A lanky, dark-eyed young man had come quietly into the room
and he was introduced as Johnny Bourassa,
former Royal Air Force Pathfinder pilot...
JOHNNY BOURASSA FLIES FARLEY MOWAT
Johnny stood for a long moment in the doorway of the plane.
He waved his hand and vanished into the fuselage...
The plane vanished with appalling rapidity into the overcast.
As previously mentioned, my uncle Johnny Bourassa was Farley Mowat's bush pilot during the time he was writing PEOPLE OF THE DEER. It was published shortly after Johnny's plane went missing in 1951. See JOHNNY BOURASSA MISSING PLANE
Today I went to a second-hand bookstore and got my own copy of PEOPLE OF THE DEER (which I read many years ago) and looked to see where Johnny Bourassa is mentioned so that I could share it with Orwell Today readers. ~ Jackie Jura
PEOPLE OF THE DEER, Chapter 2: INTO THE BARRENLANDS
"On a morning in May of 1947 I boarded the train and gave myself up to the demands of the fever that was in me....
My actual plans were almost as shadowy as my equipment, for though I knew to within a few thousand square miles where I wanted to go, I still had only the vaguest ideas of how to get there. The canoe routes from the south that Tyrrell had used were closed to me because I intended to travel alone. The eastern and northern borders were impossible too, because the Barrens rivers flowing down to the sea will not permit men to ascend their violent waters to their sources, high on the inland plateau. And sheer distance ruled out any attempt on my part to enter the land from the west.
But with spring already sweeping into the southlands I had no time to ponder. So on a May morning I bought a ticket to Churchill, a familiar name and the only place in the arctic I knew. Churchill lay on the edge of the Barrens and so I hoped that when I reached the end of steel I would stumble on some means for completing my journey into the interior.
Again I passed through Winnipeg and The Pas and again I saw the white mile-boards standing sentinel over the narrow cut that traverses the forests to the north. Then the Muskeg Special brought mile-board 512 into view and we swung into Churchill under gray ice mist that came rolling over the still-frozen settlement. For a time I stood shivering in the chill wind while I examined this place that had been the shining memory of boyhood. But that memory dissovled quickly before the harsh impact of reality.
The port of Churchill was a miserable conglomeration of cowering shacks half-buried under great drifts. The stained snowbanks pushed tightly up against the slabsided and scrofulous shanties. The freezing mist from Hudson Bay did its best to soften the ugliness and to hide the monolithic bulk of the huge concrete grain elevator that gives Churchill its sole reason for existence. For Churchill is nominally an ocean port, despite the fact that it is only for a few brief weeks each year that hardy freighters can dare the passage of Hudson Straits to enter the Bay and take on cargo. In May of 1947(1) that "ocean port" was the ultimate desolation of man's contriving.
Shouldering my kit back, I trudged up the frozen ruts of Churchill's only road and found my way to the beer parlor. In a few minutes I was sitting comfortably close to the stove while a morose bartender brought me a bottle of sad ale--sans glass. As I drank the thin brew I looked out the dirty window at a clay-cold array of rusted boilers, abandoned donkey engines, and dead construction machinery. And I wondered just how the devil I was going to find my way out of this scrap heap of ruined ambitions and into the Barrens. I had several more beers but they seemed to grow weaker, if possible, and my spirits ebbed steadily.
Then the door swung open with a gusty crash and a massive Scandinavian rolled into the room. His eyes lit up with a quick gleam of recognition as he saw me and in an instant the gloom of Churchill was dispelled.
'So you came back!' he boomed. 'Jal I thought maybe you would!'.
This was John Ingerbritson, and I had last seen him when, as a boy of fifteen, I had gone to look at his ship in the harbor at Churchill....
After hosting a few for old times' sake, John took me to his home where Mrs. Ingerbritson welcomed me into her brilliantly clean little house and filled me with good food.
Then, over coffee, and surrounded by the ebullient offspring of John and his wife, I explained why I had come back to Churchill and where I wanted to go. When I finished, John suggested that I should charter a plane, but I was doubtful about the idea. For one thing, the cost of flying in the arctic can be prohibitive. For another thing, a pilot needs a clear-cut objective, and I had none in mind.
While we were talking, a lanky, dark-eyed young man had come quietly into the room and he was introduced as Johnny Bourassa, former Royal Air Force Pathfinder pilot, at present the captain and crew of an ancient twin-engined Anson aircraft that made a precarious living for her owner by flying improbably tramp-freighting runs over the top of the world.
Bourassa was at once dragged into the discussion, and the three of us got out the maps.
There was much talk and telling of tales. Without attempting to discourage me, old John was evidently determined that I should be made fully aware of what I was proposing to do....
