Brad Dokken: Another floatplane adventure to the wilderness

Brad Dokken, editor of the Grand Forks Herald’s Northland Outdoors section.

Floatplanes are the workhorses of the North, providing convenient transportation to remote fishing spots and supplies to areas not accessible by road. I’ve been lucky enough to ride in floatplanes numerous times over the years, and nearly all of the flights have been memorable.

 

For various reasons.

Whether it’s colorful pilots, weather delays or pockets of air turbulence, floatplane rides usually are good for the kind of story you tell even years later.

Don Hanson, a longtime Lake of the Woods bush pilot from Warroad, Minn., who died in March 2015 at the age of 98, was at the helm the first time I ever flew in a bush plane in the early 1980s. It was winter so the plane was fitted with skis instead of floats. The flight from Warroad to Oak Island, where we spent the day ice fishing, was uneventful, but Hanson, a true Northwoods character, was memorable.

We caught a few fish that day, as I recall, but more than the fishing, I remember the stogie Hanson chewed and the stories of plane mishaps he shared while we were in the air.

The Northwest Angle lost some of its charm, I think, when floatplanes quit serving the area. Sure, it’s accessible by road, but there’s something about flying over Lake of the Woods en route to the Angle.

More than 10 years after that flight to Oak Island, I took my first fly-in fishing trip to a wilderness camp about 150 air miles north of Red Lake, Ont. It was late September, and the weather was cold, windy and rainy the day we were supposed to get picked up for the flight back to civilization.

At times, we could barely see the shoreline on the other side of the lake less than 2 miles away.

The camp had no radio contact so we assumed we’d be grounded for at least one more day — or however long it took for weather conditions to improve. We passed the time drinking coffee and keeping warm by the fire in the woodstove.

Much to our surprise, the rumble of a plane flying over the cabin late that afternoon interrupted the sound of the crackling wood stove. A large Beechcraft with two pilots soon taxied up to the dock.

We scrambled to finish packing our gear and pile into the plane; the pilots were in no mood for pleasantries.

The weather improved closer to the floatplane base, but numerous squalls still made for a bumpy plane ride back to Red Lake.

“I’m glad this (expletive) day is over,” one of the pilots said to the other when we landed. It’s a line I’ll never forget.

Another time, two friends and I took a summer fly-in fishing trip to an outpost camp in the same area. Weather wasn’t an issue that day, and the flight in the deHavilland Beaver was about as smooth as a floatplane ride can be.

“Once again, we cheat death,” the pilot said as he pulled up to the dock at the outpost camp.

I’m sure he’d used the line many times before, but it’s been a standard part of our floatplane vocabulary ever since.

Nearly as good was the pilot who said, “We’ll see how this goes,” as he taxied to the far end of the lake with a full plane on an afternoon with no wind to provide lift for getting off the water.

We cleared the trees — barely — so I guess it went alright.

I was reminded of these stories and others early the morning of July 17, when five of us were passengers in a deHavilland DHC-3T Otter leaving Shining Falls Lodge in eastern Manitoba as a thunderstorm loomed on the horizon.

The hope was to beat the storm, but the pilot hadn’t gone far when he saw that wasn’t going to be an option. Watching him talk into his headset, I figured he was either praying or talking to the floatplane base.

He banked the plane in a sharp U-turn, landed on the lake and steered us back to the lodge to wait out the storm.

As floatplane experiences go, that was a first for me, but I wasn’t complaining. I’d rather be on the ground with a coffee cup in hand than bouncing around in a plane with a barf bag in hand trying to outrun a thunderstorm.

The delay the fast-moving storm caused was short, and the half-hour floatplane trip south to Bissett, Man., was smooth.

We were back at the floatplane base by 8 a.m.

With yet another floatplane adventure story to tell.

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