from A Squandered Life / Bush Pilot '65
Opposite the end of our drive on the Lakeshore were our neighbours, the Schornhursts. He was a small but strikingly handsome man with a very friendly disposition; she was taller and slightly distracted and a bit unpredictable. She must have been a real beauty when she was younger but the responsibilities of running their small house and bringing up their little boy seemed to have taken its toll. She seemed worn and stressed a lot of the time. This may have been due in no small measure to the nature of his work.
He, “Dutch”, was a bush pilot and was away up north for long periods of time. He would occasionally show up directly from work. One time I got an urgent summons from Mrs Schornhurst who told me Dutch had radioed (she had a massive transceiver in the house) to say he would be landing his float plane on the river in front of our house. “Could you go out in your canoe and help him tie up? she asked. “Sure,” I said, honoured, and immediately took the canoe down to the water and paddled out to the swimming raft on its fixed moorings. Mrs Schornhurst and I both assumed he would tie up there and I would paddle him ashore, but Dutch had other ideas. He did a low fly by to check out the scenario (by this time a small crowd had gathered on the rise above the shoreline) and then gracefully dropped on to the surface of the water and taxied towards shore. He signalled me to keep clear (perhaps concerned about chopping my head off with his prop) and simply ran the front of his floats straight up on to the stony beach, switched off his engine, climbed down on to the port float, trotted to the shore end, and jumped off into the arms of his adoring wife.
He casually left the plane there and disappeared with her into their house. A few hours later he reappeared and single-handedly re-launched his plane, fired it up, taxied out into the wider water, turned into the wind, and took off. A final fly by with an elegant dip of the wing to his wife and he was off up north again.
One particularly cold winter morning I was out with my dad Henry trying to dig his Mercedes out of the snow. Like most Canadians we had a “block heater” on the car which plugged into the house mains. This was supposed to keep the oil warm enough to make starting the engine possible in sub-zero temperatures. Regrettably, neither this nor our array of battery chargers and sprays and boosters was having any effect on that elegant car and Henry was beginning to lose his rag. As we struggled with the beast, Dutch appeared in his driveway opposite with a camp stove under his arm. He waved a cheery “hello” and proceeded to light the stove and shove it under the engine of his battered Volkswagen. To Henry's chagrin (“He's going to blow that damn thing up!”), Dutch then disappeared back into his house for breakfast. Twenty minutes later he re-appeared as Henry and I were still contemplating his unresponsive car, pulled the camp stove out from under the car, folded it up and handed it to his wife standing in the doorway, waved to us again, got in his car, started it first time, backed up on to the road, and drove off.
One day Dutch asked me if I wanted a summer job. His bush company - Wheeler Airlines - needed a “ground guy” to work the radio and drive the truck in support of the pilots flying in and out of Knob Lake (now Schefferville). “You won't have to do much,” he said, “and the pay is pretty good.” I leapt at the chance and, a couple of weeks after school finished, I was flying with him in his Lockheed twin out of a small airfield to the north of Montreal.
In his element, he was still the same friendly smiling man, but with headphones and a mike on his head and a strangely dispassionate voice for use over the radio. The Lockheed was actually not a proper bush plane. It was twin engined and had no floats and had some relatively comfortable passenger seating in the back. It was one of Wheeler's prestige acquisitions and Dutch was the man they entrusted with it. It was a beautiful machine as it glittered in the clear sky above the clouds. Sitting in the front as the “co-pilot”, I had an unfettered view of the entire magnificent panoramic.
A few hours of droning later and we came in to land at a gravel airstrip in the middle of forest and wetland. We taxied up to “the tower”, which was just an insulated shed, and parked up beside one or two other craft. As we disembarked we were met by a guy called Karl, another Wheeler pilot with a thick German accent, who drove us to our home. “Home” turned out to be a grubby brown trailer (caravan) with four bunks at one end, a sitting room at the other, and a tiny kitchenette and a shower/toilet in between. This was where Dutch and Karl (and now me) spent the non-flying hours, with occasional visits from other Wheeler pilots who might be passing through. The tiny kitchen was dominated by a huge crackling radio transceiver which regularly interrupted conversation with indecipherable pulses of louder and softer crackling. Whenever it did, all the pilots present would pause and listen, but, apart from one super loud transmitter from Rapid Lake, I couldn't make out what was being said at all. The guys said, “You'll get used to it,” and after a week or so I could begin to make out the strains of coherent messaging.
We didn't eat in that trailer (thank god) but went over to the only hotel in town where Wheeler kept an account for its pilots, and very nice it was too (the cherry pie was spot on). We ate at silverware set tables with napkins on our lap, listened to ambient muzak, and avoided swearing. Actually, to be fair, the worst thing I ever heard Dutch say was “that son of a gun”, or its plural “those son of a guns”.