John pointed out the site of the abandoned trading post on the map, at a place called Windy River--a river that flows into a vast body of water named Neultin Lake(2):
Neultin itself was almost a legendary place, still unsurveyed and largely unknown in 1947. Yet from the rough dotted outline assigned to it on the map, it was obviously a truly great lake, at least one hundred and twenty miles long, with half of its length inside the forests while the other half stretched northward into the open plains of the Barrens.
After hearing about the existence of the Windy River post I knew that Neultin should be my immediate goal. If I was lucky I might find that young half-Indian, half-German youth who was believed to be still living there. And with his aid, I might hope to realize my dreams; whereas alone I might only add another unpleasant paragraph to the grim tales that are told of the men who have challenged the Barrens and failed.
Neultin, then, was the logical choice, but there remained the slight problem of how to cross the intervening 350 miles of frozen plains to reach it. I looked wistfully at Johnny Bourassa and wondered how much he would charge for such a flight. There didn't seem to be much point in asking, for he had just canceled a trip to Chesterfield Inlet on the advice of the weather men, who had warned of the imminent approach of the spring thaws(3). When the spring thaws come to the North, all flying ceases for at least a month and there are no exceptions. But I had nothing to lose by asking.
'Johnny,' I asked, 'would you take a chance on a trip to Nueltin tomorrow?'
He lifted his eyes from the map and took a long moment to think; then -- 'We'll give it a try,' he said. He would charge me only $200 for the trip, which was phenomenally cheap for Barrens flying.
When it was full morning the next day we slogged through the already softening drifts to Landing Lake, where the Anson(4) stood waiting. What had been a lightweight outfit designed for easy travel, when I left the South, had grown monstrously during my brief stay at Churchill....
All of this gear was stacked aboard the Anson and after a startled look at the looming bulk of the load, Johnny turned quickly away and started up the engines. As the overburdened plane lumbered down the lake the homemade skis flung driving slush outward and upward, enveloping us in chill spray. Then we were airborne and we swung back over the forlorn desolation of Churchill so that the Ingerbristons could wave a farewell. I looked out to sea, over the pack ice, and when I again turned to look inland the thinning trees had vanished and the aircraft was swinging westward, away from the sea, and into the Barrens.
The Anson grumbled forward on her quest. Johnny held a map before him on his knees, and over the expanse of vagueness he had drawn a straight compass course to where Windy River should be. But above his head the compass flickered and gyrated foolishly, for in such close proximity to the magnetic pole a compass is, at best, but a doubtful tool. Yet there were no other aids to navigation, for when we left the coast we also left the sun behind us--obscured by a thick overcast of snow-laden clouds. And as for finding our way by the land underneath us . . .
It was a soft white nightmare that we were flying over. An undulating monotony of white(5) that covered all shapes and all colors. The land, with its low sweeping hills, its lakes and its rivers, simply did not exist for our eyes. The anonymity was quite unbroken even by living things, for the few beasts that winter here are also white, and so they are no more than shadows on the snow. For a hundred miles there was no change and the monotony began to dull my senses. Johnny passed his map back to me and along the course line he had drawn a cross and added a penciled notation. 'Halfway. Should be there shortly after noon.'
I turned back to the window and tried to fix my gaze on something definite in the blankness that lay below. Then I glanced ahead and saw, with profound gratitude, the faint smear of a horizon. Slowly it took on strength, grew ragged, and at last emerged as a far-distant line of hills. It was the edge of the great plateau which cradles Neultin, and the Kazan.
Now the white mantle below us began to grow threadbare. Black spines of massive ridges began to thrust upward through the snow. The undulations of the land grew steeper, as swells began to lift before a rising storm at sea.
Again the map. This time the cross lay over Neultin, but when I looked down I could see nothing recognizable to tie us to the map. I edged forward to the cockpit, Johnny's face was strained and anxious. In a few minutes he pointed to the flickering needles of the gasoline gauges which showed that half our gas was gone, and then I felt the aircraft begin to bank! I watched the compass card dance erratically until our course was south, then east--and back toward the sea.
The limit of our search had been reached, and we had found nothing in that faceless wilderness to show us either where we were, or where our target lay. We had overlapped the boundaries of the Barrens--and yet the land had not been caught unaware. It still seemed secure against our invasion.
The overcast had been steadily lowering and as we turned eastward we were flying at less than 500 feet. At this slim height we suddenly saw the land gape wide beneath us to expose a great valley walled in by rocky cliffs and snow-free hills. And in that instant I caught a fleeting glimpse of something. . . . 'Johnny!' I yelled. 'Cabin . . . down there!'
