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Flight North

FLIGHT NORTH (BELCHER)  22-25 June 1974, Float Otter 9423

Cast of Characters:
A/C Len Birchall, Capt. Bill Chandler, MWO Barry Hubbard, Cpl. Jim Trainor, Maj. Carl Mills

Photos: Maj. Carl Mills

Carl Mills – Aug 2011 - Recollections from about 37 years later.
As you will see, I wasn’t much of a historian back in those days – a spotty photog collection – no photo of Jim Trainor – sorry about that.
As for Birch – he got a lot of time up front in the right seat – he laughed a lot – he was just one of the guys – he had great confidence in the crew which did not include me – I was sort of his XO but how do you do that with a guy who is as casual as Birch especially in the bush
He enjoyed every aspect of the trip, was excited about every challenge – I wish that I could remember the ‘fine’ words that he said when we ran aground – after all he was upfront and was part of the decision making.  And you had to be there to hear his laughter about the Hubbard events especially when he found out about the second incident.
Certainly the flight was good training and a bit of a jolly but bottom line, several hundred of our northern countrymen got to see the words “Canadian Forces” and that meant something to all of us especially Birch.

Otter 9423 

I don’t really remember the reason for this flight except that somehow we few happened to be in the same space and decided to go – the weather looked good for a few days and we would see how far north (east side of Hudson Bay) we could get with out getting stranded.  Apparently there was good fishing up there – Arctic Char – similar to Salmon but right out of the water – wow. We would also visit a few places along the east coasts of James and lower Hudson Bay and say hello to the people. It was a long time ago but I think that it was the end of our summer camp which was taking place at the Sudbury airport.
Capt. Bill was our pilot and had to be in the left seat at all times when we were airborne but other than that we could all handle the Otter in the air and we were all going to take turns in the right seat to give him lots of rest. There was going to be a lot of sleeping on the aircraft which was typical of these long flights in the Otter.
Our first stop was, in fact, Sudbury but not for long. As I recall there were not too many 400's around so we ‘bought’ some gas and departed for Moosonee. Moosonee and Moose Factory are located at the southern tip of James Bay – you don’t go to both.  The machine was running well and the weather was great.

  MOOSE RIVER AT JAMES BAY                                              MOOSONEE
From Moosonee we crawled up the east coast of James Bay – nobody tried to talk – it was just too darned noisy – enjoyed the great scenery and sleep. We overflew Old Factory and Paint Hills – going straight to Fort George. These were the English names and, of course, they all had French names. For example, Paint Hills is Nouveau Comptoir. It was surprising how large some of these communities were but some were also smaller local native villages – mostly Cree Indian in the area.
I don't remember where we spent the first night – probably at Fort George – it was one of those larger communities with some airline services and probably a hotel with hot food and beer (not cheap).
Ft. George Dock

Anyway, there was a dock there, a bit rickety, but OK, and we attracted some attention from the locals especially the kids.   

 The next place was Great Whale, its French name was Poste de-la-Baleine, and we were now on Hudson Bay.

                     Pedestrian on runway walking between villages.

There were two native villages there (Cree), one on either side of the runway, so that you had to check for pedestrians and beasts on the runway.


One of the Cree villages at Great Whale.

A weather check by Capt. Bill indicated that it was coming down farther north but that we had a day or so to get back to Toronto. The decision was to go northwest out over the Hudson Bay to the Belcher Islands and the village of Eskimo Bay. The Belchers were a scattering of rocky outcroppings or islands, some distance out in Hudson Bay, and Eskimo Bay was the only settlement on the islands. It had a runway.
Over the water, the ice pack was awesome. Although the ice was broken up, there sure wasn't a lot of open water. No one talked about it but I'm sure we were all wondering what would happen to the floats if we had to force land in that stuff. It was endless. 

Then we came to the rocks of the Belchers and I don't know which was worse.

At Eskimo Bay, the first thing that we saw, as we landed, was a very smashed twin-Otter about halfway down the runway.

