A few days ago I flew some BLack Lake Elders to a place called Flett Lake. When everyone arrived they were all carrying water bottles, but, they were all empty. So, of course I must ask! Whats with all the empty bottles? The one lady said " we are going to get medicine from a small lake" which is just south of Flett Lake. The photo on top shows the Otter secured to shore close to a trail that the Elders walked to the small lake. The lower portion of the picture shows an old cabin which was used as a trappers cabin many years ago, and even now each winter the people from Black Lake take the snowmobiles to Flett Lake for the annual Caribou Hunt in February.
While flying along on our way to Flett Lake one Elder was sitting up front with me and we talked about the history of the area, and he told me about a plane crash that occured in the early fifty's, which had not been made to public, but the local trapper had discovered the wreckage and found the pilot had perished in the crash.
So, always being curious about history I researched a crash that occured in 1951, and I found there had been two. One in May and the second in September and it was during the search for the latter aircraft that the May crash was discovered.
The May crash was Johnnie Bourassa on a trip back from Bathurst Inlet which at the time was in the Northwest Territories. The following is part of the original story written about the crash.
On May 18th, 1951 Johnnie Bourassa lifted off from the open water on Back Bay, Yellowknife and headed north to the Salmita Mine.
The Salmita Mine gold deposit (now known as Tundra Mine) was
first discovered in 1945 and underground exploration was carried out in 1951-1952. It was located at Latitude: 64 Degrees 04 Minutes (North) and Longitude: 111 Degrees 09 Minutes (West), just south of Courageous Lake, 152 miles Northeast of Yellowknife.It was there that Johnny refueled and also removed the floats from the airplane and put on skis. Bathurst Inlet was still frozen solid and he needed skis to land.
The trip to Bathurst Inlet went according to plan. At Bathurst Inlet Bourassa met up with his boss who was fuelling up another aircraft to fly it further north. He instructed Johnny to only put as much fuel into the Bellanca as it would take to get to the fuel cache at Salmita Mine. Apparently the cost of transporting fuel to these caches was very high so he wanted to avoid carrying fuel back south.
According to Inuit living at Bathurst Inlet, Johnny didn't want to stop at Salmita so he filled his tanks and left for Yellowknife.
A day later his boss was returning south and when he stopped at Salmita to put floats back on his plane he noticed that the floats for the Bellanca were still sitting there.
This could only mean one thing that Bourassa's plane had gone down. He took off and searched the route between Salmita and Bathurst. When he got back to Bathurst Inlet he learned that Johnny had, contrary to instructions, filled the tanks of the Bellanca before heading south. This significantly increased the distance the plane could travel and, as far as searching goes, it meant trouble.
If the had only enough fuel to get from Bathurst Inlet to Salmita, and was forced to make an emergency landing, then it would be located within a circle whose radius was the distance between Bathurst and Salmita, a relatively small area as far as air searches go.
But with full fuel tanks the potential search area could be hundreds of times larger. The Bellanca had the range, with full tanks, to fly from Bathurst all the way to northern Saskatchewan or Alberta or well into the Mackenzie Mountains. Before the development of modern locator transmitters, searching for a missing aircraft in the north was a long, tedious process.
A quick search was made between Yellowknife and Bathurst Inlet but nothing was found. The search was expanded but only covered a few hundred miles on each side of the route Johnny should have followed from Bathurst to Yellowknife. No sign of Johnny, his airplane or any wreckage was found. The searchers had no idea where to continue the search so it was called off.
In early September of the same year, a U.S. Air Force U-2 spy plane went down in northern Saskatchewan. Efforts to find the plane and its pilot were carried out in great secrecy (the wreck and the plane's dead pilot were, in fact, recovered and returned to the U.S.). During that hunt, searchers discovered an old Bellanca on skis, parked on the Shore of Wholdaia Lake, 450 km southeast of Fort Reliance (60 degrees 43'N, 104 degrees 10'W; 350 miles south-east of Yellowknife, 60 miles north of the NWT-Saskatchewan border). The USAF searchers reported their find to the Ministry of Transport in Edmonton. Tommy Fox of Associated Airways, which had purchased Yellowknife Airways, immediately sent two crews into Wholdaia Lake to check out the abandoned aircraft. Neil Murphy was in charge of one crew.
The plane had been run up on shore and except for a ski, broken on the foreshore boulders, it was intact.
"Johnny had left a letter in the cockpit," Murphy recalls. "It said he had waited by the plane for five days, but he'd run out of food and he had no rifle. So he was going to walk out to Fort Reliance." The trouble was he had no idea how far east of Reliance he was when he landed. He was at least 300 mile off course.
Resourceful to the last, Johnny Bourassa had taken the Bellanca's clock, planning to use it as a compass, and he cut a piece of aluminum from the fuselage, to use as a signal mirror.
The note went on to say that he was going to walk around the south end of Wholdaia Lake then on to Fort Reliance. He estimated that it would take him three weeks, a distance of about two hundred and fifty miles.
Below is the note left and details of what was written to be found by the search team.
If he had studied his maps he would have seen that it was only 125 miles or so to Fort Fond du Lac on Lake Athabasca and only about half of that to Stony Rapids. If he had walked around the south end of Wholdaia Lake, as the note said he was going to do, he would have seen the Indian portage trail, as wide as a wagon track, which led to Selwyn Lake and so down to either Fond du Lac or Stony Rapids.
Search aircraft began to fly the route between Wholdaia Lake and Fort Reliance but since the chances of finding a single individual out on the land was slim it was decided that a ground search also be conducted.
The decision was then made to call in the Canadian Rangers and so began the longest and most intensive search the No. 7 Company, based out of Yellowknife, was ever involved in. With the help of local hunters and trappers, and men brought in from as far away as Edmonton, every square inch of the bush between Wholdaia Lake and Fort Reliance was searched.
Rangers and volunteers made an extensive search of Johnny's likely route. They mostly did this by looking for 'summer campfires', places he may have camped. But no trace was ever found.
Murphy and a young Dene member of the search party managed to track Bourassa for some distance. They came across a birch that had been felled to make a crude bridge across a stream. Farther on, they found three spruce trees, close together, which had been set afire, possibly as a distress signal: three shots, three fires, three similar indicators of any kind are a universal distress signal in the bush.
At the mouth of a stream that emptied into a lake west of Wholdaia Lake, the two searchers found a log that appeared to have been cut to form part of a raft. Beyond that point, there was no further trace of Johnny Bourassa. Neil Murphy believes he followed Johnny Bourassa's final trail through that trackless wilderness. “He's spent enough time in the North to know that when a man's luck runs out up here, that's it”.