Danger and deprivation make up the joys of any wilderness expedition. Have you ever heard an adventurer speak of anything else? I have not, sir! Our bold band is bound for a rare excursion! Today, we hope to try our mettle against the Canadian Wild!
I wake early in a Winnipeg hotel eagerly anticipating the last leg of the trip to our remote outpost. To my disgust, this day again serves up low clouds, fog, and thunderclappers chasing in from the northwest. Time is running thin. If we cannot reach our destination today, we must return home, tails between our legs, helpless victims to the evil of modern air transport. So far, our party has lost two souls and a full day of fishing! We will not tolerate any more delays!
Bad news! Winnipeg International Airport is closed due to the perils of nature! I expect we will remain in this teaming metropolis until the weather lifts and we return to Chicago, discouraged, demoralized, and none the wiser.
Jonelis gets on the horn. I hear the name Loren Bukkett uttered and then John cuts the connection and announces he has arranged a flight! My esteem for the man moves up an inch—a mistake as events will reveal.
A shiny new van arrives to haul eight hearty survivors to our bush plane. Bill Blair immediately crawls to the roof of the vehicle—a surface large enough to accommodate his enormous torso—and lies down for an opportune nap. We run a couple straps across his midsection, just as a precaution and the rain holds off, allowing Blaire a peaceful sleep all the way to the floatplane. His rhythmic rumble elicits rude hilarity from one-and-all. To appreciate the fidelity of his snore, one must grasp the scale of the man. Call him the Paul Bunyan of Chicago.
One wonders how a pontoon plane will break water with such a giant aboard.
That question becomes a matter of serious financial speculation among our rowdy crew. But Jonelis smiles knowingly and refuses to indulge in the wager. I admire integrity in an expedition leader. A gentleman never bets on a sure thing. And his refusal portends foreknowledge! Vision! On the other hand, he booked this trip and actually may know precisely what to expect.
I will outline the plan as I understand it: A bush plane will insert us deep in the Canadian Wilds. Our destination is 500 miles north of Winnipeg—far north of Musky habitat—a land where the ferocious Northern Pike gets its name and grows to prodigious proportions. No towns. No roads. Nothing but Jack Pine, Birch and Big Lakes for hundreds of miles! That is right sir! Our magazine staff is headed for a fishing excursion in the lake country of Northern Manitoba and maybe—just maybe we will survive the journey.
Friends experienced in this sort of travel give me to know that it will require as many as three Cessna floatplanes and two fuel stops to haul the lot of us to such a remote locale. We will slowly wallow through the sky, each plane well over legal weight with barrels reeking of gasoline and cases of beer serving as passenger seats. Such a trip requires the entire day. We arrive near dark, our guts puked out, refusing food and barely able to walk.
I ruminate on the veracity of this horror story and whether our plane will make three trips, when our van abruptly stops at a private strip beside a neat King Air—the most lavish of executive turboprops—tricked out in soft leather seats. When Jonelis borrows an airplane, he does the job right!
This is his friend’s craft, but John betrays that it is essentially identical to one the lodge charters. Apparently, such luxurious transportation is the norm at outposts so far north.
Someone forgot to fit this plane with pontoons. After we untie Blaire from the roof of the van and jar him awake, I inquire.
Turns out, the typical floatplane route is impractical for such vast distances. Our outpost actually carved out a landing strip in the rugged forest, quarried their own gravel, and used the trees to build cabins. That is raw determination, sir! Perhaps in the lower States we have forgotten but the frontier spirit still lives in the North Woods!
This plane comfortably accommodates all eight of us—and by removing two seats, even Bill Blaire settles in without difficulty. He uses a convenient luggage tie-down in lieu of a seatbelt. This is real flying as originally intended. SPEED—wonderful SPEED is the order of the day, just as it was in the glory days of aviation. No execrable lines. No officious and probing security! No ground delay or gnashing of teeth! This ain’t Chicago, Mr. Mayor!
Rather than a full day, this trip will take under an hour and a half! We will be on the water and fishing by 10:00 this very morning! We are getting closer to heaven!
I have been told that I will meet a crazed bush pilot—one such as Brian Dennehy—Rosie from the motion picture NEVER CRY WOLF.
A Bush pilot’s job may seem dangerous to American sensibilities, but flight in the wilderness requires a combination of skill, intrepid resourcefulness, and dauntless courage lacking in our unionized flight crews and their innumerable regulations.
No pilot appears.
Jonelis hands a magnum of Grant’s whiskey to the vile Loop Lonagan, and while our group passes the bottle and indulges in coarse jokes and raucous laughter, my suspicions start acting up: How is it that our plane will depart when those at a major international airport do not?
Once Jonelis sees us securely strapped in our seats, he personally slips into the cockpit and dons a set of headphones. I take that to mean only one thing!
No bush pilot is crazy enough to make the journey in this weather!
My instinct for survival goes into full panic mode. With wisdom born of a long life, I fumble with my seatbelt. I wish to disembark this flying coffin—IMMEDIATELY!
My hands shake and over my loud objections—before I can set myself free—the props are spinning!
With no other airplane in sight, we immediately take off into the gloom!
I am now closer to Paradise than my original intention! Reversed is my strong aversion to all those meticulous safety procedures at O’Hare Field! I now favor the other side of the argument!
Dark cloud cover swallows us. Violent turbulence throws me about in the seat and I tighten my belt so as not to violently strike my head on the roof of the cabin.
Jonelis’ mad voice oozes from overhead speakers as if this were any other day. He speaks in that slow confident drawl common to all pilots. “This is your captain speaking. Due to favorable tailwinds, we will reach our destination at zero nine hundred. Please keep your seatbelts fastened in case of turbulence. In the event of a low ceiling at or destination, we will divert to Thompson.”
Presently we dive then level off. Then without warning, we break free of the clouds. Our “pilot” has discovered smoother air, and indeed, the rugged ride abates—somewhat. I glimpse views of wilderness scenery.
Then that insanely calm voice again: “You may move about the cabin. Refreshments are located in the box at seat 2B. Please keep your belts fastened while seated.”
I crouch low and squeeze down the aisle to the front, where I help myself to delightfully hot coffee, a pleasant breakfast of Egg McMuffins, and five tiny bottles of Jack Daniels Sour Mash. I squirrel these treasures in my pockets and hold the rest tight to my chest as I return crabwise to my seat.
While the rest of the passengers continue their wild celebration, oblivious to the danger, I speculate on the lunatic at the controls. Does he know how to land this thing?
In the space of an agonizing hour, Jonelis is circling.
Outside the little window, I spot an airstrip. Is it the right one?
As the madman shoots the approach, the aircraft again bucks and yaws like a bull at a rodeo and I spill sour mash across my fine white suit. A roaring wells up in my ears, and my head aches.
I utter my final prayers.
Go to next installment – FISH STORY
Back to beginning – ROUGHING IT
Photography by John Jonelis. except for Mark T Wayne, Patrick Dennehy from Tail Slate, and Pontoon Plane from FlintAero
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