July 2, 2018
It’s easy to spot the wreckage — if you know what you’re looking for.
Under sunny skies, the crushed remains of the plane glitter like a gem in the middle of the unending, forested mountains of Atlin Provincial Park.
Kyle Cameron remembers seeing the wreckage as a kid. The 36-year-old grew up in a renowned Yukon aviation family, and spent his youth flying around the territory and northern British Columbia with his parents.
It was during one of those flights that he first spotted the crash site. But it wasn’t until last summer that he finally saw it up close.
Cameron and his wife, Sara, are both aircraft mechanics in Whitehorse, and have a float plane of their own. They also have a fairly unusual hobby.
“Something Kyle and I love to do is go find old airplane wrecks and make a day of it, or make a couple days of it,” said Sara. “Usually, nothing comes of it — but before you know it, you can change a family’s life.”
The wreckage that Kyle Cameron first saw decades ago is nestled near the jagged peaks that form B.C.’s northwestern border with Alaska. The Camerons had flown over that particular spot a number of times in the last two years, but last summer, they decided to try to explore the site.
"We had no idea it would turn into something so great, and something so massive."
Kyle said people warned him and Sara that it was going to be difficult, given all the jagged cliffs and loose rock. “It’s very, very inaccessible,” he said. “Also, in hot weather, the valley could turn into a real oven.”
Undeterred, the Camerons had a window of good weather starting on Aug. 5, 2017, so they loaded up 80 pounds of gear and their two dogs, and headed out.
They spent time circling the area, taking aerial photos and trying to map their route to the crash. The nearest spot to land their Cessna 180 was over four kilometres away, at Sloko Lake. Sloko, and the river that runs from it, are glacier-fed and strikingly light blue in colour. But the idyllic waters hide hazards of their own. Major winds from nearby glaciers often batter the lake, and water levels quickly fluctuate.
“With a shoreline of jagged rocks, it makes it very dangerous to a parked float plane, which can pound on the bottom and potentially break a hole in a float,” said Kyle.
The water is opaque, filled with suspended glacier sediment. Sitting in their Cessna, the Camerons had no idea if they were going to run straight into a rock. “You just land and taxi very slowly and gingerly,” said Kyle.
After landing, the Camerons spent the first day following the river down the valley. They crested up and down ravines, side-hilling, on the lookout for fallen trees and weaving through poisonous bushes of Devil’s club. They crossed marshes and maneuvered around a thundering waterfall. It was some of the hardest hiking they’ve ever done.
That night, they camped along the river and prepared for the final push to the wreck.
The next day, the wreckage seemed to be teasing them. From the top of a ridge, it would seem so close, but then they’d have to descend into another deep ravine and climb back out, checking their photos again, getting closer and closer each time.
Then, finally, they were there. The orange and silver of a massive crumpled wing peaked through the trees at the top of a steep hill.
The Camerons scrambled up past rusted canisters and a large, intact propeller. Eventually, the trees ended and they were standing exactly where it happened.
The terrain is steep and rocky, and airplane parts blanket the ground. The wings stretch out wide across the scene. Tangles of cables and wires are everywhere. Radial engines, propellers and landing gear lay on top of it all. It’s a mess of rust, ash and melted aluminum.
The Camerons spent hours exploring the wreckage. With their expert knowledge of aircraft and experience at other crash sites, they could tell no one had been there since it happened. Things that would normally be taken by souvenir hunters — like cockpit controls and engine parts, for example — were all still there where they had landed.
“The airplane is very, very complete,” Kyle said.
They found pens, guns, tools — even charred muffins and cinnamon buns.
Like any wreckage, this one had a story to tell. They just needed to unlock it. Who did the plane belong to? What had they been doing out there? What happened? And — did anyone survive?
The tail section of the plane was essentially intact, and stamped on it were three markers that might help Kyle and Sara learn more: Annette, HU-16E and 7237.
After hiking back and flying out, the Camerons were exhausted. But Kyle couldn’t sleep that night. The mystery of the crash “tantalized” him. Neither of them knew that this was just the beginning of a whole other adventure.
“We had no idea it would turn into something so great, and something so massive,” said Sara.
Kyle’s father is an aviation historian, and that knowledge is clearly in Kyle’s DNA, too. He spent the night looking up whatever details he could find about the crash online.
Based on the marker HU-16E, he knew the plane was a Grumman Albatross, a huge seaplane used by the United States Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard, primarily for search and rescue operations. The wreck’s orange paint and the ANNETTE serial pointed to the fact that it was a Coast Guard plane, stationed at the Annette Island airfield in southeastern Alaska. The identification number 7237 gave him the exact plane.
A quick online search brought him to a website dedicated to Coast Guard crashes.
As it turned out, this one crashed more than 50 years ago, on June 15, 1967.
The Coast Guard crew had been part of a large search for a missing plane. A father and daughter flying a small two-seater — thought to be an Aeronca Champion — from Montana to Juneau, Ak., had been reported overdue.
