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Breaking a trail in search of the place a great Leaf fell (10 photos)

This week Back Roads Bill takes us on an expedition while writing a story of a Northern Ontario legend

There is a saying about having good or best intentions. But, even when the journey doesn't lead to the intended destination, it can be a good trek.

It is 5 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 9 and the car’s dash display says it is -30° C. We leave Timmins but when passing the Bill Barilko billboard on Highway 101 East in South Porcupine the headlights only slightly illuminate this city’s hockey legend’s young man’s vibrant smile; the face along with the clenched fist, the gesture of a winner.

The second most asked question by tourists is, after where is Shania Twain’s childhood home, where is Bill Barilko buried? It is Timmins’ Buddy Holly story. “The City with a Heart of Gold“ is the home of a legend.

If you follow Back Roads Bill you know there are storied treks that take time and determination such as the navigation rock and the hermit of White Water Lake. I appreciate the making of a good Northern Ontario story; the narrative of Bill Barilko is one of them.

There is also a lesser notion of what is called “dark tourism” a keen curiosity linked to visiting a historic place. And there is the spiritual presence of Bill Barilko, I found a past presence in this story when searching for another crash site and the published article became connecting the pilot with the son for a sense of closure.

I scooped the story for Village Media of the unveiling of the commemorative billboard, that was on Aug. 8, 2020. I received a thankful email from Frank Klisanich, and now some new memorabilia photos, Bill’s nephew and family representative.

Families never forget. I have been to his headstone and I wanted to visit the plane crash site that claimed his life and pilot friend Dr. Henry Hudson on Aug. 26, 1951. So a trek was planned going back two years, post billboard story. The intent was to reach the crash site, only previously accessed by helicopter, to erect a commemorative sign and pay homage to the folklore. It is one of those back roads’ things.

Barilko

He’s not an honoured member of the Hockey Hall Of Fame, not yet anyway. His legend lives on because of the Tragically Hip song that became an anthem for Leaf fans across Canada, have a listen.

Gord Downie’s lyrics within ‘Fifty Mission Cap’ is the main reason Bill Barilko is still remembered. Many iconic players have donned the leaf insignia but the ’Leafs Nation’ has a special place for the Timmins native. Bill Barilko's number five sweater would become the second number to be permanently retired in 1962 thought to be a lucky charm. The 1992 song is about Barilko's death and the Leafs' subsequent Stanley Cup drought. The song has been credited as singlehandedly reviving the Barilko legend that included an array of theories and speculation related to his sudden and no trace disappearance.

Known for his hard-hitting style, William "Bashin' Bill" Barilko (March 25, 1927 – August 26, 1951), played his entire National Hockey League career for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was a rising star, during a span of five seasons; he played in the 1947, 1948 and 1949 NHL All-Star Games. Barilko and the Toronto Maple Leafs were Stanley Cup champions on four occasions: 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1951.

The fans went wild on that triumphant night of April 21, 1951, one iconic photo shows teammates hoisting Barilko on their shoulders as fans swarm onto the ice. The impeccable shot taken by Nat Turofsky is the most requested photograph in the archives of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Their hero, scored in overtime, putting the final nail in the coffin of the Leafs’ bitter rivals, the Montreal Canadiens. It would be Barilko’s last goal.

“It is one of the greatest and most memorable goals of all time,” NHL goaltender Ken Dryden is quoted as saying in Kevin Shea’s book, Without a Trace. In 2002, The Star newspaper named it one of the top 10 sporting moments that fans would never forget. See the goal narrated by Ken Dryden https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWoGF5YqB98 .

Four months later, he vanished. In August 1951, Barilko made the fateful decision to go fishing before returning to Toronto for training camp.

He was visiting his family in Timmins where he grew up, and accepted an invitation from friend and local dentist Henry Hudson to fly to James Bay. At the time his mother told him not to go on the fishing trip. More than two months later there was still no sign of the missing plane or its occupants, searchers covered more than 78,000 sq. km.

The massive aerial search ended with a final price tag of $385,000 (about $3.7 million today), making it the costliest in Canadian military history. Time marched on, the rumour mill included that Barilko was involved in gold smuggling.

In early June of 1962, just weeks after the Leafs finally won the Cup again following an 11-year drought, a helicopter pilot spotted shining metal among the dense black spruce 75 kilometres north of Cochrane.

On June 6, searchers trekked two kilometres into the dense bush to find the Fairchild 24 pontoon plane partly submerged in a swamp. Two skeletons were still strapped in their seats. Investigators determined Barilko and Hudson were killed on impact.

Kevin Vincent is the author of two books on great gold mining robberies in Timmins. It was his idea for the billboard. Prior to the billboard, there was a community fundraiser at the famed McIntryre Arena where I met Kevin in February of 2020.

There was an array of hockey and Leaf memorabilia featuring Bill Barilko from the renowned Mark Fera, a Barilko authority and Canada’s foremost Maple Leaf collector; see him on Facebook.

At the time Vincent said, “The intent is to erect two commemorative billboards at the east end and downtown, it will be a tribute to Bill and seventy years overdue.”

Outside the arena, on display was one of the pontoons from the floatplane, you can see the axe holes where police checked for the rumoured gold smuggling; all there was found apparently were fish skeletons.

Dave McGirr, former head of Northern Telephone and a long-time Timmins resident is now retired to Lake Bernard, Sundridge, was one of 11 other determined people from made the trek on Oct. 16, 2011, to recover some of the plane wreck and bring it home.

The Mission, an 11-minute video focuses on the efforts of determined fans to recover the plane wreck. Here’s the trailer. A major reason for this mission was to highlight the legacy of a great Canadian Legend and to underline that Bill Barilko was from Northern Ontario, he should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

”Barilko is buried within the Historic Protestant Sites, Section E, Row 2 of the Timmins Memorial Cemetery. When you visit there is always an assortment of Maple Leaf trinkets left for the idol. As mentioned there is the Kevin Shea book Without a Trace condensed in this 31-minute video with the author. The front cover of his book features the iconic photo of teammate Bill being hoisted for exuberant fans.

The Setting and the Trek

Back to the cold, with Brian Emblin from Timmins, we journey north of Smooth Rock Falls, we meet Scott and Dave at Abitibi Canyon, the sun is below the horizon as we cross the expansive Abitibi Canyon Hydroelectric Generating Station dam; we have four snowmobiles, two are backcountry, wide-track machines.

It is cold enough with the temperature forecasted to rise somewhat, that sting of pain when flesh is exposed for too long; always present when you have to take off the bulky snowmobile gloves and make too many adjustments to packs, helmets and straps. The second layer of inside gloves doesn’t seem to work on an early morning like this, either; the sun has just come up.

Getting ready is part of the plan. It’s not like climbing Everest but there is a nervous anticipation within the last push of a challenge.

I looked at the historic weather data for Aug. 26, 1952, it seemed to be a typical late summer day with temperatures of 22.4°C and a low of 10.2°C; winds were light enough with good visibility.

Most likely there was a mechanical failure with the small floatplane. When you look at the plane crash site there is a distinct lack of Canadian Shield lakes; you are within the wetlands of the transition zone of the James Bay Lowlands or what is called the Hudson Plain.

Canada has approximately 25 per cent of the world’s wetlands. The Hudson Plain alone embraces the bulk of this figure. Some say it is the largest coextensive wetland on the planet. It occupies about a quarter of Ontario and 4 per cent of Canada, covering 369,000 square kilometres of land and 11,800 square kilometres of water.

About 10,000 people live there, representing just 0.04 per cent of Canada’s population. The density is 2.7 people per 100 square kilometres, whereas the Boreal Shield to the south has 155 per 100 square kilometres. It is a low poorly drained plain locked in permafrost and characterized by bog-like muskeg, peppered with marshes, peat and innumerable, shallow ponds.

