The Bush Pilot Who Made My Day

We were in Red Lake, Ontario for a week long fishing trip, the kind where you fly a little puddle jumper to some remote lake in the middle of nowhere. The plane lands in the water and you unload your gear on the dock and stay in a little wooden cabin with no electricity. There’s running water, supplied by a giant tub on the roof of the cabin that collects rainwater and uses gravity to push the water through the kitchen faucet. There’s a small shower too, and an outhouse out back.

Be careful when you’re in the outhouse, not because the critters might make a home there but because when you’re in there doing your business, some of your prankster fishing buddies might crack the door open and throw a packet of firecrackers on the floor. Imagine trying to take a dump with 16 Black Cat firecrackers exploding at your feet. It literally scares the shit out of you.

So first they weigh us and weigh our gear to make sure we’re not over the limit, then six of us pile into this small plane. Since I’m the youngest, I get to sit in the cockpit beside the pilot, a stocky plug of a man, as Canadian as they come. Red flannel shirt hanging almost to his knees, matching red baseball cap stained with oil with a dark spot on the bill the shape of two fingers, a scar left by constantly adjusting his brim.

I like it up front. There’s nothing for me to do except enjoy the view and observe the pilot, maybe jump in and try and land the thing if he dies or bails out midflight. The rest of the guys are piled in the back, strapped into front-facing jump seats, buried by our gear. Only their happy, grinning faces are visible. It took about ten hours of driving to get here from Minneapolis, plus an overnight stay in a dive hotel built right on the water – literally sitting on a pier above the lake. And now we were finally departing for our lake, which we will have to ourselves for an entire week once we land.

Six guys, three boats, one lake, and about two million walleye.

The engine grinds to life, the single propeller starts to swing and off we go, accelerating along the surface until the pilot lifts us gently off the water. As we rise above Red Lake I see fisherman standing along the shore. Some of them cast their lines into the deeps, while others merely stand still with their arrows knocked and their bows drawn, aiming at the water, waiting for an unsuspecting carp to slither by.

The flight doesn’t last long, twenty minutes maybe. I see nothing but pristine forest in every direction. The land is flat, and covered with trees. There is a lake here or there, some hills, an old gold mine, and finally before us opens the wide still water of Knox Lake, our hunting ground for the next week.

The pilot quietly begins his descent and guides the plane through a pair of tall pine trees that grow like spires right out of the water. We touch the surface so softly that it feels like we’re still flying but the pilot suddenly shuts off the engine and then we drift.

And drift. And drift.

Two or three minutes pass and we sit quietly, drifting along the water in this plane. The pilot just sits there watching the water. He’s motionless, silent, his head cocked slightly as he ponders his flight back to Red Lake, or what he’ll eat for lunch, or possibly just taking in the beauty of the wilderness.

I wonder if I should say something to him. Ask him why we’re just drifting and when he plans to start the engine and drive the plane to the shore but then I see it. Our dock, just ahead, sitting against the rocky shore at the bottom of a dirt path that leads to our cabin.

The plane is drifting towards the dock and then I figure it out, and it’s brilliant.

The drifting plane has just enough momentum to coast right up to the dock – and I do mean just enough momentum. As we slow, and slow, we ease to a stop right at the edge of our dock. I can literally open the door of the plane and step right onto the dock. An absolutely perfect landing. The timing was precise. I realized this pilot probably knows exactly how fast he needs to be going, and knows the exact spot where he needs to touch down, the exact angle (factoring in wind speed and water current) that the plane must have in order to drift to a perfect stop right at the edge of our dock.

The rest of the guys in the plane love it. From the back I hear a chorus of cat calls, impressed whistles and comments like “Not bad!” and “This guy’s a pro!”

I’m as impressed as any of them and I turn to look at the pilot. With his tiny beaming eyes, his three-day growth of scruff and the strongest Canadian accent I’ve ever heard, he looked at me and says, “Today’s my first day.”

Mark McGinty is the award winning author of The Cigar Maker and Elvis and the Blue Moon Conspiracy. His work has appeared in Cigar City Magazine and La Gaceta.

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