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Adventurer Jack MacKenzie was the oldest man to ski to the North Pole

Jack Mackenzie.

Richard Webber

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 seven- or 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.

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"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.

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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.

"He would have played a fairly important role, because they relied on the wireless operators and navigators, especially on the North Atlantic crossings," said Major Mathias Joost, of the Operational Records Team at the Department of History and Heritage, Canadian Armed Forces.

One of the planes the squadron flew to Britain was the Boeing B-17, the four-engine bomber known as the Flying Fortress. Mr. MacKenzie recalls that after a stop to refuel in Newfoundland the plane's generator failed after an hour or so over the Atlantic and the plane went back to Stephenville, Nfld., but its landing gear wouldn't deploy. They flew back to Ottawa.

"Our option was to fly around the city of Ottawa [all night] to burn off fuel until we were down to almost fumes," he wrote. He added the plane was carrying mail to Canadians in England and the captain was told to jettison it because it was flammable, but he refused. The big bomber made a safe belly landing on the grass beside the runway at Ottawa's Rockcliffe Airport.

On transatlantic flights some aircraft had primitive heaters that often didn't work and the crew had to wear oxygen masks when flying above 10,000 feet (3,048 metres). Storms and forced refuelling sometimes required them to land on airfields in Greenland or Iceland.

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"Ice would form around the edges of the mask and there was nothing you could do about it. With no heaters working in the aircraft, it's the coldest I've ever been in my life," he recalled. "The building of ice chafed the skin. During the winter of 1944-45 I lived with a red ring around my face."

Along with the Atlantic flights, 168 Squadron and Flight Officer MacKenzie delivered Flying Fortresses and four-engine B-24 Liberators from Gibraltar to Britain, flying at night since German fighters were looking for them and the bombers were unarmed. There were deliveries from other war zones as well.

At the end of the war, he wrote: "I had 30 transatlantic flights; 14 unarmed night flights from Gibraltar and North Africa to Britain; 18 flights from Gibraltar and Rabat to the front in Italy and many other flights to different parts of the world. I had logged more than 1,900 hours in the air."

When he returned to Canada he married Nan Watson, a woman from London, Ont., whom he had met at an RCAF dance in Ottawa.

After the war he worked for the Bank of Nova Scotia again, but soon joined the tax department in Ottawa. One of his first jobs was to go to Newfoundland after the province joined Confederation in 1949. He and his young family moved to Newfoundland in 1951.

"He told me that once he arrived at the air force base in Goose Bay, Labrador, he went into the airplane hangar and closed the door behind him. He then read out the names of men who had tax debts and asked them to step forward. Without questioning his authority, each and every one did and in doing so each would pull out a wad of bills to pay off their debts on the spot. Dad would always fly home with a bag of cash that would be quickly deposited in the government's tax account," his son Rick MacKenzie said.

Another of the elder Mr. MacKenzie's assignments was being part of the team that set up Social Insurance Numbers when they were introduced in Canada in 1964.

"We set up offices across the country with huge numbers of typists to register everyone for a SIN," he recalled in his memoir. "Many people were against the idea. It was the era of the Cold War and some thought that registering citizens was something only the Soviets would do."

Jack became the first director of Canada Pension Plan in 1966 and retired a decade later. He spent much of his retirement travelling with his wife and getting into adventure travel, such as his trek to the North Pole. Among other things, he drove 4,000 kilometres across China, in open rented jeeps, mostly on dirt roads.

Mr. MacKenzie, who died on May 21 in Ottawa, leaves his sister, Eva Cromwell; sons, Rick and Jeffrey; two grandchildren; and one great-grandchild, also named Jackson.

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