Six men were aboard the Albatross that day. The Coast Guard crew had spent the day flying low over the valleys in that area. Just after two in the afternoon, the pilot began following the river up to Sloko Lake, intending to turn around at the lake and fly back out of the valley. The co-pilot called for a right turn, but for some reason, the plane went left. According to reports, the co-pilot shouted, “Come right! Come right!”
The plane hit the mountain, and burst into flames.
Three spotters in the back were able to jump out the rear door, and reported seeing a fireball engulf the front half of the aircraft. Pilot Lt. Robert Brown, co-pilot Lt. David Bain and radio operator Robert Striff, Jr., however, were killed.
Reading those details, Kyle Cameron couldn’t stop thinking of the families of the airmen. He thought about how no one appeared to have been to the site since the crews that recovered the bodies. Were there family members out there wondering what had become of their loved ones?
Kyle decided he had to find the relatives.
He knew trying to track down the families of Brown and Bain would be next to impossible, given how common those names are. So he seized on the most unique name among the victims: Striff.
According to a brief excerpt he found online, Robert Striff had been from Ohio.
“So I got on Facebook and started searching several Striffs in Ohio,” Kyle said. “I just sent out a blanket message, asking them all if there’s any chance they’re related to a Robert Striff who was killed in a Coast Guard accident in 1967.”
Within just three hours, he got a response. “I was very lucky.”
For more than half a century, Robert and Randy Striff have had questions about what happened to their father.
At the time of the crash in the late ‘60s, they were living with their parents on Annette Island in Alaska. Robert was five years old when his father died. Randy was three.
“We were told there’d been a plane crash and that he wouldn’t be coming home,” said Robert, now 56. “The next thing I know, we’re back in Ohio and we’re going to a funeral.”
Within weeks, a large envelope arrived in the mail with a return address of “The White House.” It was a letter of condolence from U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson that also stated that “Mrs. Johnson” extended her “heartfelt sympathy.”
The Striff brothers say the government was very vague about the details of the crash. But it completely changed the course of their lives.
“I think growing up without a dad, you’re left to figure out a lot of things on your own,” said Randy, 53.
Robert Striff, Jr., was only 25 when he died, and the way his son Robert described it, their mother, Phyllis, became so preoccupied with the loss that she was unable to give much love to her children.
“When our dad passed, our mom basically went with him,” Robert said. (Phyllis Striff died in 2010.)
The crash was a defining episode of their lives, and Robert has thought often about it. “My whole life, I’ve always wondered if the wreckage was still there, and if it was accessible.”
Originally from Ohio, Robert is now a contractor in Tennessee, while Randy works as an electrician in Kentucky. They both have goatees and slightly grey hair. Robert lets his grow and keeps it tied in a banded ponytail that reaches down to his waist.
"When our dad passed, our mom basically went with him."
In the last few years, the Striffs had started digging into whatever information they could find about the crash, but they ran into dead ends. They were under the impression the crash had happened in Alaska. Then, last August, Robert got a text from a cousin in Ohio, who explained that a Canadian couple had tracked down the wreckage and wanted to contact him. And they had photos.
“I had to sit down,” Robert said, his eyes widening at the memory. “It was one of those moments. I’m thinking, Thank God, I finally get to see this.”
Within a day, Robert and the Camerons were in contact over Facebook, and then, by phone. The first thing Robert asked about was the remnants of a rifle he’d seen in one of the Camerons’ photos of the wreck. He explained that their mother had always told them about their dad’s rifle, and how he never went anywhere without it.
Robert asked if the rifle was a .22. Kyle told him it was a combination .410/.22 over and under, a common survival rifle in aviation. Robert couldn’t believe what he was hearing. That was the gun his mother had always told him about.
He asked the Camerons if they could help the brothers visit the site the following June, on the anniversary of the crash. The answer was obvious: Yes.
The plan came together quickly. The Camerons shared the Striffs’ story with Jamie Tait, a helicopter pilot they knew. He was very familiar with the crash site, having flown over it for years while conducting heli-tours of the provincial park.
Sara said that as soon as she mentioned the scenario to him, Tait’s “wheels were already turning to [figure out a way to] be able to get them out there. It was instant.”
They were going to aim to be there on the 51st anniversary of the crash — exactly to the day, to the time.
June 15, 2018 was a Friday. The Monday before, Robert and Randy boarded multiple planes from their respective states to fly over 4,000 kilometres to Whitehorse, where the adventure became more real.
To start, the brothers spent a few days touring the city with the Camerons. As they got closer and closer to the big day, anticipation began to mix with fear.
Sara was also anxious — hopeful that the weather would cooperate, and moved by the prospect of giving the Striff brothers such a profound gift. “My nerves are going. It’s a bit of a heavy feeling when you see something like this come together in life.”
Kyle was feeling emotional, too. “When I think about it, these men are going to stand right where their father lost his life. It’s actually hard to imagine.”
The night before the trek, Robert and Randy Striff barely slept at all.
After days of pouring rain, the sun dawned nice and clear the next morning. According to Robert, it was “like someone upstairs said, ‘Here’s your beautiful day. Take advantage and enjoy it.’”