My duties seemed vague at the best of times but occasionally I was left on my own in the trailer while the guys were out flying around. As chief radio operator I found I had to overcome a natural inclination to giggle every time I tried to speak into the microphone. I had to say things like, “Nanaimo Nanaimo Nanaimo, this is Knob Lake, do you read?”, but I would be reduced private helpless tearful solitary fits of laughter every time I tried. I had to break the message into parts, releasing the transmit button as the senseless consuming laughter intervened. The other problem of course was that I still couldn't make out the bulk of the response and was forever saying, “Repeat please...” Both problems settled down in due course and I became a bit of a radio nut, trying to find out whatever I could about the farflung voices and their owners. Not easy when you're on commercial airwaves with everybody listening in but informal codes allowed for a certain amount of latitude.
The best part of the job of course was flying with Dutch. If Karl wasn't on a job he would be left in charge of the radio and I would go up in the Lockheed or the Otter or the Beaver or even in the enormous grey Canso “water bomber”. This latter was a ponderous flying boat with a single straight wing fixed across its back upon which hung two huge sputtering roaring engines. This unusual layout allowed for belly landing in water without getting the props wet and meant that the pilot could look up and back to reassure himself that the engines were still there and working properly. It was an ex war plane and still had gun turrets which were glassed over and provided extraordinary view points. One was in the very nose of the plane and I spent a lot of time up there being able to look straight down at the infinite forests and lakes and rivers and, best of all, bracing myself for impact and thunderous splashes whenever we put down on water.
They were called water bombers because they were used to combat forest fires. It would draw water on board whilst cruising on a lake, take off like a hugely overweight goose, and drop it by the ton as directed by fire fighters. I regret I never had the opportunity to go on one of those missions, but years later, whilst lying on a beach in Corsica, I had the privilege of watching a pristine white Canso landing on the Mediterranean, taking heavily off, and dropping it's vast sheets of water on a hillside brush fire on the other side of my small bay. It was, as they say, a beautiful thing, turning in the sunlight and repeating its routines until the fire was doused.
The Otter and the Beaver were the standard single engine bush workhorses with floats you might see in your mind's eye as you think “Canadian bush plane”. However, whereas most bush planes are aircraft designed for other purposes and adapted for use in the bush, the Otter was designed and purpose built from the ground up. The clearest example of this is the main door on the side which is shaped like a flat cornered triangle. This allows for 45 gallon fuel drums, the standard unit of northern fuel distribution, either to be pushed in standing up on end or rolled in on its side. A very useful and considerate feature. We used to land on glassy lakes in the middle of nowhere to push drums out the door. “Fuel is lighter than water,” said Dutch when I first queried the wisdom of doing this, and we'd float them to the shore (where we'd immediately be attacked by hordes of mosquitoes and blackfly), roll them up on to the bank, and set them upright. There were fuel depots like this all over the north country. The pilots knew where they were and carried their own hand pumps to refuel directly from the drums.
Those exquisitely beautiful glassy lakes could be a problem. “Sometimes they're so clear and still that it's hard to judge your touch down,” Dutch once pointed out as we were coming in, and I could see, unequivocally, what he meant. As we dropped I looked down straight to the bottom of the lake with no clue as to where, between us and that bottom, the surface of the water might actually be. “Sometimes I make a pass first just to try and ruffle it up and make some waves. It can be a real problem coming down right.”
Those 45 gallon drums littered the north, either full and awaiting pump out or empty awaiting rust. Many were re-cycled in imaginative ways, most often as floats for piers and quay sides or, cut length or side ways, as wood burners. On one of the lakes not far from town Dutch and Karl concluded they needed a more permanent pier but didn't want a floating one. “Too easy to fall off,” they agreed. After a bit of hemming and hawing they cut the tops off several barrels - using axes. I watched incredulously as they, more or less expertly, hacked and hewed until the tops fell away. They then rolled the barrels into the water and stood them on end. With one of us holding a long thick post in place at the bottom of the barrel, the others would heave in rocks until the barrel sank. When two barrels were thus in place, they connected the posts by hammering timbers into them a couple of feet above the water. Planks were then laid from the shore on to the cross timbers. Once the whole thing was reasonably steady, they rolled out two more barrels and repeated the process of the end of the nascent pier. By the end of the day we had about a dozen pairs of barrels supporting a perfectly respectable pier extending far enough out into the water to host an Otter.
Normally this sort of mucking about at the water's edge would have been just my cup of tea, but the whole thing was set within an infuriating backdrop of insect feeding frenzy. Clouds of the buggers would swirl around our heads as we worked, stimulated to even greater degrees of madness by our outpourings of sweat. I was used to a certain amount of assault from mosquitoes, but these ones were huge, hungry and determined. But even they were as nothing compared to the blackfly. “They don't just land and bite,” Dutch warned. “They land and crawl under your clothes and bite.” Even though we worked with our collars and cuffs buttoned tight and with hats pulled hard on to our heads, by the end of the day I had furiously itching bites all over my body. None of us smoked cigarettes, but we all lit up there to try to keep a bit of smoke about our faces. Dutch and Karl demonstrated their technique of regularly doffing hats to blow huge puffs of smoke into them before jamming them back on to their heads.
