Pine Portage Generating Station on Nipigon River, ON
Pine Portage Generating Station on Nipigon River, ON

As the sun sets on Canada’s 150th, a B.C.-to-Ontario trip – by helicopter

TORONTO — This was a spur of the moment trip for me. My husband Paul, a helicopter pilot, was trying his best not to have to ‘work’ on a long weekend. That work involved bringing back a helicopter from Prince George, B.C. to Sudbury, ON. I went to bed Friday night of the August Civic Holiday long weekend not knowing if we were going to our cottage or on a helicopter adventure.

At 8 a.m. the next morning I was told to get ready for a flight departing at noon to Prince George via Vancouver. Who knew that Paul even knew how to book an airline ticket for me! Luckily, what would have been a rainy long weekend at the cottage turned out instead to be a sunny 4,207-kilometre excursion high across B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario in an Airbus AS350 helicopter.

We arrived in Prince George around 4 p.m. and then had to walk around the perimeter of the airport until we found the helicopter. How strange to exit a Canadian airport and not have the craziness of major highways, road signs and traffic! This was like exiting into the calm and peace of the countryside.

Rocky Mountains

Rocky Mountains

Paul did his regulatory check of the helicopter and arranged for fuel to be delivered at 7:30 a.m. the next morning, ready for our 8 a.m. departure. This helicopter had just completed a geological survey in Alaska and its next contract was in Northern Ontario, so it needed to get back to Ontario right away.

We stayed the night in Prince George and went out to dinner to a restaurant that a friend of mine had recommended. This was my first time in Prince George and I was quite impressed.

We were up the next morning and breakfast at 6:30 a.m. before heading off to the airport. I stocked up on granola bars for emergency supplies, remembering training from my own airline days, when I was a flight attendant for Laker Airways. What if we had to make an emergency landing in a remote area with no cell phone service! Meanwhile Paul was waiting in the taxi, wondering what I was buying that was so important.

It was very quiet at 7:30 am at the airport, and already hot, even for August. The taxi driver dropped us at the airport with our bags before he headed back to town for his next ride. But wait – Paul, my absent-minded pilot, was suddenly in a panic. Where were his cell phone and iPad? Apparently I am flying across the country with Captain Forgetful! I quickly phone the taxi company to radio the driver, who luckily had stopped at the main terminal. In walking back to his car he noticed the cell phone and iPad on the roof of his car. He kindly brought them back to us safely. I can only applaud his driving skills that they did not slide off the roof, never to be seen again. And the iPad had the flight plan and all the details to guide us across the country!

We took to the skies at 8 a.m. and were soon flying toward the Rocky Mountains. Looking down, there were remote mountain roads and lots of trees, and soon there were only mountain peaks all around us. Are we still climbing, or are we really aiming straight for the mountain face? Paul looks like he knows what he is doing but he is also busy pointing to, and naming, various mountains used for heli-skiing. My eyes meanwhile are fixed on the mountain face straight ahead. Miraculously we cleared that peak –Mt. Sir Alexander, the northernmost peak over 3,200 metres in the Rocky Mountains – without any sensation of climbing in altitude. We did this a few times. I think he was enjoying the thrill of scaring me.

Rocky Mountains

Rocky Mountains

We saw glaciers and streams and mountains so close that I felt I could almost touch them as we flew by. Some were bare stone and some were still covered with snow and ice. We kept an eye out for mountain goats but didn’t see any. We were completely alone in these mountains. The sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The scenery – like something straight out of a page of National Geographic – was spectacular. By the time I was feeling more relaxed with my surroundings and soon we were leaving the mountains behind and heading into lush green countryside.

We were now in Alberta and after three hours of flying we landed at Villeneuve Municipal airport on the outskirts Edmonton to refuel. After a short self-serve fuel stop in a deserted airport – everyone was off for the long weekend – we took off again and flew another two hours to our next fuel stop in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Now we were flying over farmland with the occasional farmhouse, herds of cows and barns. So many barns! And lots of rivers and fields.

Our plan was to reach Dauphin, Manitoba before sunset, but that changed when it took well over an hour to fuel up. Evidently the fuel truck did not have the correct size nozzle for the helicopter. Things were getting a bit tense once we finally took off, as we weren’t sure how much daylight we had left and if we would make our destination before it was legally dark. Then there was also the time change to take into consideration that would happen somewhere very soon, but we weren’t sure where exactly. We were also getting hungry – no food service in that helicopter!

Paul decided it best to land sooner, in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. He called in to air traffic control to make a change to his flight plan. There was a lot of talking on the radio to air traffic controllers. Some of them spoke so amazingly fast that I couldn’t make out what they were saying. It’s a whole different language up there in the sky! Because helicopters are so noisy we both had to wear headsets at all times, so I was able to hear all the local aircraft conversations. Without headsets and microphones we wouldn’t have been able to speak each other.

As we came into land – to yet another deserted holiday weekend airport – a person come out from a hanger directing us to land beside it. After we had landed, shut down the engine and the blades stopped turning, the mystery man came over and introduced himself. Evidently he had met Paul many years before and was currently interested in a helicopter that Paul was involved in selling. Small world! By the time Paul had checked over ‘the machine’ and tied down the blades for the night, our new friend had arranged for refueling the next morning at 7 a.m. and then drove us into town and dropped us at the hotel. We had only eaten a granola bar since our breakfast at 6:30 am (PST) and now it was 9:30 p.m. (CST). Dinner never tasted so good.

