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Romancing the Bush Plane
Armstrong, Ontario

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By Pat Mestern
June 2, 2003

The last time I was in a pontooner flying over northern Ontario’s wilderness was many years ago. I will freely admit that my love for bush planes dates to the 1950's when the idea of intrepid pilots in little aircraft, conquering vast and remote regions, was both Canadian and romantic.

This belief was reinforced by a rogue Uncle, as swashbuckling as any hero I’d encountered in book or movie. My young, fertile mind had him off on many great adventures. Uncle owned a float plane base on Lake Lauzon at Algoma Mills. As an impressionable teen, I had the opportunity to go along as he flew supplies into prospecting camps around Elliot Lake. The stories Uncle told helped fire my imagination. Even the true stories, those with tragic endings, fueled my fervor for the north, float planes and the pilots who flew them.

Striker's Point Lodge and Otter - Whitewater LakeThese early experiences were so enjoyable that when an invitation arrived to visit remote Striker’s Point Lodge in Wabakimi Provincial Park, in Northwestern Ontario, I leapt at the opportunity. As our visit would be short, I knew we’d have the pleasure of flying in. The only other way to reach the lodge is by train then a long paddle and portage by canoe.

Hubby didn’t share my enthusiasm for float planes. He was born in South Africa where sea planes were not a common sight. Although he’s been in Canada for more than forty-five years, he’s spent little time in the north. Taking a bush plane into a remote lodge would be a new experience for Ted and his camera.

Our first challenge was getting to Armstrong, Ontario. The community is a three-hour drive north of Thunder Bay. Locals say that the trip can be done in two hours. Do their cars have wings and batmobile-like capabilities? The cities of Port Arthur and Fort William which make up Thunder Bay, hunker down on the north shore of Lake Superior, guarded by the rock form of the Sleeping Giant. Highways leave Thunder Bay like spokes on a wheel - #16 south to Minnesota, the Transcanada #11/17, west to Manitoba, or east toward Sault Ste. Marie and #527, north to Armstrong.

Highway #527 is known for its stark landscape and lack of amenities. We gassed up in Thunder Bay, found Lois our guide, then headed north. The trip was planned so that we would be in Armstrong for a late lunch. For this trip, one’s vehicle should be in good running condition. As Lois cautioned, she carries a cell phone but it’s of little use so far north. After passing Terry Fox Memorial and turning north, we encountered little civilization until we reached Armstrong.

To break the monotony, drivers have the choice of two stops along the route. One is a kind-of general store, the other a sort-of liquor & pick-up store. Both are on the left-hand side of the highway, going north. As the only restroom was at the kind-of general store, we took a break. Lois said, there would no other opportunity unless we watered the bush. This lack of facilities might explain why, throughout the north, we saw a large number of vehicles with toilet paper rolls in their back windows. My first thought was that they were hunters and fishers heading to camp with a few amenities onboard.

Traffic? The only vehicles we encountered on this straight, lonely road were logging trucks. Like bats-out-of-hell, they charged along #527 - empty going up, full coming down. I figured they were rushing to load check areas, pull-offs with rotating drum structures by the side of the road. Although we didn’t see any doing so, trucks carrying pulp logs are suppose to drive through the drums to straighten the load. Shifting logs spill loads and occasionally roll both truck and trailer. We passed a recent tip, grateful that the logs spilled into the ditch.

Highway #527 - Long Lonely Road #1

Highway #527 - Long Lonely Road #1

Highway #527 - Burnt birch.jpg Somewhere along #527, we drove through miles of windswept acreage where bare rock ridges fold to a bleak horizon, and scorched trunks of thousands of white birch, like surreal wands, reach into the bluest of skies. A forest fire had raged through the area leaving devastation in its wake. Left to its own devices, the forest will rejuvenate. Growth was occurring along the highway, albeit slowly.

Somewhere along this road too, we turned right and drove through the Gull Bay Indian Reserve, a forlorn community on the shores of Lake Nipigon. Looking out the van’s windows, I had to remind myself that the north is a harsh master and that different values suit different folk.

At last, Armstrong, a village on the edge, as one local described his community. He didn’t elaborate as to what edge. At the end of main street, Highway #527 tendrils into a number of logging roads that snake across the landscape. Hungry, we went looking for lunch. On the advice of the local fellow, our choice of eatery was narrowed down to one, E & J’s Restaurant. If there were others, we didn’t see them.

