Hougen Group

Flores - Klaben Rescue

When a small single-engine plane, with two people on board, stopped in Whitehorse to refuel on a cold mid-winter day in 1963, no-one could have forseen the incredible saga which was about to unfold.

Pilot Ralph Flores and his passenger Helen Klaben were returning to the south-western United States from Fairbanks in a single-engine Howard aircraft. They picked up fuel in Whitehorse and took off, bound for their next stop - Fort St. John.

Somewhere near Watson Lake, however, the plane went missing. A massive air search turned up no sign of the plane or its occupants. When the search was called off in mid-February, the temperature was -40 to -50°F. They were given up for dead.

In the bush south of Watson Lake, the little plane lay crumpled. It had clipped some trees as Flores flew low in a heavy snowstorm, looking for the Alaska Highway. Klabens left arm was broken and she had severe cuts and bruises. Flores had a broken jaw, cracked ribs and many cuts.

On the plane they had four cans of sardines, two cans of tuna, some fruit cocktail and some crackers. They had no axe, no rifle and no sleeping bags. Flores built a lean-to out of a small tarpaulin and used seat cushions from the plane as bedding. The outlook was bleak.

About two weeks after crash, Flores constructed some home-made snowshoes, and painfully trekked for four days to a frozen beaver pond where he stamped out a huge SOS in the snow.

Near the end of March, 49 days after the crash, Frank George, on board a small plane piloted by Chuck Hamilton, looked out the window and spotted the SOS in the clearing. Amazingly, Flores had had the presence of mind to stamp an arrow in the snow pointing in the direction of their make-shift camp.

The next day, Hamilton and Jack McCallum flew a rescue team to the site. They landed on the beaver pond and followed the arrow through the bush a few miles, where they discovered a miracle. Klaben and Flores were alive. Both had serious frostbite and injuries. Both had lost a great deal of weight. Yet they were alive. Forty-nine days of numbing cold, lack of food and life-threatening injuries had not broken their spirit or will to live.

They were taken to hospital in Whitehorse where they recovered nicely from their injuries and their ordeal. It was truly one of the most incredible survival stories in the annals of Canadian history.

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin