film crew up to Barrow to film scenes of Eskimo life and nature in the high Arctic. Wien offered Russ Merrill half the work of ferrying the three-man crew plus their gear out of Fairbanks. The two pilots departed on May 13 with Wien operating a Stinson SB-1 and Merrill a Travel Air Model CW; between the men and film equipment, each aircraft carried about 800 pounds.

On the first night out, about four hours north of Wiseman, the party encountered deteriorating conditions and had to land. When they attempted to depart the next day Merrill's Travel Air, with its thinner tires, was unable to takeoff in the snow. The pilots decided Wien would continue on to Barrow with one of the passengers and return with help and shovels so they could dig a runway for Merrill. Unfortunately, none of the men were familiar with the region and while Wien and his passenger did reach Barrow safely, they was unable to find their way back that day to the downed aircraft.

They returned to Barrow, again, unsuccessful. Shortly thereafter, weather settled over Barrow that ultimately kept the pilots grounded for six days. The people of Barrow became quite involved in the drama, especially whaler Charles Brower; a white man from New York City (born in 1863) who lived and worked in the village and later recorded the events of his life in the aptly titled, Fifty Years Below Zero.

On the landmarks Wien and his passenger attempted to use to find the stranded men, Brower wrote:

I questioned them carefully. Were they sure it hadn't taken longer to reach the deer camp than they had thought when they first came out? And what about the wind? That would make a difference too.

From what they said now it seemed to me that the lost plane might be farther south than they had estimated; perhaps even south of the Tashicpuk River and near the Colville.

Fog prevented any more attempts for several days. But we put the delay to some use by replacing their landing wheels with Wilkins' broken skis which we managed to patch up. Then when this job was done and everything ready for another try, a howling gale set in from the northeast and held them on the ground until the twenty-second.

As it turned out, Wien was looking in the wrong place and it took getting lost again and stranded several days at the Cape Halkett whaling station for him to discover from a man there, who remembered seeing two aircraft weeks earlier when he was at reindeer camp, just how off course he was. After the weather cleared again and he returned to Barrow, Wien departed on June 1 on a new search alongside Matt Nieminen, a Fairbanks pilot who'd arrived when no word was heard from the expedition. In a matter of hours, Nieminen found the abandoned Travel Air in the area the hunter described.

A note was discovered dated more than a week earlier; the two members of the film crew had walked out first on May 22, and on May 24 Merrill followed. All were headed north in hopes of reaching Barrow. Nieminen soon found the two passengers, snow-blind but alive. Merrill seemed lost however and while the pilots continued to search for him, Brower had his own ideas about where Merrill might be:

...so before the planes took off I sent out a couple more sleds along the sandpits, telling the boys to investigate all the sheltered places with special reference to the ragged shores of Dease Island.

At three in the morning the planes got back. From the strained faces of their crews and Noel's cryptic 'Lucky this country of yours is level,' it was soon clear why they brought no word of Merrill. They'd run into thick fog and had had to fly so low that most of the way home they were barely clearing the ground.

On June 4, three dog teams approached from the east. Two we recognized in the distance as the ones I had sent out last. Suddenly we all started on the run to meet them. The third team, we now saw, was being driven by John Hegness from Halkett Station, and on the sled was a bundled up form resembling a dead man.

Thankfully Merrill was not dead, but his recovery was very slow and precipitated returning the long way back to Anchorage via Wainwright, Kotzebue, Nome, and Fairbanks. It was eventually determined that he likely had contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and it was not until late September that he returned to flying again. In the meantime Wien and Nieminen saved his aircraft, the film crew did get some pictures of walruses and the area around Barrow was thoroughly navigated. In the years that followed the Lindberghs landed there, and sadly Wiley Post and Will Rogers were killed near Barrow in a terrible accident in 1935.

Brower was in the thick of all of this and wrote about experiences that few people are aware of. (For example, after removal of Post's engine, propeller and instruments, he supervised the complete destruction of the aircraft so no souvenirs could be taken; this was done at the request of Mrs. Post.)

His book is a record of fascinating Alaskan history and aspects of the state's bush pilot past that truly reads like a Hollywood movie.

Fifty Years Below Zero: A Lifetime of Adventure in the Far North can be purchased at bookstores throughout Alaska and through the University of Alaska press. Also available at the libraries, of course.

Colleen Mondor is a pilot and spent years as dispatch for an Alaska air carrier. 'The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska', a memoir of that career, is now available in paperback.