BUFFALO NARROWS, Sask. — Sixty years after two men vanished when their float plane crashed on a northern Saskatchewan lake, RCMP divers have helped bring some closure to their relatives by recovering their remains from deep underneath the lake's frozen surface.
"I can't say enough about their efforts. They really wanted to see this through," said Martin Gran, the pilot's nephew, who waited by a hole in the ice on Peter Pond Lake last week as divers entered the plane's cabin 18 metres below.
"I was happy that I could talk to them and impress upon them how important it was for our family to just see this through. They understood completely."
The wreckage of the Saskatchewan Government Airways crash, which killed pilot Ray Gran and conservation officer Harold Thompson, was located in July by a private search effort launched by the pilot's daughter and son-in-law.
Gran was an experienced pilot in the Second World War and had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. He and Thompson took off from Buffalo Narrows, Sask., on Aug. 20, 1959. They were heading out to investigate poaching and deliver mail to La Loche, Sask., but were never seen again.
Mounties initially said when the wreck was found last summer that a dive would be too dangerous. They later agreed to try in August, but strong winds and powerful waves on the lake hampered the search. The team said they would make another attempt in winter, when the lake was frozen and underwater visibility would hopefully be clearer.
Martin Gran, who lives in Sudbury, Ont., got a call two weeks ago that the dive would be happening in a few days, and that the team would allow him to come along and watch from the surface.
He arrived in Buffalo Narrows last Monday. On Tuesday, he rode in a snowmobile to a tent on the ice, where the team of more than a dozen people, including divers, support staff and a medic, performed the search.
"It was 35 below (on Tuesday)," Gran recalled. "It was one of those mornings where the extension cord you use to plug in your truck feels like it's going to snap it's so cold."
RCMP posted daily updates on Facebook, explaining that the ice was around two feet thick and they used a chainsaw to remove rectangular chunks to insert sonar equipment to confirm the wreck's location.
On Tuesday, police said a diver took a line down to the plane to help them find their way back and forth to the hole at the surface. A second dive was then meant to take video of the wreck, but visibility was only about one metre, and initial inspection revealed part of the aircraft appeared to be buried, with pieces of debris and metal that divers needed to manoeuvre around.
Wednesday was when the divers got inside the plane, but visibility was close to zero.
"At the bottom, you can't see your hand. You have to use a light close to your chest to see what you picked up," diver Const. Peter Rhead stated in a Facebook post.
"I wish I had more time to see the whole plane, but it was important to gather what we could from the cockpit.... I saw the colours and the markings on the plane; it's obvious it is the right plane."
Gran said it wasn't looking like the divers would be able to find any remains, but then they found an "item of interest." He said he was asked to step away while it was lifted from the hole and transferred to a coroner, who was also waiting at the surface.
"It was a very, very emotional moment and was kind of the reason for all of this effort to this point. It was pretty incredible," Gran said.
Police said some remains of the two occupants of the aircraft were recovered, as well as personal items such as boots, a pendant, a camera, a knife and a wallet.
Ray Gran typically flew with his wife, Marcella, but she wasn't on the doomed flight because she was six months pregnant and the couple decided it would be best for her to stay home.
Their daughter, Linda, and her husband Don Kapusta, launched a search for the plane in 2017 in the hopes of solving the mystery for Marcella.
"Unfortunately, she's not here with us to witness it," said Kapusta from Toronto, explaining that Marcella died just hours after the sonar crew located the wreckage last July, and never learned of the plane's discovery.
—By Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton