RCMP Officer Bill Crayford survived 70 years in the wilderness after being lost on the 1944 journey of the St. Roch.
Discovered by two hunters in a remote area of northern British Columbia earlier this year, RCMP Officer William Crayford returned home to Vancouver in February. Despite initial skepticism, experts from the RCMP and the Vancouver Maritime Museum have been able to verify him as a member of the original crew of the RCMP vessel St. Roch which crossed the Northwest Passage twice in 1942 and 1944. He will be honoured in a special ceremony at the Museum on May 31st.
“This is one of the most incredible survival stories I have ever heard,” said RCMP inspector Ken Burton, “I can tell you that no one believed it at first. But having seen the evidence and heard the story, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the real Bill Crayford.”
Crayford joined the second voyage of the St. Roch through the Northwest Passage in 1944. The youngest member of the crew at the age of 16, he joined when his older brother broke his leg two weeks before the start of the journey. Setting off from Halifax, N.S. in July, the ship travelled north through the unforgiving Canadian arctic.
“I remember the first part of the journey well,” says Crayford, “Spirits were high and we were making good time. But sometime around August we got caught in an unbelievable blizzard. [Captain Henry Larsen] decided it was best to head for land and wait out the storm. That’s when the worst happened.”
Cut off from the rest of the crew, Crayford claims to have survived by using abandoned supplies to fend off polar bears and other predators. Believing that a search party would be sent, he remained near the spot where they had left him for a time. When it became clear that no one was coming to rescue him, he had to face the prospect of traversing the Arctic alone in search of his lost crewmates.
Crayford’s odyssey across the frozen north is sure to rank among the most incredible stories of human endurance in history. Unsure of where he was or how long he had been travelling, Crayford eventually gave up hope of finding his way back and built himself a makeshift home near the BC/Yukon border. That is where local hunters Dan and Matt Cleary found him nearly 50 years later.
At 86 years old, Crayford is overwhelmed to be returning home to a Vancouver he barely recognizes. But not everything is unfamiliar: the ship that lost him remains. The St. Roch was declared a National Historic Site and preserved in its entirety at the Vancouver Maritime Museum in Vanier Park in 1962.
“I am so grateful to those who decided to preserve this ship,” says Crayford, “Despite everything I have gone through, I could not believe when they said that the St. Roch was still around. To see those sails hoisted again and to be able to ring the bell like I did in 1944… I really couldn’t ask for more.”
A special ceremony honouring the survival of William Crayford and his incredible story will be held at the Vancouver Maritime Museum on May 31st called Raise the Sails & Ring the Bell. The free full day family celebration will feature photo ops with a real life Mountie, an RCMP Patrol Boat, the once-in-a-lifetime hoisting of the main sail of the St. Roch, engine room tours, free RCMP books for members and much more. All are invited to attend.
Visit vancouvermaritimemuseum.com or call 604-257-8300 to learn more about the story of William Crayford and the celebration on May 31st.
In all seriousness, there really is an 86 year old veteran celebrating the 70th anniversary of its voyage this year - the St. Roch itself! Plus, Bare Knuckle Bill will be a new interpretive character on board the St. Roch this summer to entertain, illuminate and enliven this important national historic site. Stay tuned for details!