Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Forty years after river tragedy

Angie Walker was seven years old when her eldest brother David and seven friends went for a canoeing trip on the Willow River 40 years ago and never came back.

Angie Walker was seven years old when her eldest brother David and seven friends went for a canoeing trip on the Willow River 40 years ago and never came back.

Walker said it took time for her to fully understand that her 18-year-old brother really wasn't coming home.

"He was really sweet to me. There was six kids. He was the oldest, and I was the youngest," she said. "He played hockey and was away so much, I used to drive my mother crazy asking when David was coming home. She said every time it was like getting a kick in the pants. It was confusing for a seven year old."

On May 10, 1974 18-year-olds David Walker, Bryan Weaver, Dwight McFarland, Bob Haney and Murray Sales, along with 17-year-olds Paul Trudeau and Ian Rice and 16-year-old Jeff Pick, launched from a back eddy near the Willow River Bridge 30 kilometres northeast of Prince George.

They had packed supplies into three canoes and a kayak for an overnight trip down the Willow River into the Fraser River. They planned to meet their girlfriends at Fort George Park the following evening -home in time for Mother's Day.

Unknown to them, the impassible Willow River Canyon lay just out of sight downstream from where they launched. The narrow, step-sided canyon filled with massive boulders churns the Willow River to raging, roiling froth.

"People said they probably didn't last half an hour," Walker said.

Pick was from what was then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, but the remaining boys were from Prince George.

A small group of friends and family gathered at a memorial cairn near where the boys entered the river on Saturday morning to pay tribute to those killed.

"The community really came together," Walker said. "It was lots of neighbours getting together. It was just very sad for our community."

Art Walker, Paul and Angie Walker's father, was the last person to see the boys alive. He'd driven some of the boys and their canoes out to the launch site on a Friday after school.

Despite his reservations about how fast and high the river was flowing, Walker allowed the boys to go after warning them how to handle their canoes if they encountered logjams.

The map the boys had didn't show the canyon, there was no warning signs and one of the boys said he'd canoed the river before, Walker told the Citizen in 2004.

Walker had prevented the boys from going on two previous canoe trips and was reluctant to say no again, he said during the 30th anniversary of the tragedy.

"I come out pretty well every year," an emotional Walker said Saturday. "The river doesn't look like it was that year. Because the river was as high as it was... it was nice, calm looking water."

When the boys didn't arrive at Fort George Park as expected, Walker hired a plane and a jetboat to search the river.

On May 15 the search was officially canceled due to dangerous water conditions. Unofficial searches continued that spring and summer. A body was spotted in a logjam on May 21, but RCMP were unable to recover the body because of the dangerous conditions.

People fishing located the bodies of Walker and McFarland on June 24; Rice was found on Aug. 26; and Pick was located on Sept. 8.

Moose hunters found the bodies of Haney, Weaver and Sales on Sept. 23, but Trudeau was never found.

Walker credited the Perry family, which lived in the area, for helping the families search the river.

"Most people don't know the effort that was put into finding those boys. They [the Perrys] knew the river, the places to look for," he said. "We tried all kinds of stuff to try and find them."

David Walker and Weaver were both players on the Prince George Spruce Kings in 1974.

Their teammates Drew Anderson and Lyle Longman were at Saturday's 40th anniversary memorial.

"When you're teammates, you're teammates forever," Anderson said. "It was a bad summer."

Anderson said some of the Spruce King members helped in the search and he remembers the being impressed with how dangerous the canyon and river looked.

"It was nasty," he said.

Longman said he remembers the team had just returned from a road trip to Cranbrook the week before.

"I played hockey with both those guys for a couple years. I was shocked. I couldn't believe it," he said. "Forty years, it sure goes by fast. I haven't been out [for the anniversary of the tragedy] for a long time."

Prince George was deeply effected by the loss of eight promising, popular and athletic young men. More than 850 people attended a memorial service for the boys at Vanier Hall in Prince George secondary school on May 25, 1974 -at the school where the majority of the boys would have graduated from that year had they lived.

In 2004, at the 30-year reunion for Prince George secondary school's class of '74, a moment of silence was held for the eight boys.

Retired Prince George secondary school math teacher Walter Hanik taught the many of the boys. Weaver, McFarland, Haney, Trudeau, Rice and Pick also all played on the school soccer team he coached in 1974.

"They were a bunch of good kids," Hanik said. "I still have a soccer ball the team gave me. They all signed it. I have it on a stand on my mantel."

That team from 1974 was the first high school soccer team to qualify to play in the provincial championships, Hanik said. There was no teams in Prince George to compete against, so they had to go to Ashcroft to play in a zone final to qualify.

"One of the players, Bryan Weaver, was a wonderful player. The Simon Fraser [University] coach contacted me and wanted him to play for his team. But they never made it past Grade 12," Hanik said. "It is the saddest thing that happened in my coaching career."

-- With Citizen files from Karen Kwan, Frank Peebles and Dave Paulson