There was a great turnout at the ramp – all wanting to see who had come to visit. We were greeted by some sort of village administrator and told that we could stay over night – I forget where.
When we got out of the airplane, there were things to do. Hubbard and Trainer were always fussing over the aircraft – checking this and cleaning that. Capt. Bill seemed to be on the telephone a lot and then we would all get together for an hour or so of nonsense. In our casual time, A/C Birchall was usually the centre of entertainment and had the funniest stories to tell about his military career – even some about his time as a POW.

There was great interest on the part of the local folks, the kids and dogs and we always had a small crowd of curiosity seekers.

We were now in the Inuit part of the north and so we could ask about the stone carvings. The previous two years we had been in Churchill, MB, for our summer camps and had been able to find many different kinds of carvings. The administrator took us to a small building about the size of a house living room. Inside there were lots of shelves with some carvings. He said that the large distributors from Montreal and Toronto had just been there and took most of the stuff for the stores.
There were some medium sized pieces and a lot of smaller pieces. I was surprised that the small ones were only two dollars each. So I made a deal and took all of the small stuff and four medium pieces for about $100. I was thinking about the people back in Sudbury and now they would get a memento. There was a flurry or wrapping and all items were packed into one sizeable box with lots of rope. It was heavy but they managed to get it on the airplane.
Next morning we were headed southeast to a camp that we had seen at the mouth of the Raggan River on James Bay – it was time to fish. A nice crowd turned out to see us away. As soon as the engine started – dogs barked and kids shouted – you know – we were popular that way. We waved for along time – took one last look at the busted Twin-Otter and headed for shore over the ice. We overflew Great Whale and found the camp at Raggan but no one was there.
Still there was plenty of open water for landing and a great beach for beaching. I've always found it neat the way that the pilot and crew managed to back a float plane into a sandy beach. Nobody ever got wet and nothing ever got broke. Beached and ready to fish, everyone got their mosquito netting on.

Jim started the usual ritual with the machine while Birch, Hub, and Capt. Bill broke out the impatient fishing gear.

Ah fishing: Birchall-Hubbard-Chandler

My job was to get the Coleman stove going and get all of the utensils ready. Specifically, for this event and for this moment, enough butter to make at least 1,000 sandwiches for several hundred kids, was brought to cook a fish called an Arctic Char – like a Salmon they said. 
It wasn't long before the pan was heating and chunks of butter were cut up with my trusty hunting knife. A knife so unclean and filthy over the years - it had be used to kill things, clean things, scrape things, had lots of old blood on it - but who cared – right – we were guys in the wild and it was Char time. The pan was literally filled to the top with creamy, yellow, molten butter and the first char had been caught. The Air Force had arrived in Char country and it was time to chow down.
These critters were coming to us and our fishermen three were flipping them out of the water like fleas off a mongrel getting deloused. De-scaled, gutted, and into the pan complete with the eyes - still wiggling. The butter overflowed the pan and steamed in the open flame, lots of mosquitoes got caught as I flip the fillets, what a feast.
There we were sitting on the edge of a knoll in the dirt with sea gulls hovering over heads or skulking around our feet - wearing dusty combat boot and stained flying clothing, not perfectly shaven, not perfectly un-smelly – there were no thoughts of shone shoes or pristine uniforms or medals – just the fish and this place and we guys.
We hauled in several Char and ate them all. We used both hands to push the fish into our mouths and the butter was dripping from our chins and fingers. Anything that fell into the sand became the property of the seagulls. A bunch of guys being silly but having a great time – laughing and enjoying the fish.
I didn't tell anyone about my knife or the mosquitoes that got cooked with the fish – it probably wouldn't have mattered – right??
OK – we were stuffed but it was time to go – clean up – untie the ropes – get on board – get the engine going – one crewman – Hub - on the float – usual stuff.
Now boys and girls – things were going too smoothly.

9423 on sand Bar. Hubbard holding on prior to getting off.

Capt. Bill eased the power on to get us free of the sandy beach – the tide had gone out just a tad – but the floats jerked free nicely with a little extra power - Hub was supposed to be on the float – then once free he was to come inside.  Where was he??  Then once free a little more power  – at this point Hub was supposed to be inside but he wasn't and the door was not shut – Oh, Oh.
Through the opening in the door we could see a taut rope with Hubbard being dragged head-first - surfing - at the other end – he looked expert. A little bow wave, some wake, balding forehead in the sun, and words filled with water that we could not understand. We shouted at Capt. Bill to cut power, which was a mistake, because, now in deeper water, Hubbard then sank and there were just bubbles – lots of bubbles.
Look - you know - it was a bit tricky but it was hilarious - I mean Hubbard was one of our top float crewmen and he sank – best of all he had to be rescued - not really - but that would be our story back home. Birch was beside himself and burst into his room-filling laughter. 

All of us would have left Hubbard to self-dry but Birch hauled out his back-up flying suit and that’s how Hubbard became a ‘general’ for the day. 
"General" Hubbard 

We planned to spend the last night at Paint Hills – some friends of friends knew the teacher there and you know – why not. It wasn't long before we found the village – it was up a river but not far from the James Bay coast. After a sojourn in the Inuit culture it was now back to the Cree culture but a different village.
Everything was going well with Capt. Bill and Birch up front. We had seen the village from the air and had to pass a small island in the river to get to the beach after landing. Approaching the island – there was the question – left or right – on the right channel there was a stick with a red ball on top – probably take the left channel - slow as she goes. Then the unmistakable sound of float bottoms sliding on sand and then full stop – nature’s way.