Armstrong - planeE & J’s was a pleasant experience. The menu was limited but hamburgers were good and fries cut from fresh spuds. Prices were northern-reasonable. I can’t say the same about gas prices. As there’s only one service station, it has the monopoly. Eighty-five cents to one dollar per litre is the norm. We were glad we had filled our tank and that it had enough capacity to get us back to the Thunder Bay. There’s one grocery store in Armstrong and it has the monopoly on food. I was afraid to ask the price of fresh oranges, lettuce, apples.

Armstrong is all about trains. Tracks dominate the village. As a matter of fact, the only way one can travel to Thunder Bay by train is to arrive in Armstrong and find their way south by road. Figure that one out!

Turno Otter loading for StrikerThere’s not much to do in Armstrong. Popular pastimes appear to be bear-watching at the local dump and train-spotting near the tracks. There’s no map to indicate where those logging roads lead so the best bet is not to venture forth unless accompanied by a local guide who doesn’t mind the hair-raising experience of meeting logging trucks on THEIR turf, not a good thing.

Armstrong - Planes a NorsemanA number of outfitters and fly-in services call the Armstrong area home. After lunch we went looking for float planes. Our quest was satiated at Mattice Lake Outfitters where four were tied at dock, all built during the 1950's. Down the road we turned into Huron Air Charter Services on MacKenzie Lake to see their flotilla. Here, I had the pleasurable experience of seeing a 1953 Norseman. Canoes balanced on pontoons and strapped to struts, it landed and taxied to dock. My uncle’s workhorse, and the plane I remember best, was a ‘53 Norseman. There are only twenty-six of these planes left in Ontario. Our last stop was at Wilderness North home base on Waweig Lake for a look at the plane we’d be taking, a Turbo Otter. It, and the Beaver tied next to it, were both manufactured in the 1950's.

Sunset at Wabakimi EcoLodgeAs our flight was not until the next morning, we stayed overnight at Wabakimi Wilderness Bed & Breakfast on Mattice Lake. Many outtrippers use this facility as the jump-off point for canoeing and kayaking adventures. The company, Wild Waters Nature Tours & Expeditions Ltd., tailors wilderness packages to customers’ needs. They supply all that is necessary for a one day, or extended trip, in Wabakimi Provincial Park and environs.

Sunset of Mattice LakeBert and Brenda, congenial hosts and capable managers, made special arrangements for dinner as we didn’t have the inclination to drive the ten miles or so back into Armstrong to E & J’s. Bert’s special recipe for oven-baked walleye, better known as northern lobster, was excellent and accompanied by a bowl of Brenda’s ever- ready pasta salad.

After supper we toured around Mattice Lake then curled up to enjoy the eclectic in-house library. We forgot bathing suits and didn’t think we should subject other guests to sagging naked bodies in the large outdoor hot tub. The sunset over Mattice was picture-perfect. Later, northern lights danced across the sky, mirroring a rainbow of colour in the lake.

Striker's Point Lodge - Wilderness North's propertyNext morning, we were off to Wilderness North’s base for our flight into Striker’s Point Lodge. We were Ted, Lois, myself and Allan Cheeseman, President of Wilderness North who took the opportunity to fly in with us. Flight times are at the discretion of the pilot and weather. Although Waweig Lake was clear, we waited an hour for the fog to lift off Whitewater Lake. I spent the time taking in the familiar sights, sounds and smells of a northern sea plane base. Oh, the memories of my youth! The Turbo Otter has lots of room and is one of the quieter planes in service. Our pilot, Randy Melnick, is one of the most competent in the business and an all-round nice guy too.

Striker's Point Lodge - Turbo Otter at dockHearing the throb of the Otter’s engine as it lifted off Waweig Lake brought back another flood of great memories. As we winged our way north, the landscape below changed constantly. Logging roads petered out and endless miles of lakes, bogs, streams, rivers, pine and spruce forest stretched to all horizons. We came in over Whitewater and flew low over the bay at Striker’s Point before making a smooth landing. Lodge managers Paul and Denise met us at the dock then helped load the plane with gear and homebound guests. The Otter’s departure from Whitewater Lake seemed as effortless as its landing. This Randy fellow’s good!

