Of Beavers and Helicopters
Atlin, Summer, 1979. My Grandfather used to say, “I’ll fly as high as you like as long as I can keep one foot on the ground.”
I guess I didn’t inherit that gene, because I love flying – especially in small aircraft. Yeah, it can occasionally get hairy, particularly in the North, but that doesn’t seem to diminish my love of being in the sky in one flimsy contraption or another. Over the years I’ve managed to stow aboard Pipers, Beavers, and practically every single engine Cessna built. My favorite aircraft though are the helicopters. I was introduced to helicopters when I took a break from building to work for an exploration company.
The whole thing really wasn’t my idea. I would have been happy to sit under a tree and strum the old git box after my day of peeling, sawing, notching and stacking logs, but I needed cash to buy the second round of lumber from Marshall’s sawmill, and this was the solution.
A trip to Border Lake introduced me to the Beaver, workhorse of the North. It’s noisy and slow but it carries a hell of a payload, lands and takes off short, and just keeps going. This particular Beaver became famous as the plane that Brian Dennehy piloted in ‘Never Cry Wolf,’ a film based on the book by Farley Mowat, shot in and around Atlin.
The pilot and owner, Dick Bond, was a feisty, wiry, chain smoking coffee drinker who’d had more close calls than anybody could count. I was a last minute addition to the flight, so he had to stick an extra seat in back.
Border Lake is located on the Alaska/B.C. border, (creative folks, these explorers). It’s up above the Taku River system, and there are various ways to get there. Dick often took one of the short cuts down the Tulsequah river, a route involving a particularly bumpy section where the interior weather meets the coastal winds. Cold air coming off the glaciers complicates the issue, and the area tends to sock in at a moment’s notice but by God, the route saves time!
We were smack dab in the middle of it, and I could see that Dick was white knuckling it around Eaton mountain. I was firmly strapped into my seat and hanging on. Unfortunately, the seat wasn’t attached to the floor – a small oversight – so I began to roll around the cabin, knocking over this, ramming into that, all the while changing the payload balance, making the whole situation even more treacherous.
Oddly enough, the thing I was most worried about was the little Yamaha guitar I’d borrowed for the trip. I had stuffed it into a soft case before leaving, and it sat pretty well unprotected amongst the rest of the cargo. So around the cabin I rolled, holding the damn thing in the air with one hand while looking for hand holds with the other.
It was hilarious. And boy did we laugh. We laughed so hard that tears came to our eyes – with that half strangled, high pitched croak you spit out when the defecation is hitting the rotation.
Finally, we hit some smooth air, and everything settled down. Ruffled feathers were patted into place and whatever conversation is possible inside a noisy Beaver returned to normal.
“How ‘bout those Blue Jays, two games in a row …”
But there were no complaints when the floats finally scraped the gravel beach of Border Lake.
An exploration camp is a world unto itself. The only rationale for its location is the presence of minerals, and minerals can be anywhere. More often than not, they are in remote wilderness areas, so for a guy like me, working in one was an exciting prospect. And it didn’t disappoint.
A typical camp day would find us jumping in the helicopter at eight in the morning, armed with soil sampling bags, mapping supplies, a rifle, a radio, and huge lunches from the cookshack. We would be dropped off well above treeline and would spend the day hiking down, sampling and mapping as we went.
My partner on these jaunts, more often than not, was Billy B. That’s as much name as I got. He was on the big side for this work, size and weight being a consideration when loading small aircraft, but he was experienced and good at what he did, so all that went by the way.
We shared a perverse sense of humour, and spent our days laughing our asses off as we tumbled off those mountains. He would stop when something got him going, that mop of ginger hair would start bobbing up and down as he struggled for breath and, if the thing was funny enough, he would drop to his knees and pound the ground with his ample fist. It wasn’t the most efficient way to work but, by gum, we scared off the grizzlies.
Then at 4 p.m. we would find a flat spot, lay out an orange locator blanket and settle down to wait for the helicopter. You might hear it first, that little whirr cutting through the massive silence on the mountain, then the dot would appear on the horizon and you started thinking about dinner. Yahoo!
Evenings were spent with my back against a tree, playing guitar and staring out over some of the most spectacular country known to man. The whole thing was glorious.
I was well through a university program, and headed towards a degree in marine biology when I was shanghaied by music. From that moment on, I’d never considered any other occupation. Until now. Prospectors spent their time doing just what we were doing on this mountain – all over the world, and the whole thing was mighty attractive. Still, I had a cabin to build, and this was a decision I could make when all was said and done.
The flight out was in the helicopter. As I climbed aboard, Jack, the current camp pilot, another wiry, compact lad (these pilots seem to favour that size and shape), motioned towards a notch in the mountains with a John Wayne flair, and said …
“I like to take a different route back every time. I was thinking we would go through there. Do you mind?”
“Are you kidding me?’, I replied, “we can go via Nome as far as I’m concerned.”
So off we went, picking our way through the landscape until, at about halfway, he turned, pushed that little beanie of his back on his head and yelled “Lunch?”
The cookshack had packed us a humdinger for our return trip and it was time to find out what was in there. I nodded, and he immediately dipped into a long arc towards a tongue of the LLewellyn Glacier, landing right on one of the leading tips of that majestic monster.
Once the helicopter had wound down, we pulled out folding chairs and the little ice chest full of food. After finishing up, we just sat in silence, sipping coffee, and staring down Llewellyn Inlet. I twisted in my seat and looked back at the huge crystalline river forming our backdrop. Billions of tons of moving ice stretched out behind us, light refracting and reflecting off myriad complex surfaces that ranged in colour from white to all shades of blue. The deep furrows and crevasses formed by the glacier gave it the appearance of a massive freshly plowed field
“Well, this ain’t too shabby”, I murmured.
Jack’s eyebrows arched and his face lit up. Tossing the remaining coffee grounds over an icy lip, he turned and grinned.
“I get to do this every day. Every damn day. Can you believe it?”
Well, that was it for me. Any chance I got, I was going to climb into one of these egg beaters and fly away.