Down in the deep: Interior lakes offer up treasures

"I'd stop here," the floatplane pilot told his passenger, Gary McAninch, as the Cessna 180 planed to a stop on Azure Lake late last summer.

The pilot's answer came to a question McAninch, a veteran diver and underwater recovery specialist, asked him about landing on the lake.

Where would he land on winter ice near a cabin, piloting a plane on skis?

The pilot's educated guess helped McAninch guide an underwater device called a scanning sonar remotely in 200 feet of water. Its signals repeatedly told him something was on the bottom in the clear, dark and cold waters of Azure Lake.

When he moved the remote unit closer, the object became clear: "You could see wings and a tail," said McAninch, who had discovered a Tiger Moth aircraft, a biplane that sank in the lake in 1947 on a rescue mission to pick up a sick trapper.

"It's very well preserved and the water is moving at that point. Any sediment keeps going. You can still see the skiis."

It was the greatest incidental find in B.C. in McAninch's long career as a diver and recovery specialist. The real underwater target in Azure Lake was part of an insurance claim.

A couple on a cross-country journey crash-landed their Private Explorer on Azure Lake in July. McAninch's company, GP Recover Services, was hired to locate it and get it out of the lake in Wells Gray Park.

Just like in the 1947 incident, there were no major injuries in the aerial mishap. Canadian Forces rescue personnel rescued the couple.

In the historic crash, another plane was sent to find the pilot after he failed to return within 24 hours, taking the ill trapper, his brother and the pilot to safety and leaving the plane trapped in the ice. When break up came, the plane sank to the bottom of Azure Lake.

McAninch found the Private Explorer in about 500 feet of water but fall precipitation clouded the waters before he could salvage it.

"It was a white-out. We had no visibility."

This summer he plans to recover the Private Explorer as well as the Tiger Moth from the depths of Azure Lake. He is in talks with B.C. Parks officials about timing and legalities but believes he can claim the historic plane based on salvage law.

McAninch, based at Green Lake in the South Cariboo along with his wife Penny, spent years diving in the North Sea. He acknowledges the historic discovery last fall is an exotic sideshow to his more pedestrian business.

Most recently in February he was hired to pull out an ATV from Lac Le Hache, where a rider drowned when he fell through the ice. He also is promoting use of his equipment to Interior municipalities for use in water reservoirs when assessments or repairs are needed.

"To pay the bills we're promoting inspection of dams and reservoirs... It's better than a diver: it doesn't get cold, need to decompress or talk back."

But the couple, who are members of the Underwater Archeological Society of B.C., are always looking for what else might be at the bottom when they're pulling something out of a lake.

At Loon Lake, where GP Recover Services was hired to recover a garden tractor that got stuck in gear and drove itself in, McAninch asked locals (that's how he got the tip on the Tiger Moth) about anything else on the bottom.

It turns out, two doors away there was a story about a tourist from the Coast who was visiting the South Cariboo lake on a fishing trip in his new 1958 Dodge station wagon.

Using his underwater equipment, McAninch found the car in about 250 feet of water. According to local knowledge, it's got less than 1,00 miles on the clock.

He plans to return this year to pull the car out.

"It will be the same as the day it went in," McAninch said. His confidence is based on experience. In Azure Lake last summer he pulled out air charts from the Tiger Moth and dried them out.

"They were like brand new."

At Lac Le Hache, he's been told about at least two other snowmobiles and a couple of boats on the bottom.

"There's a lot of stuff in cold storage."

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