Armstrong - planeSome people can’t handle solitude. Others revel in it. Striker’s Point Lodge has amenities to suit both types. There are two other lodges on the lake. We were six of perhaps twenty people in an area that is forty minutes flying time from Armstrong. The place has solitude enough to give a sense of freedom without total isolation. That’s my style of northern recreational habitat.

Striker’s Point Lodge is a full-service facility with dining room, a small lounge with T.V. and bar. Rustic log cabins have kitchens, bathrooms, hot and cold running water, one, two or three bedrooms and a living area with wood stove. Power is supplied by generator. Breakfast and supper are provided. Special arrangements can be made for a noon meal but as most people prefer to throw a line, Denise supplies the necessities for a you-fry-up shore lunch. It’s not often there isn’t a fish to fry. Some of the catch and release beauties accredited to this lake are forty-seven and forty-nine inch Great Northern Pike.

Wendell Beckwith - trail to Hermit CabinOur purpose for being on Whitewater was to see the dwellings of the Hermit of the Lake. This required a wild ride through choppy water to Wendell Beckwith’s cabins on Best Island. Beckwith built a number of unusual and innovative features into his three dwellings, all the while conducting astronomical and meteorological observations. Beckwith put himself into seclusion to do what he called pure research into aspects of gravitation and radiation.

The dwellings remain as they were on the day, in August 1980 when Beckwith died on the island’s beach. Beckwith lived year-round on the isolated lake. I could see myself spending the summer in the most innovative cabin, The Snail, an ingenious combination of wood, earth and glass.

Wendell Beckwith hermitage -The Snail

Our next venture by boat was from Best Island to Ogoki Lodge, a complex that incorporates some of Wendell Beckwith’s design ideas. The facility is beautiful and in a gorgeous setting but exudes a haunting loneliness as it’s been closed for several years.

Fresh air affects my appetite; so does cold water in the face. We roared our way back to Striker’s Point through some very heavy seas. No problem! Back at the lodge, we fell ravenously on the evening meal. The meal, Paul’s fresh-caught fried pickerel and beef steaks, known around the lodge as surf & turf , was excellent.

After the evening’s performance of northern lights, I fell asleep dreaming of one of the day’s most spectacular occurrences. We were in three small boats in the middle of deep blue Whitewater Lake. Surrounding us for 360 degrees was the natural vista of grey rock and green pine that comprises the northern landscape. Above us was a 360-degree view of a sky with at least seventeen shades of blue and puffy white clouds that floated endlessly to the furthest horizons. What a magnificent sight!

With so much beauty around me, there was no sleeping in. I was up early and commandeered a chair on the porch to watch the lake’s awakening. Shoreline rose from mysterious mists. Loons called in the bay. The rising sun shot streaks of pink, blue, yellow and purple toward grey-black northern sky.

Too soon, it was time to leave. The roar of the Beaver’s engine could be heard long before it came into view. Like a graceful bird, the plane landed and taxied to dock. We were loaded in, handed ear muffs and Randy took off. The Beaver is a much noisier plane than the Turbo Otter hence the need for ear protection.

Flying over Boreal Forest North of ArmstrongThe flight back to Wilderness North’s base on Waweig Lake was excellent. Sun glistened off deep blue lakes. Black bog waters contrasted with the gold and red of autumn’s lichen and mosses. The feeling of arriving back into civilization came with the sighting of logging roads, the rail line, Armstrong then Waweig Lake. “It’s a humbling experience to fly in a small plane over northern boreal forest,” Ted said when we landed. “There’s so much of it, so little of us.”

Ontario’s north lands are just a small part of the thousands of miles of Canadian wilderness that stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. Bush pilots and their planes have forged a unique place in Canadian history. Since the 1920's, they have played a major role in mapping and spanning that wilderness. The golden years were the periods after both world wars. Prospectors fanned out across the north in search of precious minerals. Lives were saved when pilots braved the elements to fly mercy missions to remote villages.

Wilderness North - planeBack home in the gridlock, noise and smog that is southern Ontario, it struck me that every Canadian should, once in their lives, experience a ride in a pontooner over unspoiled northern reaches. Only then will they realize that there are places of great beauty in Canada; that it is truly the most magnificent country on earth.


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