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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

When the Going Gets Tough…

April 15, 2003

“On February 19, 1945, at 2300 hours, twelve RCAF members from Tofino were cleared for take-off in their Canso 11007 and had just cleared the end of the runway when the port engine quit cold.  At this time, the Canso was carrying, in addition to the crew, normal gear and equipment, four 250-pound depth charges, and about 750 gallons of fuel.  The pilot later said that when he realized the plane was too low to turn and further altitude could not be gained, he decided to land straight ahead and actually flew the Canso into a full-stall landing UP the side of a wooded hill. The following morning, a rescue team located and brought out all twelve crew members, most of them none the worse for having spent the night in the wrecked plane but the plane was left on the hillside, too damaged to be worth retrieving.”

Laurel Perry didn’t tell me all that last fall when I mentioned that I was going to be spending some time at Long Beach on Vancouver Island.  As I recall, what she said was, “Oh, Long Beach.  I love it.  Are you going to see the plane?”

“The plane?”

“Yes, there’s a plane that crashed on a hillside during the war.  It’s still there, trees growing through it but otherwise just as it was.”

Laurel was a bit vague about small details like exact location, starting points (“…you go in on this little road not too far out of Tofino…”) or even approximate distance to the plane.  “Well, it was a long time ago but I know we walked for a bit.  But it wasn’t too far, just a nice little jaunt.”  She paused and got that remembering look on her face, sort of narrow-eyed as if she was peering back in time.  Then her face cleared and she smiled.  “You really should go see it, just lying there pointed up the hill with the trees keeping it stable.”

“I will,” I told her.  “It sounds like something right up my brother’s alley and I’d love to see it myself.  I’ll give you a report when I get home.”

“ And I’ll hold you to it,” Laurel replied.  “Have a wonderful holiday.”  She turned to go, then turned back and added, “Wear old shoes… it’s a wee bit wet...”

Funny how those words kept coming back to me a couple of weeks later as we slogged through that wee bit wet, my brother Ax, sister-in-law Lorene, and your faithful recorder of all things ridiculous, three old fools out on a date with history. 

We should have known there was something fishy when no one in Tofino seemed to have heard anything about the wreck.  No one we accosted on the street, nor the people in the tourist information center.  Even the elderly follow at the gas station had no knowledge of it but advised us to check at a lady at the village office, a longtime residence who knew all there was to know about the area.

“Aw, let it go, Ax.  It was just a whim and we don’t have to do this….” I sputtered to a halt as he drew up before a small building and leapt from the car, the blood of his Viking forbears hot with purpose. Two minutes later he was back, a jubilant smile on his face.  “Finally, someone who knew what we were talking about.  We just have to go back the way we came until we come to this little side road that we can’t actually get onto because of a new ditch put across the entrance but it’s only a few kilometers on the other side of the Welcome to Tofino sign…shouldn’t be hard to find…”

Turned out there are about forty-eleven side roads off the main drag between Tofino and Long Beach and we had checked out a goodly number of them before Ax was satisfied we had the right one. He pulled over and hung the car precariously over the side of the narrow highway. “Alright, ladies,” he exclaimed in high good spirits.  “Let’s go find us a plane!”

The deep new ditch proved a slight obstacle to our adventure but once we had cleared its muddy width, we strode off into the bush on an old gravel road, somewhat overgrown with grass and small bushes and damp from recent light showers.  Hah, I thought comfortably, Laurel was right,  it is a bit wet.  After fifteen minutes of easy walking, we began watching for the plane, checking each little hillock that sloped away from the road, wondering if we could have missed it. Pre-sently we came to a clearing with an old cement building and, apparently, the end of the road.  Darn.  We HAD missed it.  Oh well, we’d go back and have another look.

Just as we had made that decision, a somewhat bedraggled young couple emerged from the bush at the top of the clearing.  They’d been to the plane and were headed for home and dry shoes.  Indeed, they were mud to the knees and looked tired and, I thought, a smidge disgruntled.  It’s boggy, they told us, but pretty well marked with survey ribbon.  They started down the trail towards the highway.  “Is it much further?” I called after them.  The young man turned back and glumly surveyed our small party, well-turned out in Tilley pants and shirts and hats.  “It’s a fair way,” he admitted and turning to go, he called back, “Good luck.”  

