Sometimes, in the frozen bays of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, your frozen runway might not last long. That area you landed on yesterday? Gone… overnight.
“I look out de window, and dare was de runway … gone.”
The only French Canadian in the village was called Patrick McKinnon, and he reported all matters flying conditions to visiting pilots.
And all the english speakers? They had french names, but didn’t speak french.
The Lessards, the Beaubiens and of course the LeBlancs would ask: “Can you read my mail? ”
“S’from de governmen’,” would be the explanation. As a visiting bi-lingual city person I had multiple uses. Fly the airplane and read the mail from Le Gouvernment du Québec. As an anglo, meeting people with french names who spoke with french accents who could not read french was an eye opener. Welcome to the Lower North Shore.
How Do You Like Seal?
Such cultural oddities were normal in this zone of Quebec coast known as the “La Basse-Côte-Nord.” A stretch of land that only recently got a road to the outside world. Many of the villages didn’t have electricity until the 1970s and it was rude not to try the seal meat even though you’d later found out that, well…. it was just dog food really and the local whites didn’t eat it too much, but if you stayed at a Montagnais (the original people of this part of Canada) house, well yeah, you might be eating more seal meat as guest of honor.
In a winter visit to a village you might land, taxi in, tie it down and plug in the aircraft engines heater for the night and fall asleep. You sleep soundly knowing that tomorrow you’ll leave and blast off on that same ice that you just landed on. Or so that is what Bob thought before bad weather and rough seas rolled in.
A roiling sea can chew up what runway you had and take your 7000 foot dream expanse and turn it into a cruel stump of 500 feet of “carrier deck launch” type thing. Beyond that lies open ocean that your metal skis (for snow) will not float on water. Water is summer and summer means floats. In the winter, bush planes wear skis. And so, … you are stuck.
But if you are an Episcopalian minister by the name of Bob Bryan, such setbacks are only a pre-breakfast challenge. Here is a short transcript of what my time was like working for Bob on just such a morning in February 1994:
545am, phone rings at the Lessard’s where I’m staying in the town of St. Augustine, QC (CYIF)
Bob: "Hey.... um... I'm going to be coming to you at CYIF in 69E and it will be empty of all the gear and seats and I'll have minimum fuel too." Me: "What's happening?" Bob: "I guess.. I guess the weather turned and... well the harbor is all broken up and there's no more ice." Me: "Wow. So.. " Bob: "S'ok, we're going to tie the tail of 69E to a stump, then run it up and ... just meet me at St. Augustine and I'll send you back to the bay at Tabacher to get the stuff and people."
When Bob said “Tabacher” what he meant was “La Tabatière” – a small hamlet near Harrington Harbor where he had spent the last 50 years teaching kids to swim, conducting marriages, funerals and hosting the occasional high profile visit by people like Bobby Orr and other NHL royalty.
Once Bob wormed his way into whatever path you might be on, you inevitably found yourself in some contract that you didn’t necessarily agree to or feel comfortable with. But, in the end, you’d not only be grateful but a wee smarter for living through whatever he proposed.
< Plane lands at CYIF airport and taxis in and shuts down, Bob gets out of an empty aircraft, devoid of seats and anything internally. > Bob: "Hey, wow thanks for helping out." Me: "Sure, uh... what are we doing?" Bob: "Oh, I took all the seats and gear out and left it at the bay at Tabatcher and told them you'd be back to get it." Me: "Ok... so... " Bob: "Oh... so yeah, we tied the tail to a stump, after unloading everything and de-fueling a bit, and I ran it up to full power agains the rope and I gave the signal... "
If you can imagine a cartoon with multiple characters in a Rube Goldberg style daisy chain of giving signals, chopping rope under tension and so on, you can imagine the sort of “Darwin Awards” style accident Bob was eagerly participating in. One overly eager 65 year old pilot, one villager out on the wing waiting for Bob’s signal, and another villager behind the airplane with an axe over rope on a stump that the plane is trying to pull out of the ground under full power.
When Bob gave the signal to “wingman,” wingman gave the signal to axe-man who then chopped the roped deftly sending Bob onto catapult launch of his 185 into the wind and over (hopefully) enough of the 497 feet of ice to get airborne. Then he’d make the 10 minute flight to get to me at St. Augustine, where he’d land to tell me all about it.
Getting it wrong meant Bob and plane in the water and near certain sinking + hypothermia combo.
Who Was Bob? (a/k/a Mister Bryan)
An Episcopalian minister and an avid hunter, Bob was the only priest I ever knew to climb out of an airplane with blood all over his parka while on the way to a wedding or funeral in a village of 23 people. “Hey, its Mister Brian!”
Or… if you found yourself in Bangor, Maine, you might see him on stage with Tim Sample, re-hashing his old comedy routine of impersonating, celebrating and ridiculing people from Maine.
Bob was surrounded by smart, cautious and seasoned people like Mike McKendry who promised to teach me 101 ways to not kill myself flying a ski plane far far away from civilization where small villages of ski doo riding people would care for me and give me power for preheats, caribou stew and more.
When I first started flying east of places like Havre St. Pierre and landing on the frozen bays of the Gulf of St. Lawrence I realized that Bob had been generous in steering me towards Mike, who had thousands of Alaska hours. In fact Mike had, in turn, pointed me to Charlie Coe of Folsom’s Flying Service who spent a January afternoon showing me how not to wreck a ski-plane on Moosehead Lake. Charlie and Mike’s training on how to “not hurt oneself nor the airplane” was austere: We briefed it, did it once, then talked about it, then hoped it was cemented in my 23 year old brain. On the next attempt, I’d be alone with passengers.