We all have hundreds of firsts throughout our life. First steps, first day of school, first sports goal, first kiss, first house; the list goes on and on, but I’d like your coffee to still be warm when you’re done reading this. For those who have a passion for the outdoors, another memorable list exists from the first fishing trip, first trophy fish, and equally as memorable, the first boat breakdown on the water. Those lucky enough to go on a fly -in fishing trip, will no doubt ever forget their first commute to the wilderness in a bush plane. I for one, won’t forget my first.
Rewind to 2007, I was fresh out of school eagerly working in Northern Manitoba, with a Leatherman strapped on my belt flying over the vast wilderness, and un-controlled wide-open airspace, half way to my dream of being a bush pilot. The only problem, I was flying from gravel runway to gravel runway. While technically I was a bush pilot, there was always a slight fraudulent feeling, as if there was one box on the “Bush Pilot” checklist left unticked. I loved every minute of my job and though the days were long, and days off sparse, it was very rewarding. Saturday’s were our days off for the land based pilots, but with a list of fun activities similar to that of a 3 year old’s favorite foods, we found some sort of work to keep us busy. We were sitting around the campfire on Friday night reflecting on the diverse week of work we’d all had. My Coleman camp chair had a big hole in it from a spark of flying ash at the fire the night before. The float pilot, with a busy Saturday schedule, asked if I would join him along in the Otter to assist untie canoes, dock, etc. (for those that have flown in the Otter and witnessed trying to reach the dock on a windy day, you’ve probably noticed the pilot with a determined, albeit, frustrated look, and most probably talking to himself a reassurance that everything will be ok.) With as much hesitation as a mosquito to an arm after 10pm, I said yes with the slightest giggle, that I had to pretend was caused by a bug bite. 4:30am came in lightning fashion, reminding me of my childhood Christmas mornings. The sky had a faint glow, the air still, and the rumbling of an idling piston radial engine could be heard. The feeling of ‘Is there anything better than this?’ consumed me and I trotted to the water minutes later. The gravel road to the dock was short with a slight hill. As I got closer, the Otter came into sight. The large tail standing tall, the sun had just cracked the horizon and reflected off the wingtip emitting rays in all directions. The closer I came, the louder it was, the more I felt the power in my chest. After gazing at the plane for a few minutes, the engine shut down, warm up complete, and the pilot hopped out onto the dock. Time for the real work to begin! We had 5 men, gear, gas, beer, an outboard motor, beer, a canoe strapped to the float, oh and more beer. Sound familiar?
Thirty minutes later, with a load of people, cargo, and fuel, we were ready for go time. I was given a brief on how to hold the Otter during start up, always making sure the propeller never came anywhere near the dock. I took this responsibility as if I was asked to park a Ferrari in a full parking garage. I pushed the bow of the float out from the dock, and held the rear float rope. The whine of the starter engaging, scared the birds on dock who had come over to get a look at their big flying friend. A few propeller rotations later, the engine roared to life. I lunged onto the float as it pulled away from the dock, trying to keep my composure like this wasn’t the coolest thing I’d ever done. As I walked through the cabin up to the front seat, I tried to keep the look off my face like I’d just met The Beatles. At best, they’d just think I had a birth defect which caused me to smile every minute of the day. I got to my seat next to the pilot, buckled in and it all began to sink in. The vibrations so relaxing they would put any mall massage chair to shame, the smell of the 1950’s interior, the view out the front window looking at water all around. I couldn’t help but keep my eyes from wandering. The nostalgia of the 50-year-old cockpit, the simplicity in the design, and engineering was truly unlike anything I have ever experienced. We taxied for almost 5 minutes, turned around and then I heard the words: “All set?” “Heck yes!” The throttle opened smoothly, before I knew it 650 horsepower was screaming at us. The vibrations, the rumblings, the feelings in the chest I’d felt earlier, all seemed like a drive in a Prius on a paved road. I now know when someone refers to a sound as “deafening” exactly what they mean. Half a minute later, with my senses in overdrive, she lurched into the air. The water was calm that day but there’s a different kind of calm when you lift off the water into the still air. The engine noises, the vibrations while still present, felt oddly quiet and majestic. I finally had that feeling. That feeling as a child of watching float planes flying overhead, hearing them roar off in the distance, wondering where they were going. I was now in that plane looking down. The hundreds of miles of untouched lakes and rivers. So many new runways, questioning how many lakes have never been set on.
Much like a roller coaster, my ride came to an end just as fast as the anticipation leading up to it. Before I knew it we were back at the dock, a successful trip dropping of the guests, the canoe, fuel, oh and the beer. As I walked back to the crew house, I pondered how I could go back to flying wheels again. It seemed like getting the keys to mom’s hatchback when dad’s Chevelle was parked in the garage. They say smell is the strongest scent tied to memory. To this day when I sit in and smell the cockpit of a beaver or an otter, or hear an old radial start, I remember that day, that flight, the very first.