The bush pilot is a resourceful, tough individual who leaves home each day to face the rugged Canadian North alone.
Chris Kipp had to shut me up.
“Bad time to have a conversation,” he’d said, as he pointed the nose of the Cessna 206 at the surface of 4 Mile Lake near Fort Smith, Alberta. More affectionately known as just ‘4 Mile’, it is the base where floatplane operations take place for many of the remote locations of Canada’s Kazan Upland Subregion of the Canadian Shield.
Chris banked the plane sharply to the left and then straightened it out with 4 Mile Lake suddenly looming in front of us. The plane began to lower as Chris fiddled with various switches and dials. I could see the water quickly coming up to greet us as the plane’s floats readied to meet it. With a slight bump we touched down and the previous steady drone of the engine roared to life; Chris working to slow the plane down on the short, shallow waterbody.
“Hotel, Whiskey, Victor... we’re on the water,” said Kipp through his headset as he worked the plane.
A friendly female voice from the Fort Smith Airport tower, just a short distance from 4 Mile, acknowledged our landing.
|Bush Pilot Chris Kipp
This was my fifth time in the air with the 41-year-old bush pilot Chris Kipp, who had made his way from Ontario to this remote region of northern Alberta to “see the Territories.”
“Is Dan here?” I asked, referring to Dan Wettlaufer, Chris’ boss and owner of Reliance Airways and Andrew Lake Lodge and Camps.
“No, he’s flying supplies into Uranium City,” said Kipp, who now had the plane turned around and was working it back towards the dock at base.
In short order Chris had the plane docked and was quickly unloading my gear. He was in a hurry; others were waiting for the plane at North Leland Lake, another fly-in hunting and fishing camp owned by Wettlaufer.
I was a day late. Scheduled to have landed at 4 Mile a day earlier, weather had hampered Chris’ attempts to get me. A freezing sleet was icing-up the wings of his plane creating a potentially dangerous situation. He had turned back 10 miles short of my position, leaving me with an extra day on a distant lake where I had been moose hunting at a drop camp with some good friends.
“I might have been able to get to you,” Chris had said. “But I’m pretty sure I would have been stuck there for the night as well.”
|Bush pilots opened the rugged Canadian North.
The remote northern regions of this vast country offer few means of transportation. Roads are non-existent as Precambrian rock and numerous waterbodies interspersed with small mixed forests and marshy depressions decorate the landscape. The terrain is as tough as it gets and the weather can be your best or worst friend, meaning you better be well-prepared if you plan on staying.
Beautiful yet harsh, dangerous yet peaceful, this is where moose, bears and wolves call home... and where the bush pilot is the eagle.
In bush pilot lore, Wop May is “the guy”.
In 1929 Wop flew his Avro “Avian” open-cockpit biplane in the middle of winter from Edmonton to Fort Vermillion carrying a serum to inoculate the communities of Little Red River and Fort Vermillion against diphtheria.
A Hudson’s Bay employee, Bert Logan, had already died.
In freezing temperatures, as low as -33 F, Wop flew 1,240 Miles, return trip, with a flying time of over 14 hours wearing heavy clothes, felt boots and a silk scarf.
Wop was a hero as headlines read “Race Against Death” in newspapers everywhere.
But Wop wasn’t done just yet.
In 1932 Wop was contacted by the RCMP; they needed his help. As it were, a fellow known as Albert Johnson, The Mad Trapper, was running loose in the north. The RCMP needed Wop to help track him down. And Wop did, helping lead the RCMP to Johnson’s location where he watched a fierce gun battle take place while he flew overhead. In Wop’s own words: “We were up on top and circling, watching the fight and taking pictures of it. I then saw, during the fight, that one man was hit. He was laying by his dog team and he had been hit so I came around the bend of the river and came up to him and picked him up and started back home.” Wop had managed to help capture Albert Johnson and saved the life of an RCMP officer in the process.
While the heroics of Wop May will always remain in history, today, bush pilots are still at work in Canada’s north doing what they do best—watching out for those living life in one of the most rugged parts of the world, and giving the adventurous the chance to experience a unique part of this country.
Bush Pilot Dan Wetlauffer
In 1974 Dan Wettlaufer was born to Carol and Glen. By that time Glen had been flying since 1969 and had long had a dream of owning a fly-in lodge in Canada’s north. In 1984 that dream became a reality when he purchased Andrew Lake Lodge and Camps and he set to work at establishing a fly-in lodge that today is synonymous with great hunting and fishing.
Young son Dan watched his father closely and after years of hearing stories of the heroics of bush pilots, as well as accompanying his father as a passenger since the early age of two, Dan knew what he wanted to be.
