Editor's Note: Oliver Solaro (aka Brokentooth) is one of Ontario's most fascinating adventurers. His nearly unbelievable 8000km motorcycle trip to Fort Severn, in the middle of winter, is already a legend amongst adventure riders. His latest journey is no less astonishing: a February motorcycle trip to Northeastern Ontario to pay his respects at one of the most famous crash sites in Canadian history—the spot where famed NHLer Bill Barilko met his untimely end.
In 1951, Bill Barilko scored the overtime goal that won the Toronto Maple Leafs their 9th Stanley Cup. Four months later, Barilko and a friend were on a fly-in fishing trip to Quebec, when their plane went missing. The wreckage wasn't discovered, near Cochrane, until 1962—the same year the Leafs finally won their 10th Cup.
Toronto hasn't won a Stanley Cup since 1967.
Toronto hasn't won a Stanley Cup since 1967.
Here is the full story of Brokentooth's quest to try and understand the haunting power of Bashin' Bill Barilko...
I can feel the cold, curious stares on my neck. Following the Ryerson game, the remaining stragglers on their way to the exits stop in their tracks and point at the loon in the motorcycle gear. Under the suspicious eye of burly security guards, I lumber out onto the holy ice of Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens. My stomach turns back-flips as I meekly bend down and place a gleaming new coin onto the axis of the hockey universe. With trembling hand, I struggle to pry loose the loonie, which warmed from my pocket is now firmly sunken into the ice.
It's as if it prefers to stay.
Out Onto the Cold Road
The dry, cold sun is a half-hour below the horizon as my bike Agatha and I are jostled around on the QEW by harried and inattentive commuters who don't quite know what to make of a motorcycle during a Friday rush hour in winter. My knuckles are white and it has nothing to do with the cold. By the time that I make it home it's two hours dark, snowing and -21 C. I can't seem to get my helmet off, as my body shivers violently. With but a second to spare, I hurl forth the contents of my stomach (along with an organ or two). The timing for this little tummy bug is impeccable.
On Day 2, aside from 18 or so unscheduled pit-stops, the ride to North Bay to meet moto-vlogger Rex4x4 passes relatively uneventfully. We chat it up at the local Timmies with his friend Steven, before I shiver off to a motel for a skin-blistering, hot bath. If the thermometer on the office wall is to be believed, the next morning dawns near -30 C and poor Aggie protests. I have to coax her into a sunny spot with a can of Sterno before she'll light up. In Cochrane, I slip and slide my way to Expedition Helicopters, where Chad helps me decide on the best possible route to Bill and Henry's 1951 crashsite. It's clear in his voice and demeanour that he's more than just a little worried about my intentions. He's seen enough up here to know how quickly the black woods can swallow a person's existence.
Through the Forest
On the 4th day, about 90 or so kilometres up the Tembec logging road, a friendly group of French Canadian loggers promise to keep an eye on Aggie while I hike off into the bush. At least I think they did, as my French is limited to knowing what to order on the menu. I stash my excess gear and strap on the snowshoes for the long, slow march into the endless tracts of dogwood and black spruce. Each laboured step drops me feet down into bottomless dry powder, where the tangle of brush claws at my undercarriage. Les Stroud would no doubt wag a disapproving finger at my sweat-soaked frame, as both the sun and thermometer creep further south. Time to make camp and, since I didn't bring a tent, one of the smaller spruce trees and scrub will do. That night, while fitfully passing in and out of consciousness in the finest sleeping bag that $49 could buy, my dreams were peppered with surrealist, self-loathing vignettes. Imagine Salvadore Dali and Hunter S. Thompson collaborating on the next Jackass movie.
With the grey dawn, I briefly entertain the notion of continuing, vacation time and consequence be damned, but the stark truth of my blue collar existence would mean hell to pay upon my return. I was therefore resigned to Plan B. As I break camp, I notice a circle of tracks made last night by a rather large feline critter around my cozy quarters. Wow, they got big kitties up here. At the logging camp, my Franco woodsman friends wave me off in their long underwear and I'm once more on the road...so to speak.
At the Gravesite
Timmins strikes me as a rather cosmopolitan northern Ontario city. It's hard to put my finger on it, but there's an intangible vibrancy about it that you wouldn't expect from a “rocks and trees” town. The cemetery where Bill is buried turns out to be larger than I'd expected. I burn a fair bit of daylight looking for the buried marker, until one with the letter “O” above the snow catches my eye. It's Bill's parents Faye and Steven. My heart builds momentum in its effort to exit from my chest as I claw away the granular snow to reveal the final resting place of a hockey hero. Bashin' Bill achieved the pinnacle endeavour of his short, 24 years when he scored that famous 1951 Stanley cup winning goal, a few breaths before fate tore him from the sky.
The coin feels eerily warm in my hand as I lay it on the stone. An instant chill suddenly gets the best of me as I mumble a hushed thank you and goodbye to the silent marker. I am always accompanied on these sojourns by my friend Solitude who, among other things, happens to be an alchemist. He has for me often distilled drops of elation, fear, longing and introspection. But this time... the vial's filled with bitter melancholy.
Fourteen seconds after I fire Aggie up, the weather begins its operatic crescendo of precipitation (think Flight of the Valkyries), starting with freezing rain and ending 200 km later with a double police escort out of a semi-apocalyptic blizzard to the nearest motel. With plenty of time to muse over the events of the past week with pizza and scotch, I come to the realization...
I've got unfinished business up here.