9423 on sand bar at Paint Hills

Engine off and crewmen in the water (with hip waders this time) – everyone else on the rear of the floats to tip the nose up. Nope - too tight - too deep - too firm - stuck - need help. As luck would have it a sizeable motorized canoe appeared and came along side. With further luck, it had aboard one of the few people from the village who spoke English – we had taken the correct channel but had landed at low tide. The plane was to be unloaded now, to lighten the load, into several similar canoes and then re-float at 0200.
It wasn't long before the first task was accomplished and our gear was piled on the village beach just around the island. We would reload the aircraft when it arrived on the beach but until then we needed a continuous guard. Above the beach was a popular area for the men of the village – they were very curious about us and our equipment especially our neat looking fishing gear. There was a sizeable group there of all ages – some were just hanging out – others were playing a strange game that was a cross between chess, backgammon and checkers but with smooth stones. It was totally foreign to us and they all (including the onlookers) got very excited with roars of applause and laughter at various moves. Since no one spoke English, it was impossible to learn, even the basics, in the short time that we were able to observe.
There were a few beds at the close-by infirmary for the guys and I went to say hello to my acquaintance at the teacher’s house. It was a short walk along a dirt pathway, about the width of two city sidewalks, through fairly dense bush land with many narrower paths leading off in various directions. She was a retired lady who wanted to keep teaching and found the solitude to her liking. She said that the porch was mosquito-free with those smoking coils and I decided, that because we were short one bed at the infirmary, to spend a few hours there after re-floating the aircraft.
I spent some time on guard duty, the others slept, the crowd of males thinned out, and it started to get dark. At 0100, about six canoes showed up. I got the guys - including Birch - he wouldn't have missed this for anything. We roared off into the dark with our flashlights trying to figure out where we were going. The canoe guys didn't need lights. Then 9423 jumped out of the darkness. Hubbard was in the water (with hip waders) and the aircraft was free. 
The several motorized canoes were all tied together and tied to the airplane. Hubbard tried to be in charge and was checking the ropes. Someone grunted and all of the canoes roared off with the Otter in tow – leaving Hubbard behind on the sandbar in the dark. I just happened to look around and saw Hubbard disappearing in the darkness. He was waving his arms and probably shouting but with six outboards pulling the Otter – forget it. There was a  free canoe beside us and I made emphatic gestures at the guy who got the idea and went back for Hubbard. As I recall Hubbard actually beat us to the beach and so only he and I knew what had happened. When Birchall later heard – it was a head-back roar that could have been heard all over the village. Someone said, “You would have been OK – we would have picked you up on the way out in the morning.” And there was some more nonsense and lots of laughter.
OK, OK – now load everything into the aircraft – tie it off to some trees and lock the door. Few hours sleep and engine on at first light. The guys headed to the infirmary – maybe Jim Trainor slept in the aircraft in case it got attacked – brave fellow. I headed for the teacher’s porch. Someone suggested that I take a paddle with me in case I got attacked by some of the horde of dogs that we had seen around. What dogs – I didn't see any dogs – Birch said, “oh, those big ones in packs” – maybe I should stay.
I took a flash light and headed off down this double-side walk width path. Strange noises in the distance and strange noises close by - slow crashing noises. I thought of my paddle and wondered if it would be good for other beasts such as moose or bears or whatever else might be around. I waved my flash light from side to side. But then another strange thing began to happen – something that I never would have imagined.
The young men of the village started drifting in and out of the bush in front of me – like right in front of me – a few steps away – crossing in front of me and then disappearing back into the bush again. This happened six or seven times before I got to the teacher’s place. I tried whistling, I tried saying ‘hi’ and ‘hello’ – I almost said ‘bonjour’ but remembered that a few of the villagers were on the run from the QPP for burning the Province of Quebec flag. They were silent and very quiet.
At first, I thought, I'm a military guy in combat clothing with dog tags, a hunting knife that, just today, has killed, and I have a paddle with ‘Canadian Forces’ stencilled on the wide part – what sensible person would mess with that. Then, I tried to console myself by thinking that it was their way of making sure that I was safe. Finally, I reached the sanctity of the smoke-filled porch.
I told the guys in the morning – this time Birch didn't laugh. He said let’s get out of here.
It was a matter of catching the tide as those who live along coastal areas often say. However, I think that they mean when the tide is going out because they can somehow ‘ride’ along with it. We, on the other hand, were not fussy about the tide’s comings and goings as long as it was high. I'm sure that Capt. Bill had us airborne long before that sandbar.

The remainder of the trip back to Downsview was dry and uneventful.


                                                                                Moose Factory

 Moosonee radar dome - Hubbard                                                                                                9423 at Moosonee

SW James Bay coast                                                                                                            River at James bay 

Coast of James Bay                                                                                                            South end of James Bay

James Bay tide out                                                                                                            Clouds over James Bay

"General" Hubbard doing what  generals do.                                                                            
 Capt. Bill Chandler

                                                                        James Bay east coast 

James Bay east coast                                                                                                 Old Factory: Abandoned trading post

James Bay coast                                         
                                                                           Trees trees, more trees.

   Fort George                                                                                                                                                                                     A closer look at Fort George
 Fort George river
                                                                            Nothing but used oil barrels

            Between Fort George & Great Whale

Great Whale Cree village
                                                                            Dorniar 27
Hudson Bay Ice between Great Whale & Belcher Islands

                                                                        Rock islands - Belcher  

 Rock islands - Belcher  
                                                                            Belcher Islands - Eskimo Bay
Eskimo Bay - Fresh water    
                                                                                    Eskimo Bay runway

Write Off                                                                                                                            Eskimo kids at Eskimo Bay

More Belcher rock                                                                                                         Hubbard doing what He does best

Nice cloud                                                            
                                                                            Sunset over Hudson Bay

 Sunset over Hudson Bay a little later
                                                                            Near Raggan river

                                                                                Caribou moss

                                                                Paint Hills (Nouveau Comptoir) Cree village

9423 on that damn sand bar                                                                                                            Paint Hills

  Paint Hills
                                                                            Birchall & Hubbard

Hubbard                                                                                                                                       Carl Mills (selfie??)