He wasted no precious gas on a preliminary circuit. The sound of the engines dulled abruptly and we sank heavily between the valley walls. Before us stood a twisted, stunted little stand of spruce; a river mouth, still frozen; and the top foot or so of what was certainly a shanty roof protruding slyly from the drifts.
We jumped stiffly down to the ice and shook hands, for there was no doubt about this being my destination. There was no other standing cabin within two hundred miles.
But only the wind met us. There was no sight of life about the cabin. We slipped and stumbled helplessly on the glare ice, and our exhileration at having found our target against heavy odds was rapidly being diminished by an awareness of the ultimate desolation of this place. Our eyes clung hopefully to the handful of scrawny trees, none of them more than ten feet high, that thrust their tops out of the snow to give a ragged welcome. The leaden skies were closing in and the wind was still rising. There was no time to explore, only time to dump my gear onto the ice. Johnny stood for a long moment in the doorway of the plane, as if he was debating with himself whether to ask me if I had changed my mind. I'm glad that he didn't. I think I should have been tempted beyond my strength. But he only waved his hand and vanished into the fuselage. Then the Anson was bumping wickedly down the bay and I was alone.
The plane vanished with appalling rapidity into the overcast. The gale from the Ghost Hills whipped little eddies of hard snow about me and I had arrived in the land that I had set my heart upon...."
~ end quoting from PEOPLE OF THE DEER] ~
Now here is the excerpt from WALK WELL, MY BROTHER which I believe shows that Farley Mowat was thinking of Johnny Bourassa. I've bolded and underlined the things in common:
"When [he] first went north just after the war, he was twenty-six years old and case hardened by nearly a hundred bombing missions over Europe....During the following five years he flew charter jobs in almost every part of the arctic from Hudson Bay to the Alaska border...One mid-August day in 1951 he was piloting a war-surplus Anson above the drowned tundra plains south of Queen Maud Gulf, homeward bound to his base at Yellowknife after a flight almost to the limit of the aircraft's range. The twin engines thundered steadily and his alert ears caught no hint of warning from them. When the machine betrayed his trust it did so with shattering abruptness. Before he could touch the throttles, the starboard engine was dead and the port one coughing in staccato bursts. Then came silence - replaced almost instantly by a rising scream of wind as the plane nosed steeply down toward the shining circlet of a pond. It was too small a pond and the plane had too little altitude. As [he] frantically pumped the flap hydraulics, the floats smashed into the rippled water. The Anson careened wickedly for a few yards and came to a crunching stop against the frost-shattered rocks along the shore...." [excerpt from Walk Well, My Brother, a chapter in The Snow Walker, pages 132-133]
(1) It was in May 1947 that Farley Mowat flew with Johnny Bourassa and it was in May 1951 that Johnny went missing
(2) Johnny emergency-landed his plane on Wholdaia Lake in May 1951 which is not too far west of Neultin Lake where he landed with Farley Mowat in May 1947
(3) When Johhny went missing in May 1951 it was during this same dangerous time - Spring Breakup - when the land is beginning to melt
(4) An Anson, the plane Johnny flew Farley Mowat in, is the same type the bush pilot flew in WALK WELL, MY BROTHER
(5) The monotonous land below and the compass not working (due to the magnetic pole) give an idea of how hard it was for Johnny to get his bearings after being blown off course
PEOPLE OF THE DEER (In 1886, the Ihalmiut people of northern Canada numbered 7,000. When Farley Mowat came to stay with them in 1947, their population had dwindled to forty. For two years, Mowat shared their lives and hard times. He tells their sobering story eloquently in People of the Deer)
My belief that Farley Mowat had Johnny Bourassa in mind when he wrote the short story WALK WELL, MY BROTHER (which was made into the 2003 movie THE SNOW WALKER) is reinforced upon re-reading his recollections of Johnny as described in PEOPLE OF THE DEER.
EDWARD VIII STAMPS/POSTBOX/ABDICATION and ORWELL'S WALLINGTON ROYAL MAIL DELIVERY
Searching for Johnny Bourassa (compilation of articles and photos)
LEGENDS LOUIS & JOHNNY BOURASSA and YUKON SURVIVORS FLORES FRIEND STORY and PILOT MCCALLUM RESCUED YUKON SURVIVORS and B-17 PILOT SPOTTED BOURASSA PLANE and THE FLYING BOURASSA BROTHERS and JOHNNY BOURASSA DIAMOND IN ROUGH and POEM MEMORY OF LOUIS BOURASSA and SNOW WALKER JOHNNY BOURASSA and U-2 SEARCHERS FIND BOURASSA and JOHNNY BOURASSA'S MISSING PLANE and JOHNNY BOURASSA FLIES FARLEY MOWAT and THE BOURASSAS OF PEACE RIVER and TRIBUTE TO LOUIS & JOHNNY BOURASSA
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~