The thick vegetation cover includes stunted black spruce, tamarack and white spruce. The shrub layer consists of dwarf birch, willow and northern Labrador tea. The ground cover is dominated by cottongrass or by moss and lichen. There was nowhere to land that day within this vast and remote landmass. This is where the remains of the plane lie.

We are on the 49th parallel of North latitude. Snowshoes are strapped on, we have a sleigh full of emergency equipment with changes of clothes including those needs: a chainsaw, axe and a folding saw and the Garmin InReach satellite communication device is stowed away. (Brian, during the past two years, has snowmobiled from various directions to get us to our debarkation point, which is the closest, direct route to the crash site.)

Also, there is the windsurfer to transport, the $50 dollar garage sale summer purchase as we have to ford one significant creek with unknown ice conditions. Going into the water is not an option today.

We use Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs trail #A103 east side, not open, not packed or groomed yet, it is early and the trail is slushy in some locales. It is about 35 km south of Abitibi Canyon, the snow is deep enough and there is windfall to clear off the trail.

We know the journey will be difficult.

A CheckSix.com aviation history site has this exurb.

Finally, on Friday, June 1st, 1962, bush pilot Gary Fields of Dominion Helicopter Services Ltd. of Toronto, was on a routine patrol flight when he was accidentally blown off his flight course by high winds.

While there, he came upon the weather-beaten debris from a Fairchild 24, about 45 miles north of Cochrane, Ontario, in dense and swampy bushland.

Thinking it was a known wreck site, it was disregarded at first. But a recheck of local records found that the site was undocumented and merited further investigation.

The featureless terrain made pinpointing the exact site difficult, but several days later, on June 7th, helicopter pilot Ron Boyd, and his engineer Phil Weston, relocated the site. Using rolls of toilet paper, the pair marked the crash site, landed, and hiked over a mile through the thicket to arrive at the crash site.

There, they found the plane to be half-buried in the soft arctic soil, and discovered that the plane's registration number is still visible on the wreckage - a pontoon and piece of empennage - and the skeletons of both Barilko and Hudson were still strapped to their seats.

Apart from landing helicopters nearby no one has trekked in.

We get behind a little of schedule and come to the designated point that is the shortest straight-line distance to the crash site almost due east of where we park. We have to change out of those snowmobile suits into lighter layers of snowshoe attire with small day packs. We start off the terrain is reasonably open, we have to tow the surfboard.

I say it's was cold enough so two snowmobiles try and break a trail but the distance gained is minimal.

Apart from the expletives en route, it is what I call 'nasty ground.' 

For a different story, I interviewed Adam Shoalts through his book Alone Against the North - “An Expedition into the Unknown.”

He was in territory just to the north, northeast of us, north of the Detour Lake Mine looking for the Again River he describes the same ground, “…a lonely, trackless expense of muskeg. It wasn’t a place one should travel along – or at all, really.” But Adam says, “There is always the inexpressible lure of the unknown, the romance of adventure and the thrill of exploration.” No one had been where we are trekking. Some humour, this guy made it to the gravesite - not our destination.

I am glad the final account of Bill Barilko is myth-like.

The snow is unexpectedly too deep and winter has yet to begin and the black spruce taiga too dense; we are meandering off course.

We realize after making little headway too much energy is being expended getting the surfboard hung up and the smaller snowshoes are not working well enough and it remains cold. In the back of my instructional mind, and I teach this stuff to students for a living, “Stay safe,” says the risk management, left side of the brain.

Thwarted, stymied…for now, we turn back, disappointed, defeated by the landscape.

It is the traditional novel theme of Man versus Nature. Bill Barilko and Dr. Henry Hudson, their spirits are still 4.2 km away; ours will have to return. The Maple Leafs most likely will not win the Stanley Cup this year…again. When things go wrong or don’t turn out the way you pictured them in one’s head, you just have to go with the best intentions defence. See the map.


Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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