The flies are the great preservationists of the Canadian north country. If it wasn't for them there would probably be motorways filled with cars and caravans stretching all the way to the Arctic Circle. But, in order to make life bearable, isolated towns like Knob Lake had to resort to less and less environmentally friendly methodologies. When I was there the streets used to be regularly patrolled by tanker trucks with spraying devices lashed on the back. They would circulate the roads of the town like squat dung beetles spewing out a ghastly cocktail of DDT and paraffin. God knows what they're using up there now.
Sometimes individual clients might come through the Wheeler channels. These sporting “outdoorsmen” tended to be high earning city professionals coming up for a bit of genuine wilderness hunting or fishing. They would have their canoes or kayaks strapped on to the float struts and get dropped off in one of the infinite lakes with all their camp equipment and baggage and left to fend for themselves until some predetermined date. Sometimes the isolation (and the insects) would get the better of them.
One pair of American lawyers came through our trailer very congenially only to return a couple of weeks later morose, dark, and unspeaking. “They were “bush” for sure,” said Dutch after they'd left, “When I flew over them on my first sweep, those son of a guns were in their kayaks swinging paddles at each other's heads. When I got down I could see blood. I wasn't sure I even wanted them in my plane.” All the pilots used to roar with laughter at the tales of bush madness they exchanged. “If one of them is talking to himself when you pick him up that's not a problem,” they used to say, “but you know he's “bush” if he's answering back.”
The Canso was usually the largest aircraft you'd ever see on the gravel airstrip, but one day I was astonished to see a massive four engined Hercules military transport circling. I dashed over to the strip to watch it coming down. It touched at the very farthest end of the gravel runway, like a huge madly fluttering grey dragonfly, and almost immediately set its turbo props screaming in reverse thrust as it tried desperately to come to a halt before it ran out of road. It screamed past us standing at the tower shack, hurtling down the strip like a runaway train, and came to a halt at the other extreme end, turned majestically, and loomed back towards us. The scale of the thing seemed all wrong as it pulled up, the height of a three storey building, in a cyclonic whirl of dust and gravel and, one by one, shut its engines down. We stood there in the sudden calm and silence like terrestrials awaiting the opening door of an alien space craft. A huge ramp dropped down beneath the tail section and, moments later, the crew emerged looking like a bare headed Apollo work party. As they approached with their other-worldly ship filling the sky behind them, we could see that they were, after all, mere mortals and were joking and clowning like a bunch of bush pilots.
It turned out, as well, that they were to be in the neighbourhood for a week or so and that what to me looked like an extreme emergency landing was to be executed many more times over the next few days. They stayed at the hotel so we often met for supper and they invited me on board their craft for a look around. As I walked up that ramp at the back I simply couldn't imagine, despite having seen it with my own eyes, this enormous hangar leaving the ground. At the end of the vast space was a stairwell leading up to the flight deck. I'd seen commercial airline flight decks so was prepared for a plethora of dials and gauges and levers stuffed into impossible places around the pilots and navigators, but the first thing that struck me on the Hercules was the veritable opulence of space. The pilot and co-pilot sat yards apart in front of an enormous front window the size of a cinema screen. The navigator and radio operator were yards away again behind them. I felt like I was in a large technologically advanced ball room. I never flew in that thing but I was always enthralled by its comings and goings.
The time came when I had to leave to go to university. A late letter arrived giving me notice of dates and I realised I would have to hustle. Both Dutch and Karl were out on missions so I had to let them know over the air waves, with the northern bush plane community listening in. Unexpectedly, many kind words and good wishes crackled through the speakers from well wishers I knew by sound but had never met, but I felt a surprising grief as I said goodbye to Dutch.
In fact I never saw him again. Over the following years I would occasionally pop round to see him but he was always “up north”. I'd chat to his Mrs in her unchanging front yard as all around her the old houses (including ours opposite) were being knocked down to make way for monstrous stone clad suburban palaces.
Then one time she said, “Oh I'm really sorry I wasn't able to tell you. Dutch died when we were on holiday a couple of years ago.” I stared, aghast and speechless, into her puffed and still deeply distraught eyes as she told me in a flat voice how they'd driven west on a long planned for expedition to the Rockies. “He had a heart attack while we were crossing the prairies. I had to drive back with the kids.” She stood there, arms folded, rooted and haunted, in front of her little slightly ramshackle clapboard house in a misfit time warp as the grotesque palaces and upmarket lifestyles rose all around her.
© 2012 Deacon Martin