Skip navigation

Monday June 19, 2017

The oldest man to ski to the North Pole

After ferrying planes during the Second World War, he became Newfoundland's first federal taxman and the first director of CPP

Special to The Globe and Mail

Jack MacKenzie, who died last month at the age of 95, had a remarkable string of accomplishments in his long life: He was the oldest man ever to ski to the North Pole; made 30 trips across the North Atlantic during the Second World War, ferrying aircraft to Britain; was the first federal taxman in Newfoundland; helped set up social insurance numbers for the federal government; and was the first director of the Canada Pension Plan.

His Guinness World Record moment came in 1999, when he skied to the North Pole at the age of 77. After hearing a talk by Richard Weber, who leads Arctic expeditions, Mr. MacKenzie asked if he could join him on a trek to the North Pole.

Before he agreed, Mr. Weber took Mr. MacKenzie into the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa in midwinter to see if he had the stamina to handle a sevenor eight-day Arctic trip. He passed the test.

In April of that year, the group was taken by Russian helicopter to the 89th parallel. On the Russian side, they skied one degree, or 100 kilometres to the North Pole.

"Jack was quite amazing. It was 25 to 30 below and we skied over ice ridges and near open water. He had great balance, was in terrific shape, and he was good company," said Mr. Weber, who owns and operates Arctic Watch Lodge on Somerset Island in the high Arctic.

Glenn Jackson MacKenzie was born on June 15, 1921, in New Richmond, on Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula, the youngest of 10 children. When he was quite young, the family moved to nearby Paspébiac, where he grew up. At the time the area was more English-speaking than francophone. One of the boys he knew growing up was René Lévesque, the future Parti Québécois premier, who lived in the next village.

The Gaspé Peninsula was particularly hard hit during the Depression, but Jack MacKenzie's father, Herbert, had two federal sinecures, as a customs agent and the registrar of shipping in the fishing villages on the Baie des Chaleurs on the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The sleepy fishing villages were a hotbed of smuggling during U.S. Prohibition, when bootleggers would take booze from the French islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon - land in rural Quebec and New Brunswick - and carry the contraband across to the state of Maine. His father was put in charge of looking after a boat seized from a smuggler, a story he told Peter McKinnon, for an article for the newsletter of the Perley and Rideau Veterans' Health Centre and Foundation.

"I have two fine strapping sons who'll guard the boat by living on it," he remembered his father saying. Jack and his brother lived on the boat for a while, and he recalled swimming off the boat with René Lévesque. The smuggler died while awaiting trial and the boat stayed in the dock for years.

In spite of the family's relative prosperity, young Jack MacKenzie had to quit high school when he was 16 and he went to work as a teller in the local Bank of Nova Scotia. The rule in the MacKenzie household was that higher education was for the girls in the family, the boys had to go to work as soon as they could.

In 1941, Mr. MacKenzie enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in Moncton. Like many volunteers, he wanted to be a pilot, but he washed out of flying school so he trained as a wireless operator/air gunner and worked with an RCAF transport squadron, flying VIPs in twin engine Lockheed Lodestars and Dakotas (the military version of the Douglas DC3) in Canada.

He was soon transferred to the RCAF's 168 Squadron, which flew heavy aircraft such as bombers, overseas. He trained with Ferry Command of the Royal Air Force, then flew the same type of missions they did - ferrying planes across the Atlantic and between war zones - for the RCAF.

"The 168 Squadron flew under Ferry Command control," Mr. MacKenzie wrote in his memoirs. At least 500 aircrew members were lost over the Atlantic, almost always to bad weather.

Flying Officer MacKenzie, as he was at the end of the war, was on many harrowing missions over the North Atlantic. The only modern aids were wireless signals telling him about weather, otherwise they navigated by compass and the stars.

Back to top