But dad had a rule: Dan had to finish his schooling first.
And he did, graduating from the University of Alberta with a business degree in 1992 and getting his pilot’s licence in the same year.
He was 18-years-old.
“I’d been dreaming of flying for years. I’d heard all the stories of Wop May, Max Ward, Punch Dickens and all those guys when I was a kid. All that freedom and being able to explore was really intriguing for me,” said the soon to be 33-year-old Edmonton native who grew up in Sherwood Park.
Before long Dan was working full-time with his father flying guests back and forth to their lodge. The work was tough but he was cut-out for it and he tackled everything thrown at him with a great sense of pride—he was a bush pilot after all, a job few would consider.
“It’s a different job in the sense that it’s an uncontrolled environment. You have a lot of decision-making that you’re responsible for,” said Wettlaufer, who has spent more than 500 hours in the seat of a bush plane this year.
“Flying in the cities and the big airports, it’s all controlled, and you’re always in touch with somebody.
“Up in this part of the world, flying floats especially, you make all the decisions. Every surface you land on is unprepared. You could be landing on a sheet of glass or in a raging storm on whitecaps, all on the same day.”
|Diesel is quite often flown in to remote locations.
But it is this part of the job that bush pilots crave—the shear excitement of the unknown.
Bush flying ensures that pilots will be flying into areas of extremely rough terrain and inhospitable conditions. Combine this with being a great distance from help means that bush pilots have to be prepared for every condition.
But part of the excitement is getting that phone call to go somewhere you haven’t been before.
“I think bush pilots flying in the north are probably most-concerned with where they are going, and the risks are all calculated and quite often there are times when we don’t go,” said Wettlaufer, who has hauled everything from boats to quads strapped to the outside of his plane.
|Aluminum boats, canoes, quads and even water tanks are strapped to the outside if they won't fit on the inside. Every item strapped to the outside presents a different challenge for the bush pilot.
“You always have to be aware in your mind, where ever you go, that you look for options and outs. You always kind of keep it in the back of your mind; that’s a good lake to land on or that’s a good spot there or that particular area is not good.”
But all the preparation in the world doesn’t mean a thing when your partner-on-floats decides to make life difficult. If it’s a machine, chances are, somewhere, sometime, something will go wrong. And for Dan, that sometime was a few years ago when his father, Glen, radioed him and told him his engine had just quit.
“I was flying another aircraft in the area and he called me on the radio and told me he’d just had an engine failure. He was so calm and cool that I had to call him back to confirm what he’d said,” said Dan, who was far from calm and cool at the time.
Especially after the radio went out-of-range.
“You know, your mind starts racing and you think the worst. I immediately changed course and went to his location, and sure enough, there he was tied up on a shore,” said the young pilot remembering the incident with his dad, who passed away just a few short years ago.
Landing a single-engine aircraft after you lose the engine is tricky business, scary at least, but it can be accomplished. It is something every bush pilot keeps in the back of his mind.
That, and an eye on the ground.
According to Dan, you just never know what you might see.
“There was these guys from Europe and they were canoeing these remote areas in the middle of October and didn’t realize the season was over.
“I was flying over and just happened to spot them. The river was open where they were but frozen farther upstream. They didn’t realize this and they didn’t speak very good English, so it was tough trying to explain to them the predicament they were in.
“I managed to get them out of there though.”
Fire also plays a role in the north as it does everywhere, however, on the Canadian Shield when a fire starts, it’s left to run its course—there is no salvageable wood here. Getting caught in a fire when you’re on the ground can be worrisome at least... and very difficult to fly in. Wind currents become treacherous and visibility can cause havoc for even the most experienced bush pilot.
“We had a huge fire come through and several people had to be evacuated by helicopter. But one group missed the chopper so we had to fly in and try to get them out. It was a situation that was deteriorating rapidly and everybody was in immediate danger,” said Wettlaufer, who also flies during the winter on skis.
“But we made it, we got them out.”
But not until after several tense moments.
|If you kill a moose in this part of the world, there is only one way to get it home.
– photo Gord Trenholm
Today, bush pilots like Dan Wettlaufer and Chris Kipp continue to fly the skies over Canada’s rugged, vast north country. Their commitment to keeping the supply lines open as well as being the link between civilization and those so inclined to experience the wilds of the Canadian Shield, is the stuff that legends are made of.
It’s not a job for everyone, nor should it be. ■
Bush flying is considered by many as a romantic lifestyle with freedom being the sole element that keeps the fabric together. But bush pilots are a small group of rugged, resourceful individuals who also have a taste for adventure... with a little bit of danger thrown in.
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