Bourassa Plane

A few weeks ago my maternal aunt - who is Johnny Bourassa's sister - was sorting out some old files and came across an old newspaper clipping (shown above) she didn't know she had. It was a picture of Johnny's plane the day they found it on September 15, 1951, four months after he'd gone missing on May 18th. It says "Yellowknife Airways" on its side. Notice the bend in the tip of the lower propeller blade and how snugly the ski is pulled in amongst the rocks.

My mother - Johnny Bourassa's other sister - often told us the story of how Uncle Johnny's plane had gone missing (I was just over one years-old at the time) and how they had never found it until 4 months later when a high-flying jet saw something glitter down below and sure enough - when rescuers got there - it was Johnny's plane. It had landed safely on a lake but Johnny wasn't inside - just a note from him saying he'd got tired of waiting and was heading out in a north-westerly direction "and would appreciate a lift". After that, the biggest ground search in the history of the north was conducted, but Johnny was never found.

Now, since seeing that newspaper photo of Johnny's plane, I'm inspired to share the story of his disappearance with Orwell Today readers.

From the memoirs of the commander in charge of the ground search and
from the transcript of a CBC North Radio program that was broadcast on March 21, 2001

"In the fall of 1950 a charter service in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories hired Johnny Bourassa as a pilot.

Johnny Bourassa

Johnny had a very distinquished career in the RCAF during World War II and everyone said that Johnny was a very experienced 'Bush-Man'. He used to carry the mail from Peace River to Fort Vermilion by horse and buggy in the summer and horse and dog sled in the winter. See TRIBUTE TO LOUIS & JOHNNY BOURASSA and THE BOURASSAS OF PEACE RIVER

Bourassa was hired to fly a de Havilland Beaver on charter flights north from Yellowknife to Bathurst Inlet.

Bourassa Map
click twice to enlarge for reading

On May 18th, 1951 Bourassa lifted off from the open water on Back Bay, Yellowknife and headed north to the Salmita Mine.

The Salmita Mine gold deposit was first discovered in 1945 and underground exploration was carried out in 1951-1952. It was located at Latitude: 64 Degrees 36 Minutes (North) and Longitude: 114 Degrees 21 Minutes (West), just south of Courageous Lake, 240 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife.

It was there that Johnny refuelled 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 a plane to fly it further north. He instructed Johnny to only put as much fuel into the Beaver 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 Beaver were still sitting there.

This could only mean one thing, that Bourassa's plane had gone down. He took off and searched the route betwen Salmita and Bathurst. When he got back to Bathurst Inlet he learned that Johnny had, contrary to instructions, filled the tanks of the Beaver before heading south. This significantly increased the distance the plane could travel and, as far as searching goes, it meant trouble.

If the Beaver 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 Beaver 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.

Then on September 14th Johnny's airplane was finally spotted on the south-east shore of Wholdaia Lake (60 degrees 43'N, 104 degrees 10'W; 350 miles south-east of Yellowknife, 60 miles north of the NWT-Saskatchewan border).

Bourassa Plane

The plane had been run up on shore and except for a ski, broken on the foreshore boulders, it was intact.

There was a note in the plane from Johnny, saying that he thought he had mistaken Aylmer Lake for Lac de Gras, which threw him east of Fort Reliance. He said he had then flown west until he came to the trees, which meant that he was east of Snowbird or Ennadi Lake. Finally he ran out of gas and was forced to land on the rotten ice of Wholdaia Lake.

Johnny Note
(photo of Johnny's note and text compiled from the book LOST by Shirlee Smith Matheson)

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.

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.

The searchers came to the conclusion that when Johnny saw how long it was going to take to walk around the lake he changed his mind and tried to walk across on the rotten ice. Rotten ice may not hold up an aircraft but it will bear the weight of a man, and it is amazing how very little ice it takes to support you. Johnny may have started to walk across the lake and may have got away with it on the open lake.

But if you look at a map of Wholdaia Lake you'll see that it is a perfect maze of small islands and where you have this condition there are just as many rocky reefs that do not show above water level but are dangerous. You cannot see them but they all have a fair amount of residual heat left which has the ability of thawing the ice directly above. Then, when the frosty weather has ceased, you get a thin patch of ice above and around these reefs. All in all it was a perfect set up for getting drowned, and that may be what happened to Johnny Bourassa.

For some time after Johnny's disappearance the odd rumour passed around that he had been seen by people in different towns in Canada and Europe. But these were figments of very fertile imaginations, or very wishful thinking."

~ end quoiting ~

I saw the movie THE SNOW WALKER last summer when it played in the local cinema. It was about a bush pilot who is on his way to Yellowknife (same as Johnny Bourassa) when his engine cuts out. He crash-lands on a frozen lake and then attempts to walk out of the tundra. It's based on the short story WALK WELL, MY BROTHER by Farley Mowat.

DVDSnowWalker Snow Walker

FARLEY MOWAT has written of the lands, seas and peoples of the Far North with humor, understanding and compassion. His 38 books have been published in 24 languages and have sold more than 14 million copies throughout the world.

Actually, Johnny Bourassa had sometimes been Farley Mowat's pilot when he was doing research for his book PEOPLE OF THE DEER. He'd flown him to remote Inuit destinations and then returned to pick him up at later dates. See JOHNNY BOURASSA FLIES FARLEY MOWAT.

Perhaps Mowat had Johnny in mind when he wrote WALK WELL, MY BROTHER. Many of the details are the same, ie the time period, summer of 1951, and having the bush-pilot hero be a World War Two pilot. Here are the opening paragraphs:

"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]

Watching THE SNOW WALKER had an emotional impact on me. I feel it portrayed some physical, mental and spiritual truths experienced by Johnny Bourassa during his ordeal lost in "a stark and savage land".

Recently a distant cousin of mine (she's a grandaughter of a sister of my grandfather Louis Bourassa) sent me her latest findings on Bourassa lore (she has done much research on the subject). It's information on a lake that was named after Johnny Bourassa:

Bourassa Lake

Bourassa Lake
approved January 17, 1957
Latitude: 601500, Longitude: 1025600
Named after John Bourassa, a well known pilot who operated out of Yellowknife
who landed on Wholdaia Lake some years ago. He attempted to walk from there to Great Slave Lake
but never made it, though one of his camps was discovered.

I don't have an atlas that shows its name, but according to the point where the latitute and longitude meet, Bourassa Lake isn't very far from Wholdaia Lake (as the Beaver flies). ~ Jackie Jura


BourassaMemoryAlbum Searching for Johnny Bourassa (compilation of articles and photos)


Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~