Lynn's Comments: My husband, Rod, and I had purchased an aircraft: a Cessna 185 on floats with retractable wheels. Four of his friends had gone on an arctic canoe trip, and he had agreed to pick them up when they were done. Maps were spread out on the kitchen table of the remote location where they were to be found. Rod was confident he could find them and return them safely to Lynn Lake.
Lynn's Comments: I wasn't happy about the idea. We hadn't owned the plane for very long, and even though it was August, the weather could turn bitterly cold up there. The men could have taken a chartered Twin Otter from their landing spot, but Rod insisted he could get them home.
Lynn's Comments: Itinerary for the trip was carefully planned. Rod’s father, Tom Johnston, knew the area and had the planned location of the canoe party marked on a big aerial map. Their trip was to end at Yathyked Lake, where Rod could ease the plane into a bay and pick them up. It was going to be a long flight…much longer than expected. (To be continued…)
Lynn's Comments: The guys Rod had offered to pick up had been on a canoe trip with an outdoor adventure company, which had already arranged their return transportation, but my husband wanted the challenge of finding them and ferrying them back to Lynn Lake, Manitoba--where we were living. I was against the idea from the start, but Rod's dad, having been a prospector in his day, thought it would all be fine. The two men went over the maps, worked out the exact location the canoeists would be found, and prepared for the departure. The flight was on.
Lynn's Comments: I changed the story to show John and Uncle Phil, winding their way towards Parry Sound, where there are so many bays and tiny islands a novice canoeist might easily become disoriented, lost, or capsized.
Lynn's Comments: I went to the Lynn Lake airport to see Rod off on his arctic adventure. It was August; not too cold where we were living, but the summer ends in July up north, so the window of good weather was closing fast. He had to get to a small bay on the northwest coast of Yathkyed Lake as quickly as possible.
Lynn's Comments: I was angry with him. I wondered how he could do such a risky thing when he had a wife and two small children to consider. He was the kind of man who, when he decided to do something, actually did it! I went home and began the wait. His father's reassurance was comforting, but still, I worried.
Lynn's Comments: Back to the wilderness story.
Rod's first attempt to fly to Yathkyed Lake ended when he ran into a snow squall and had to put down on a lake halfway to his destination. Not knowing a lake on which you are going to land can sometimes kill you. Rock, debris, and other obstacles are often obscured in bad weather, and even though you are in the air, it's hard to judge the exact direction of the wind.
Lynn's Comments: Too low on fuel to keep going and collect the men, Rod went back to the Lynn Lake airport. The next day, with weather reports looking good, he set out again. I was not happy. The area he was flying over was without resources, without flight paths, and without strong radio signals. He was flying by map, compass, and the luck of the draw.
Lynn's Comments: The three canoeists he was going to pick up were in the exact location they said they would be. Rod brought the float plane up to the shore and the men climbed aboard--carrying as much as they could stuff into the plane. Some things had to be left behind and retrieved later: their supplies, their canoe, and their life jackets. The paddles had been shoved into the small Cessna 185. A strong wind had begun to blow and they knew they'd have to take off as soon as possible. They didn't know it at the time, but the plane was overloaded and was not about to handle the way it should.
Lynn's Comments: Rod turned the plane into the wind as the canoeist passengers fastened their seat belts. In the arctic, there are no trees and nothing to break the wind. Great gusts buffeted the side of the plane. With a heavy load and an inexperienced pilot at the helm, the small plane tipped into the waves. The weight of the water pressed down on one float and the plane rolled helplessly upside down.
Lynn's Comments: The three canoeists immediately realized the danger they were in. They extracted themselves from their seatbelts, opened the doors of the aircraft and climbed out.
Rod, who was the only one wearing a life jacket, was able to get out as well--just before the plane submerged. Freezing and afraid, the four men sat on the Cessna's upturned floats and tried to consider their options. It looked as though the plane was drifting to shore, but it was soon evident that the tail had hung up on the bottom of the lake and the plane was staying in the same position, just pivoting around in the bay.
As hypothermia began to affect them, they had no choice: one of the men had to go to shore and get the canoe. They chose the strongest swimmer, gave him the only life jacket, and watched as he swam slowly through the choppy water to the shore.
Exhausted and ready to collapse, he untied the canoe. He had the presence of mind to put a can of Avgas aviation fuel that had been left on shore into the canoe. He climbed inside and shoved off (without paddles) towards the helpless aircraft.
It was a miracle, they all said later, that the canoe drifted back to the plane. Everyone carefully climbed into the canoe. The swimmer, now unconscious, was slowly revived as the canoe, now floating freely, drifted to the opposite shore of the bay. This was another miracle.
They managed to gather some dry willow, and with the aid of the Avgas they soon had a tiny fire going. They knew that their wet clothes were lowering their body temperatures, so everyone stripped down to nothing and, surprisingly, they felt warmer. This was a test for survivalists, and luckily, my husband was with men who truly measured up.
Lynn's Comments: Back home, I was beginning to worry. My father-in-law knew exactly where Rod had gone, and he knew almost to the minute when he'd return--if all went well. The ETA came and went. My mom-in-law took the kids, and I drove up to the airport to wait. Rod's dad joined me. The weather was clear but cold and it was getting dark. The men at the airport assured us that the guys would be safe if they'd had to put down on a lake somewhere, but nothing sounded right to us. We filed a missing persons report and waited for Search and Rescue to respond.