The Camerons and the Striffs met at their float plane on a lake just south of downtown Whitehorse. It’s a one-hour flight south to the town of Atlin, where Tait greeted them at the shore.
Everyone was a little subdued, feeling the weight of the day. At the hangar for Tundra Helicopters, there was some laughter and chit-chat before the group climbed into a gleaming red-and-white helicopter, and the rotors whirred to life.
As they left the ground, Sara called out, “Here we go! Trip of a lifetime!”
The helicopter headed south, passing over rivers and Atlin Lake. Over the headsets, Tait gave the Striff brothers a little history of the area as a way to soften the mood and distract the travellers from their nerves.
The terrain is breathtakingly pure wilderness, and the brothers were silent for most of the ride. Throughout the flight, Randy clasped and unclasped his hands.
After 15 minutes, the helicopter crested a ridge, the ground dropped away and the wreckage came into view in the distance. Then, in what felt like a blink, it was right there in front of them.
Tait circled and hovered the helicopter over the scene. Robert and Randy couldn’t take their eyes off of the plane lying flattened across the steep hillside. The scene seemed violent and incongruous. They shook their heads in disbelief.
Tait pulled away and landed the chopper in a flat marshy area at the base of the hill. They stepped out into the grass. A stream runs nearby, and mountains surround the scene like a hug.
“It’s such a beautiful place for such a tragedy to happen,” said Robert.
They hiked up through the forest on the side of the hill. Tait and the Camerons had actually come up the week before to plot an easy trail for the brothers.
"It was almost like he was tapping on my shoulders, saying, ‘Hey, dig here, and you’ll find what you’re looking for.’”
It got steeper. The mosquitoes were swarming. Everyone got a little out of breath.
Then the plane’s wing appeared through the trees. At that moment, the Camerons and Tait decided to hang back and let Robert and Randy head up by themselves.
“The moment was just surreal,” said Robert. “To see the devastation and how much damage was done. Then, to look out over the horizon at the beautiful scenery. It was awe-inspiring.”
“The more we stood there, the better I started to feel, as the weight started coming off my back. I just felt a whole lot better about the situation, because I actually got to be in the spot where his life was taken,” said Robert.
Randy started looking for the spot on the plane where their dad, as radio operator, was reported to have been sitting. Given Tait and the Camerons’ expertise, it wasn’t hard. They identified cockpit and radio instruments and mapped out a general idea of where the three victims would have been seated. Digging down, they even found the metal frames of their chairs.
Sifting through the debris, Randy eventually found uniform buttons, a pocket knife and a set of steel toes from military boots, all the while thinking of his dad.
“I thought, you know, he led us here for a reason. It was almost like he was tapping on my shoulders, saying, ‘Hey, dig here, and you’ll find what you’re looking for.’”
They were soothed by the mementos, but other revelations weren’t as expected.
Tait explained there would have been a lot of magnesium parts in the aircraft, and the fire was probably “like a welder’s torch.”
“It’s amazing that three people actually survived this plane crash,” said Robert.
Sara led the brothers down to where she and Kyle had found their father’s rifle. It was still there, half-buried in ash, bolts and cables. All that remained was the barrel and the firing mechanism, rusted and worn from the elements. Randy picked it out of the debris, and held each part like he couldn’t believe he had them in his hands. He handed the pieces over to Robert.
Robert thought of their mom, who passed away eight years ago, and all the time she spent wondering about that rifle. He held the firearm up, looked to the sky as though addressing his mother, and said, “I’ve got it now.”
“It’s coming home where it needs to be,” said Randy.
As the hours went by, the group made one more discovery that took their breath away. It was a corroded pocket watch, found right near where their dad would have been sitting. They were shocked to see the rusted remnants of the hour and minute hands, stopped at 2:10 — the reported time of the crash.
“It just gives you goosebumps that you actually found something that tells you exactly when it happened,” said Robert.
As the actual time hit two in the afternoon, the brothers cleared a space under a small tree, where they placed a cross and a plaque honouring the three men who lost their lives in the crash.
At exactly 2:10, they had a moment of silence. Afterwards, Robert admitted he had spoken a few quiet words to his father.
“I said, ‘You know, I’m glad I finally got to be here, to be with you.’”
Then he saluted him.
“I could just pitch a camp here tonight and set up on that broken wing right there and drink some beers with him, and reminisce and talk to him.”
But it was time to hike back down to the helicopter. The Camerons packed a picnic, and the group sat in the sun near the stream, their spirits visibly lifted. For Randy, it was a moment to give thanks.
He said that for the Camerons and Tait “to hike in and do what they did, and reach out and try to find the family members, it’s outstanding, just outstanding.”
Once they were back in Whitehorse, Robert and Randy said the experience gave them closure. “It brings new meaning to the date, being here and visiting. It’s not a dark day anymore,” said Robert.
The Camerons and Tait said the experience had been a privilege, and that they’d made friends for life.
“I just hope they can now go home with balanced hearts and peaceful minds,” said Sara.
“I think they’re going to come back,” she added with a smile.
Additional reporting by Tara McCarthy and George Maratos