THE GOLDEN YEARS (1950-1964)

MacEachern family archives.

Grace MacEachern speaks to a reporter after the Mount Coquitlam rescue.

Grace “Gracie” MacEachern (née Gagnon) was a “para-belle”, a romantic term coined in the 1950s for para-rescue nurses serving in the Canadian military. That made her a pioneer in the redefinition of gender roles and in the development of modern search and rescue (SAR) in Canada.

MacEachern, a nurse, joined the military in 1951 following the death of her first husband. She took the demanding para-rescue course at the age of 32. There were no SAR technicians in the 1950s and the month-long course was the closest equivalent to today’s vigorous and demanding year-long SAR course.

MacEachern was the first woman to do an operational para-rescue jump, which took place on Mount Coquitlam in British Columbia only a month after her course.

She landed in a tree and, due to an ill-fitting harness, “she was left dangling by one foot and it took her about two hours to right herself and get down.

“She used her let down line, or nylon rope, which was 100 feet [30.4 metres] long, however it was still 20 feet [six metres] short. She had dropped her gloves during the time that she was trying to right herself, and on the descent down the line she got severe rope burns on her hands,” said her son, Major Bruce MacEachern.

The 43-kilogram woman then carried her 27 kilograms of kit up the mountain in the dark and stayed overnight in the wild before catching up with other rescuers to save a stranded geologist.

The para-belles’ equipment was crude. The helmets had cages (much like hockey masks), the harnesses did not fit women’s smaller bodies and “the parachutes were basically enough to get you to the ground,” explained SAR technician MWO Gavin Lee. “[It was] antiquated equipment at the time, and in these times no one would jump in that stuff.”

Grace MacEachern left the military in 1955 to remarry, and pursued a career in the public health sector. She died on February 17, 2010, just short of her 90th birthday.

MacEachern family archives.

Grace MacEachern and crew at an air show in Abbotsford, B. C.

MacEachern family archives.

Grace MacEachern was a nursing sister before joining the military.