The next morning we were up and eating breakfast at 6 a.m., and back to the airport by taxi for 7 a.m. There was nobody around – only the birds. The refueller showed up at 7 a.m. as arranged. My job as co-pilot was to clean the windows! We accumulated a lot of splattered bugs in our travels. We were airborne by 7:30 a.m., heading east toward Dauphin. Now we were flying over very flat land with lots of fields. I was expecting to see red barns everywhere as we crossed Saskatchewan but I only saw one and we passed it before I was able to take a photo.

The tail winds were good, increasing our air speed, so we decided to skip our next scheduled stop and head to Red Lake, Ontario. The app on Paul’s iPad kept us constantly on course and we were able to zoom in when we needed to see what was ahead. We were coming up on Lake Manitoba and had to plan our route across the southern tip, flying always within site of land, as we were not equipped for emergency landings on water (no life jackets, no floats).

Shortly after crossing Lake Manitoba we had to cross Lake Winnipeg. I had no idea it was such a huge lake. Again, our route took us across the shortest bodies of water, which was through (or rather, above) Grindstone Provincial Park. I was constantly looking out for the next likely landing site just in case. I didn’t tell Paul this, but then in conversation he just happened to mention that in the event of an emergency he always had a landing spot in sight. Must say I felt a whole lot more relaxed once we had crossed those huge lakes.

Pine Portage Generating Station on Nipigon River, ON

Pine Portage Generating Station on Nipigon River, ON

Now we were leaving Manitoba and as we entered Ontario the landscape almost immediately changed. It was no longer flat. Now we were flying above forests and lakes, thousands of them, as far as the eye could see. We flew across Woodland Caribou Provincial Park but never saw any caribou! Disappointing. Once in a while we would see a lake with a lone cottage with a dock and boat, and then nothing around for hundreds of miles. Some people must really like to get away from it all. Still the sun was shining and the lakes glistened below.

Soon we were approaching Red Lake in Northern Ontario, 100 kilometres from the Manitoba border. There were homes and cottages along the shores of the lake and people out boating. The annual Norseman floatplane festival takes place here but we had missed it by a couple of weeks. We did see quite a few floatplanes parked at the town dock as we flew over.

The airport at Red Lake was a busy place on Civic Holiday Monday. We landed, parked the helicopter, tied down the blades and walked over to the terminal building. I was hoping for a cup of coffee but there was only a vending machine for pop and candy. Paul found a quiet table in the corner and filled in the helicopter logbook and I stuck up a conversation with one of the locals. She had watched as the ATM rejected my debit card a couple of times, and then advised me that it rarely worked for visitors! We talked about life in Red Lake –and the winters – as she waited for her Bearskin Airlines flight to Winnipeg.

In Red Lake we switched helicopters with one that had been working in Sandy Lake, another Northern Ontario mining town. It was basically the same helicopter but this one needed to get back to base in time for its 600-hour inspection. The one we had been travelling in was well within its inspection hours. We had to haul all the survey equipment from one helicopter to the other and secure it down safely in the back seat area. I didn’t have to clean the windows this time – guess there weren’t as many bugs further north!

We took off around 2:30 p.m. and were soon again flying above forests and lakes. There seemed to be a lot of vibration coming from my side. Was that supposed to happen? After Paul finished his ‘Roger Roger’ flight talk banter over the radio, I mentioned the vibrations. Ooops! He noticed the back door was not secured properly and that we should find a spot to land so he could fix it. I tightened my seat harness and held onto the door handles just in case I might be able to contain them should they decide to fly open. Looking down I could see only forest and lakes, no likely landing spots but Paul – accustomed to flying over no-man’s-land – was able to source the perfect area. There was a logging road and once we got lower I could see that there really was enough room to land. With the blades still running, Paul jumped out and secured the door, jumped back in and just like that we were off again. I survived (in my mind) an emergency landing!

We flew for a couple more hours, playing an impromptu game of Spot-the-Remote-Cottages – places that could only be accessed by floatplane. Slowly we started to see signs of civilization but still miles from anywhere. Then Paul saw a dam and wanted to get a better look so suddenly I am sideways looking down at the Nipigon River. I grabbed the camera and tried to take a few photos but needless to say I wasn’t at my most relaxed and kept hitting the on/off button in error.

We finally were on track for Marathon, Ontario and hit our first rain showers and low cloud.

There was another aircraft somewhere behind us also maneuvering through the clouds on approach to the airport and Paul was giving them an update on the weather and which approach was the best. We flew low along the shores of Lake Superior and vacationers in the lake were waving to us. Then we left the shoreline, flew up and over hydro wires and down into the airport where we refuelled, and met the couple who were in the plane that had been behind us. They had just come back from a Mississippi river cruise. I’ve finally joined the jet-set crowd!

Lush green landscapes near Lake Superior

Lush green landscapes near Lake Superior

Flying from Marathon to Sudbury we were now seeing small communities below us between the forests and lakes, and about two hours later we were approaching the end of our adventure as we came into view of Sudbury.

It was Monday evening and no one was around when we landed. We had to empty the helicopter of all the survey equipment, tie down the blades and leave it ready for the inspection the next morning. The sun was setting as we drove south from Sudbury towards home. What an amazing weekend and an incredible way to see so much of Canada as it celebrates its 150th year.

Sue Winiecki is a BDM and part of Travelweek’s sales team.

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