An amusing tale of my first trip on a DeHavilland Beaver floatplane...
|I admit it…I’m not fond of heights. I’m one of those people who are far more comfortable having their feet on good ol' firm ground. Even climbing a ten-foot ladder to string up Christmas lights induces waves of instant dizziness and the sort of ‘bowel-clenching’ gut reaction that one definitely wishes to avoid when perched in such a precarious position. So, it’s only natural that the thought of willingly allowing myself to be strapped into a 50-year old hulking relic of a plane might leave me feeling a tad bit apprehensive, especially when said plane doesn’t come equipped with restroom facilities.
It was this unnerving frame of mind that followed me into the offices of our local floatplane charter company in Campbell River, where our group was scheduled to tag along on an historic mail run flight out to the Discovery Islands east of the city. From where I stood, looking out the panoramic windows that frame a gorgeous view of the famous Tyee Spit, I could see the plane skulking down by the docks. The pilot, a friendly fellow by the name of Bill, introduced himself to us and with a hearty “Well, you folks ready to roll?” led us down the slippery docks to the waiting plane, a de Havilland Beaver. For those not in the know, the Beaver is a Canadian legend, respected by pilots all over the world. Even the actor Harrison Ford, made famous by his role of the intrepid adventurer ‘Indiana Jones’, owns a fully restored Beaver and finds the noise made by the Pratt & Whitney engine revving up ‘one of the most beautiful sounds in the world.’ For me, only a true pilot could entertain such a notion, as the only mesmerizing sound I heard was the echo inside my head as I frantically repeated the phrase, “Flying is one of the safest forms of travel in the world” over and over like a Buddhist mantra. The voice of Bill abruptly intruded upon my thoughts – “OK, folks, climb aboard and we’re off!”
And so it was that I found myself climbing breathlessly up into the belly of the beast, and I could’ve sworn that the ol' girl gave a malevolent little chuckle as I settled back in my seat. After making sure we were all strapped in securely, Bill started the plane up and the most unholy screech rose up around my ears like an English Banshee. “Oh, by the way,” Bill shouted over the roar, turning around in his seat and tossing each of us a pair of ear-muffs, “You might want to wear these – the sound in here can get pretty darn loud!” Nodding vigorously, I quickly plunked them down over my ears, and judging by the feel of the aircraft sloshing around in the waves, I could tell we had begun taxiing out into open water, readying for take-off. Of course, by this time, in a desperate effort to ward off sheer emotional terror, I had my eyes squeezed shut and fists clenched tightly around the edge of my seat. I felt a sudden burst of speed pushing at me, the squalling pitch of the engine morphed into an unearthly, howling shriek and I felt my body rise upwards with the plane...The calming, repetitive mantra reeling around in my mind was suddenly interrupted by one blinding thought: “Ohhhhh, shit!”
You know, fear is a funny thing - or at least how the mind and body perceive and react to it. After 34 years of successfully avoiding one of my greatest fears—heights—here I was right in the midst of it. And, yes, I was probably on the verge of having a complete and utter emotional meltdown right there and then on the plane, when suddenly, I had a revelation of sorts: ‘maybe this isn’t quite so bad.’ After all, I had survived the actual takeoff relatively unscathed and, to be honest, the feeling of the plane soaring through the air was surprisingly soothing. So, I did what most people would do on a ‘scenic’ mail run flight – I opened my eyes and looked out the window. ‘Breathtaking’ is the only word to describe my reaction; breathtaking in the sense that my heart caught in my throat when I realized how darn high we were, but more so, the word so aptly illuminates the incredible vista that stretched before me to the horizon. An unbroken chain of snow-capped peaks, dazzling in the bright sunlight, stood sentinel over the landscape, guardians of the meandering waterways and inlets that dotted the coast below. Like I mentioned, fear is a funny thing – oftentimes, the mind will imagine things as far worse than the actual experience and so it was for me. One look out that window and my fear suddenly vanished; I spent the rest of the trip berating myself for my stupidity in not flying sooner.
The rest of the journey was a snap, except for one brief terrifying moment when the plane banked sharply coming in to land at Surge Narrows, the first stop on our mail run. And, of course, as luck would have it, I had to be sitting on the ocean side of the plane where I was suddenly peering down into the briny depths of the sea. Not cool, especially for someone just coming to grips with the joys of flying.
Delivery of the mail by floatplane is an essential service to the many small communities dotted along the coast. Delivery is three times a week; because many of the residents live scattered around the islands, they generally come to pick up their mail by boat, which to me, sounds like an adventure in itself. While our pilot, Bill, unloaded letters and packages from the plane, we decided to check out the neighbourhood general store.
We were told that Surge Narrows Store on Read Island is the ‘coolest store’ and we weren’t disappointed. The store is like an echo in time - the charming white clapboard walls, lace curtains at the windows, bulging shelves stocking everything from ‘apples to zinc’ and a plump, potbelly stove crouching proudly in the middle of the room only add to the sense of nostalgia. Even a ghostly memento from the past sits nestled high on a shelf – an old Spilsbury radio. It’s easy to imagine the locals of years gone by gathered together on a blustery day, frozen hands held over the cozy warmth of the stove, keeping an ear tuned for the latest weather report and exchanging the recent gossip to happen in ‘Downtown Surge’. Built in the late 1920’s, the store still stands as a friendly welcome to the hundreds of tourists that visit the Island each year, many of them arriving via floatplanes. I could have spent the entire day nosing around the shelves, poking through the books that line the walls and soaking in that wonderful, sentimental atmosphere, but too soon, the mail beckoned and we were off yet again.
After a quick mail drop-off in Refuge Cove, we found ourselves heading out to a defunct fish farm on Homfray Creek to pick up the resident caretaker, who was heading home to Campbell River for a few days. The view from this particular area was spectacular, and I couldn’t help but snap a few pictures of the mountains in the distance. Upon chatting with the caretaker, he revealed that he lived at the farm all alone. I had to admire him for that, for despite the incredible stillness and rugged beauty of the place, I couldn’t imagine being all alone out there, with nothing for company but the cry of eagles overhead and the lonely sound of water lapping against the shore. It was only later, lying in my bed listening to the zoom of traffic out in the dark night, that I decided I was also a little jealous.
For me, what I thought would be an excruciating two-hour ordeal turned into one of the most memorable adventures I’ve ever undertaken. As a relative newcomer to Campbell River, I’ve finally discovered what it is that attracts so many people to this community – the abundance of natural beauty that surrounds us, inspires us and nurtures our souls. That beauty, seen from the air, is something not to be missed – as this seasoned floatplane flyer can happily attest to.