Lynn's Comments: At Yathkyed Lake, the men had set up a camp. Without warm clothing, a tent or supplies, they created a windbreak by putting the canoe on its side. A tiny fire was kept going as they dried their socks and underwear over it. They hung their clothing on ground willows, and all traded off using the one pair of boots they had to go in search of firewood. They placed rocks in a ring around the fire. Two men at a time would lie under the canoe, and the other packed hot rocks around them. When they were able to move, they traded places. The wind and the flies were relentless. They tried to keep their spirits up by joking. Rod knew that his dad would be doing everything possible to find them. The ELT (emergency locator transmitter) had not gone off in the plane, so there would be no radio signal for rescuers to follow, but Rod's dad, Tom, knew the territory. He knew the ETA, and he would be quick to know there had been an accident. Every motion of the wind sounded like a rescue aircraft. Every minute that went by seemed like forever.
Lynn's Comments: An enormous Hercules Search and Rescue plane arrived from Alberta along with a helicopter and a Twin Otter outfitted with bulging Plexiglass side-windows where spotters would sit. They set up a military style office at the Lynn Lake airport. Enormous maps of the search area were put up on the walls. There were pilots, co-pilots, SARTECHS (search and rescue technicians), spotters, and others. Everyone was serious, focused, and prepared. What surprised me was the way they treated me. Rather than shooing me away, they sat me down and explained with kindness and courtesy exactly what they were doing and how the operation would proceed. I felt relieved and comforted. They knew exactly how to treat people in crisis and in shock. I was surprised by how coherent and calm I was.
Lynn's Comments: I thought about my children. I thought about the three other families who were now gathered together to wait for news--anything that would tell them what had happened, and what was going on. I called them every two hours. I called them just to let them know that everything possible was being done. I felt guilty for being so close to the scene and the first to know. It was all so surreal.
Lynn's Comments: This is true enough! I thought about all the petty things we had done and said to each other when all that really matters is life and love, and the knowledge that everyone is safe. When someone is gone, you go through the litany of "what ifs" and "if onlys," and ask "why?" It made me realize how suddenly things can change, that we should appreciate each other each and every day, and be truly grateful for what we have.
Lynn's Comments: A false alarm set off by a geological research helicopter sent the Hercules rescue team in the wrong direction. With just the canoe for shelter, the lost men waited anxiously for signs of help. Every sound, the wind, the waves on the water, small movements in the brush, sounded like the engine of a plane. Rod had left specific instructions on where he would be, and couldn't understand why it was taking so long for help to arrive.
Lynn's Comments: The Search and Rescue supervisors were dedicated and serious. I spent a great deal of time in their headquarters, which had been set up in the Lynn Lake Airport. Big maps on the wall showed the flight paths. The false ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter) signal had taken the Hercules away from the position of the downed plane and everyone was becoming edgy and depressed. Once the mistake had been discovered, the Hercules resumed its original pattern. It would track a mile on each side of the path taken by Rod's plane to the bay on Yathkyed Lake--first in a direct line from start to finish, then back and forth across the first path. Spotters stationed in glass pods on either side of the huge plane would scan the ground a mile out and back, a mile out and back. Any slight irregularity, anything shiny, any swath on the ground, they would report to the pilot who would then swing the plane around to have a closer look. A Twin Otter and a helicopter joined the search. The weather was closing in. Even in August, the arctic can be dangerously cold, and timing was critical.
Lynn's Comments: My mother-in-law stayed at my house, looked after the children, and answered the phone. My brother-in-law stayed at his parents' house with his dad who was in constant touch with Search and Rescue. He had the map on which Rod had recorded his flight path and destination. Having been a prospector, Tom knew the land well. He also knew that Rod was with a group of experienced outdoorsmen, and if anyone knew how to survive an accident, they did. He was calm and reassuring, but inside, he was prepared for the worst. We all were.
Lynn's Comments: What they wanted most was warmth, shelter and food. Nothing else was important. They just wanted to survive. It surprised them all to think that days beforehand, they had been thinking about luxuries. This experience changed them all.
Lynn's Comments: I don't remember the date. All I remember is that on the evening of the third day, the guys heard the sound of an aircraft. The first thing the Search and Rescue spotters saw were white parallel shapes under the surface of the water (not smoke). They had seen the pontoons of an overturned aircraft before. Technicians began to prepare for what they believed was the recovery of four drowned men, but something caught their attention on the shore. Overwhelmed and exhausted, the men had just enough energy to stand and wave as the Hercules circled overhead.
Lynn's Comments: Rod and his friends waved with all the energy they had left as the Hercules circled overhead. The big hatch on the belly of the plane was lowered and a streamer was thrown out. The men ran to the place where the streamer landed and retrieved a capsule with a message in it. They were to stay where they were and await the arrival of an aircraft that could land at the site. The huge plane then circled away from the men and dropped a parachute bearing a huge box. Three SARTECHs (Search and Rescue Technicians) then jumped after it. The men on the ground watched them land, pull in their parachutes, and begin quickly to open the box, erect a tent, and organize a living space inside.
Lynn's Comments: At home we all waited for any news of the lost men. We had the radio on and suddenly the CBC programming was interrupted by a bulletin: the men had been found safe and alive! How could the radio have received the news before we did? Joy and relief overcame any concerns we had about how the information had been delivered. I called the other women and told them what we had just heard. None of us could put our feelings into words. The shock of the entire situation was now something we could deal with. All we could do was wait for the men to come home--this kind of waiting was wonderful.
Lynn's Comments: The real story did not include the wives as this illustration suggests. I waited with our family for the men to be flown in to the Lynn Lake float plane base, while the other women waited at home.
Lynn's Comments: The return of the four survivors was an exhilarating time for the families, but the end of an ordeal for the men. A Twin Otter on floats slowly pulled into the dock and four almost unrecognizable men were helped down from it. All were pale, thin, and covered in bug bites. They had been sheltered, warmed, and fed by the Search and Rescue techs, but the accident had left them weak and weary.