Thirty years of floatplane flying in Canada

My flying experience lasted about 50 years before my eyesight became poor enough at 83 to say it was time to quit. I would like to tell some of the stories starting back in 1970, when I first began with floatplane/bush flying. It lasted 30 years. We shot several moose. Fishing was fantastic and we caught tons of fish when we were flying up there. I really miss the bush and float flying. Oh to be young again.

In the spring of 1970 my friend Bob purchased a 1953 Cessna 180 on floats. It also had skis for winter. He and his friend had been moose hunting in Canada by living out of a lean-to basic tent. It was cold, wet, and miserable. They wanted to build a moose hunting and fishing shack on a remote lake up there. I knew how to build so he included me in the adventure. I jumped at the chance and this started 30 years of some fantastic float flying stories.

The camp was about 80 miles northeast of Ignace, Ontario. The flight was a 2.5-hour plane trip from Minneapolis to the border. We would gas up and fly another 1.5 hours to the camp. It was seat of the pants flying. Back then there was no GPS or electronic guidance. We had the instruments that were originally installed in the plane in 1953—it had a VOR and an ADF but that was it. They worked in the US. There was no VOR in that area of Canada so we had to fly by following the VFR charts from one lake to the next until we got there. The radio communication was only between bush planes when in the air. It was critical not to lose your place on the paper chart, as if you got lost you were in trouble. Scud running was the common practice.

Cabin on lake
Northwestern Ontario has some beautiful (and remote) lakes, but someone had to build the cabins in the first place.

Building the shack started when we flew up in the Cessna 180 and met a Norseman at the site that hauled the lumber and supplies to the lake from Ignace. We unloaded and started building. We lived in a tent on site during the build. Back then we didn’t have a generator so every board had to be hand cut. It was a 12 ft. by 18 ft. building with just studs on the inside. We built in four canvas bunks on one end and put a barrel stove between them. We had a gas burner and counter at the other end, along with a plywood table attached to the wall and Servel gas refrigerator. The refrigerator was the savior of the camp. We could keep fish in it without spoiling.

I am not condoning the things we did back then. It was not always safe. Remember, this was 1970 and the aircraft rules were not as strict as they are now. We and the bush pilots ignored the few rules they had. The Cessna 180 was a work horse. It was amazing what it could haul and do, and we used it to it’s maximum. The bush pilot rule was if it got off the water it could fly. This is not FAA rules but it was the way most bush-plane pilots did it We often tied lumber and whatever else we needed on the spreader bars and flew it to the shack. We did this all of the time. We weren’t careless, in fact we were very cautious and proud of being good pilots.

We almost never landed at an airport and the cell phone hadn’t been invented. Our weather forecast was looking up at the sky. At times we would take off and get up in the air and fly around the lake to see a little further. We did have the advantage of having what the bush pilots called “Jesus Shoes,” floats and a hundred lakes between us and the border. If we ran into weather, we would set down and wait for it to pass over. We never had to spend the night on a strange lake but we did have close calls.

Now bending the rules. Our standard process was to tie a fishing boat on top of the float and fly to different remote lakes to fish or hunt. Our rule was the lake couldn’t have a cabin on it or a boat laying on the shore. We flew into lakes too small for the commercial outfitters to want to use. Our favorite joke when approaching a small lake was, “We can get in and we might even be able to get out.”

The one time we stretched the ability of the 180 was the time the Servel gas refrigerator at the shack quit and we needed a different one. We found another Servel gas refrigerator in Minneapolis. It was a monster. Four of us could hardly lift it. We hauled it into Canada to a lake accessible by road. We tied it on the float on the 180 and took off with it hanging there. The stall warning was screaming all the way but the plane handled fine and we got it to the shack. This one lasted for several years.

Another time we had shot a moose by a small lake a couple miles from the shack. The lake was large enough to get out with two people in the plane and we went over there to fish often. This day we had the pieces of meat we had cut up from a whole moose, which probably weighed 600 or 700 lbs. We loaded the meat and backed the plane up on the shoreline. We had a line tied on the tailwheel strut. Bob started it and Jack, Jim, and I held it until Bob could bring it up to full power. We then let go and he took off and did fine getting out. We wanted to use every foot of the lake we had. The three of us walked out back to a boat on Quest Lake.

180 on floats
It’s remote, but that’s the point.

One time we got into so much smoke from forest fires that we couldn’t get into Ignace to get gas. We knew we had enough to get to Crane Lake on the border if all went as normal. Because of the smoke we misread some lakes and were in the wrong place. We were lost and knew we were very low on gas. We were in trouble. We saw some boats below us so we landed and found out where we were.

We were about thirty miles east of where we should have been and were in the National Wilderness Park. We talked them out of five gallons of outboard motor gas with the stipulation that one of us stayed with them until we brought the gas back. Without it they would not have enough to get home either. We put the gas in one tank and before we took off we switched to the other tank. When that tank ran out we timed it so we could tell about how much time we had left; with the five gallons more in the other tank that gave us 20 minutes more.

They say, “The prop is the fan that keeps the pilot cool.” They mean it. When that engine stopped it was a scary feeling. It seemed like it was dead quiet. It is different than when practicing—this was real. We switched tanks, it immediately started and we knew then just how much time we had left to get to Crane Lake before we ran out. If we weren’t at Crane Lake in that time we would have had to land, as we couldn’t take the chance of getting to a lake with a dead engine.

We made it. We filled up, brought the gas back to the boaters, picked up Jack, and flew home.

We tried some winter fishing at the shack but it was just too much work. Bob had skis for the plane and we would land on the lake ice and snow. It was always way below zero and brutally cold so fishing out on the ice was tough. Once we got the stove going in the shack we could warm up and it would work fine for overnight. We were 80 miles from town and always worried about getting the plane started. Also the worry of slush on the ice that would make it almost impossible to take off. Bob got caught with slush one time and never flew skis in Canada again.

My friend Bob passed away in 2001; he was 81. I never did any float flying after that. I loved it and it would be my most desired flying.

In 2006 I started flying advanced aircraft with Garmin 1000 avionics. I got my instrument rating and in 2011 bought a Cirrus SR22 and started cross country flying. This is a whole different world of flying. It open up a whole new world to me.

6 Comments

  • My Dad and several buddies did the same in 1960-63 on Wabus Lake 80 miles NE of Sault St Marie using his 1955 180. They didn’t do skis, just summer fishing. I had just gotten my Private in the 180 on floats (no land rating) and was able to do some of the flying. Pilots today can’t realize what bush flying was like back then, your article describes it very well! Thanks for the memories.

  • I spent three years with the Hudson Bay company in Northern Saskatchewan &Northern Ontario. Flying in 180s and Norseman was an experience. Pilots really flew by dead reckoning. Morissette gran Athabasca airways was my first ever flight.

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