Our goal almost in sight, we set off  light-heartedly through the narrow opening in the bush and down a slight declivity.  Suddenly, and without warning, the gentle decline turned vicious and we were slipping and sliding and tripping over roots down, down, down, emerging finally into a broad valley, a primordial wasteland of bog and water, overgrown with salal and willow.  A light rain began to fall as Aksel picked up the fluorescent flash of red survey tape and began threading us through this swamp, following the faint path through the sawgrass, clambering over fallen logs and stepping lightly onto shivering tussocks of grass in the vain hope of at least keeping our feet dry even as we began soaking through from the top down.  It was not long before water began seeping through the stitching on my Nikes but it wasn’t until I skidded off  slimey surface of a decaying log into a foot of ooze that Laurel’s last faint cry came back to me, “Wear your old shoes…”

By the time we finally reached the hillside and the payoff for our perilous journey, the drizzle had turned into a downpour and we were drenched from the top down and squashy from the bottom up as we stood peering up at the fuselage of the Canso, gleaming dully high above us in a spread-eagle configuration.    Lorene sat down on a log. “You two go have a look, I’ll just wait here.”   I stood indecisively, looking down on the small figure hunched against the rain and beating back every instinct that advised me to join her on the log.  Finally, I swiped an arm across my face, turned and accompanied Ax on the difficult climb up the hill.

There was not much to see.  The hull of the plane, pirated of every anything removable, with trees growing around it and through it, lay empty, its engines, propeller, seats, everything gone. Slippery footing around it and jagged holes in its metal skin warned us that it would be foolhardy to try to climb into it, had we truly sought yet one more adventure, so we sheltered for a moment under a wing before clambering down to collect our moist companion and retrace our steps back to the highway.

Yeah, well, easy to type now that I’m sitting here in nice dry house, coffee-cum-Baileys close to hand and Oscar Lopez on the stereo.

Fact is, the return trip was not a whole lot more fun than the trip in had been.

We were wet and cold and unutterably weary. In an attempt to circumnavigate the worst of the bog, we kept losing the track and in the rain and murky light of late afternoon, the survey ribbons began to play-hide-and-go-seek.  Endlessly we re-traced our steps as each new path petered out into impenetrable bush or unfamiliar fen.  Both Lorene and I had fallen a time or two and were fast were approaching the ends of our tethers, Aksel had long since run out of the ebullience that is his trademark, and we were all casting dark brown looks at each other, trying to determine where blame should be laid.

It occurred to me that we might well have to spend the night in the swamp and I had a vision of Ax cutting salal leaves with trusty Swiss Army knife to make shelter.  Forget a fire, I thought, we’d have to huddle together for warmth and hope the rain would stop before night well and truly fell.  Perhaps we would never be found, I mused darkly as I stumbled along.  Except for that young couple who had long since headed for home and dry shoes, no one knew where we’d gone. After several days someone would report our car, abandoned as it was in a precarious manner on the edge of the highway, and it would be towed away to be auctioned off along with the bicycles and computers in the yard behind the RCMP building. 

Maybe the nice lady in the municipal office might hear of the car and think for a moment of the wild-eyed man who’d demanded to know the location of the long-forgotten Canso but then she’d think, Nah, an old geezer like him, he’d never start in there….. 

Well, in the end it all turned out OK. 

We finally made a conscious decision to advance from ribbon to ribbon, adhering to the “path” with no detours around the deepest holes, and running off to scout out possible short-cuts. Late-afternoon found us hauling our aching fundaments up the last small hill, through the bush and into the clearing. From there, it was downhill the rest of the way.

I met Laurel on the street  the other day and we stopped to pass the time of day.  “Did you have a good holiday?  Did you get out to see the plane?” she asked eagerly.  Laurel is a really nice lady so I didn’t hit her.  I just agreed that I’d had good time, I’d seen the plane, and I was glad to be home.

“Oh, I’m so glad you went.  I bet Bill would really enjoy it; I should take him there the next time we go to Long Beach.”

“Why don’t you do that?  It’s an interesting bit of history.”  She turned then to go and as I watched her leave a thought occurred to me.  “Hey Laurel,” I called.  She stopped and looked back questioningly.  “Don’t forget to wear old shoes… it’s a wee bit wet.”

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