Solving the Mystery of “Plane Crash Island”

When my family and I set out for a paddling trip earlier this year, we turned to Arctic Tern’s series of excellent brochures and maps of popular canoe routes around Yellowknife to pick a destination.

A passage in the Tibbitt Lake Loop brochure caught our eye: “It is also possible to view the remains of a small bush plane that crashed some time ago. The wreckage is on a small island in the southeast corner of Terry Lake. The plane is hard to spot since it is in several pieces and well rusted.”

Despite being ravaged by recent forest fires, Tibbitt and Terry lakes remain beautiful camping and paddling destinations with ample island campsites, good fishing and abundant bird life. For families with small children, the ability to drive your vehicle down the Ingraham Trail, right to the lake edge, and then paddle for days without having to portage is an added bonus. In all my trips to these lakes, however, I’d never taken the time to find and explore what is commonly known as “Plane Crash Island.”

The wind prevented us from making it all the way on our first day, but when we finally made it over the following morning, we met up with Gordon and Karen (LeGresley) Hamre, who had camped on the island the night before. Although they have visited the site for many years, they knew little of the wreck’s history.

 “In the evening Harry, Don and Archy came home in canoe, having lost their plane by fire two days before. $25,000, covered by insurance BEA.”

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There’s not much left of it but the frame. The engine, floats and equipment have all been removed. The tubular frame is completely exposed. The fuselage, tail and wings are all in separate pieces but easily distinguishable as parts of a vintage aircraft.

Finding Piro

When I began inquiring about the airplane’s history, I was surprised by how many longtime Northerners had never heard of it, let alone the circumstances surrounding its final location. The people I spoke to were a virtual who’s who of Yellowknife aviation history: Merlyn Williams, Mike Byrne, Hal Lodgson, Mikey McBryan, Stephen Jeffery. I even interrupted a lively discussion at a table of bush pilots at the Woodyard pub one evening, but none of them had any information. Then, seemingly all at once, clues started to trickle in, all leading back to one person: Gordon Piro.

Piro, a living encyclopedia of Northern aviation history, is sure the plane is a late-1930s Stinson Reliant (SR) on floats, and that it caught fire, rather than crashed, while on the water on Terry Lake. The charred wreckage was hauled ashore to its current location and, at some point, the engine, floats and anything else of value were salvaged or scavenged.

The Stinson Reliant, manufactured by Stinson Aircraft Corporation of Michigan, was first introduced in 1936 and could accommodate a pilot and four passengers. The gull-wing Reliants were very popular airplanes and more than 1,000 of them were put into production before World War II. The fuselage, tail surfaces and wings were of welded steel-tube construction. The whole framework was covered with cotton fabric, explaining why it lies completely exposed today.

Piro has several theories about the wreck’s origins, but the most likely one is this:

On June 24, 1937, a Stinson SR-9DM, registration CF-BEA, was about 45 miles south of Gordon Lake when sparks from a bush fire ignited the plane’s fabric covering.

The plane was registered to Territories Exploration Company out of Toronto, which held mineral claims on and around Gordon Lake in the late 1930s. In 1937, a diamond driller from Pakenham, Ontario, named George Needham was assigned to an exploration project on Gordon Lake. Needham’s diary from this time is reproduced in the book Yellowknife Tales: Sixty Years of Stories from Yellowknife. A fascinating glimpse of Northern life when gold mining in and around Yellowknife was in its infancy, Needham’s diary depicts the often mundane details of camp life, punctuated by moments of excitement when early bush planes would arrive to deliver personnel, mail, fresh food and supplies to the isolated exploration camps.

The trouble with Harry

Territories Exploration operated three Stinson SR-9DM Reliants in the late 1930s, with registration numbers CF-BEA, CF-BEB and CF-BEC. Needham’s diary makes reference to two of these, BEA and BEB.

On Monday, June 8, 1937, he wrote: “Tore down and moved to new setup, the flies were very bad so I wore my net, in the evening we helped launch BEB. Carl and Pete went up with Don, and Carl and Tom went up with Harry, who performed some stunts over the camp.” Although we don’t know much about Harry, he features prominently in Needham’s diary. On Sunday, May 23, 1937, a day of rest and leisure, Needham described how, after washing their clothes and getting haircuts, “Carl and Harry upset the canoe and had to swim ashore.” On June 26, 1937, Needham described how, “in the evening Harry, Don and Archy came home in canoe, having lost their plane by fire two days before. $25,000, covered by insurance BEA.”

Is BEA the plane whose frame remains on the shore of “Plane Crash Island” almost eighty years later? It seems likely. Terry Lake is roughly 45 kilometres due south of Gordon Lake. It lies directly on the flight path between Gordon Lake and Fort Resolution. In those days, the claims at Gordon Lake were even more promising than those in their early stages of development in Yellowknife, which itself was little more than a camp. It is likely that Harry, Don and Archy were en route to Resolution for supplies when, for some reason, they decided to land on Terry Lake. Perhaps they stopped to get a closer look at a bush fire that was burning in the area when the fabric of the plane was ignited by a spark. Perhaps, since they were carrying a canoe, they were just out on a fishing trip, although it seems unlikely for a work-week Wednesday.

Whatever the cause of their stopover, it became the final resting place for CF-BEA. It would take another thirty years before the “Road to Resources,” now called the Ingraham Trail, would connect this area with vehicular traffic to Yellowknife. Harry, Don and Archy likely spent three hungry, exhausting days making their way back to Gordon Lake, tormented by mosquitos and mud. Needham does not mention Harry again in his diary but one can imagine that he and his trip mates took a fair share of ribbing when they finally made it back to their camp on Gordon Lake, absent the plane they’d left on.

“Plane Crash Island” is a first rate campsite, just metres from the mouth of the Upper Cameron River. I’ll leave it to others to determine whether its informal name should be changed to “Burnt Plane Island” or “Harry’s Folly.” Whatever its name, I look forward to my next visit, thankful that, at the end of the weekend, I can drive home to Yellowknife in the comfort of my truck.

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