A Seaplane Flight To Churchill

by Alan Lindquist
Published In Midwest Flyer – June/July 2019 issue

It’s been 10 years since my wife, Barbara Wiley, talked me into accompanying her in her Cessna 172XP amphibious floatplane to Churchill, Manitoba. Our friend, Garith, who flies a Beaver, frequently visits friends that have hunting and fishing camps near Churchill. Barb previously flew fishing charters to lakes in the area, so she is familiar with the terrain.

The airport at Churchill (CYYQ) has a long history of interesting facts associated with it. The runway was originally constructed to accommodate B-52s during the cold war era. When part of one end of the main runway (15/33, 9195 X 160 feet asphalt) needs repair, they just shorten it by that amount and continue using what’s left. On a number of occasions, air carrier traffic has had to land at Churchill when they had experienced a mechanical problem when they were enroute via the great circle route over the north pole. The crosswind runway is gravel (07/25, 4000 X 100 feet).

We left Minneapolis Crystal Airport (KMIC) in the early morning hours and flew to Crane Lake, Minnesota (KCDD), where we fueled the airplane and hopped over the Canadian border to clear Canada Customs at Sand Point Lake, Ontario (CJD6). We then proceeded to Sioux Lookout, Ontario (CYXL), fueled up again and on to the Ojibway Outfitters fishing camp on Lac Seul, Ontario where we spent the night. We left early the following morning in flight with Garith and his Beaver.

I was really too naive to realize just how risky of a flight this was going to be. I had no reason to be concerned because my pilot has flown over 23,000 hours in a variety of aircraft ranging from a Cessna 150 to the Convair 580, DC-9, Airbus, and finally, the Boeing 747, at the conclusion of her professional career as a captain with Northwest Airlines. Barb was one of the first female pilots hired by a major airline back in 1974.

As we watched Garith and his Beaver become a dot on our windshield and finally disappear completely, I realized how lonely a little single-engine aircraft can become in the wilds of northern Canada. There were no roads, no traffic and no people…only an occasional settlement with blue tarp roofs, visible from our 3000-ft altitude. One such native village we flew over was on Gods Lake in northern Manitoba.

Our next fuel stop was at Gillam, Manitoba (CYGX), located along the Nelson River. The runway was gravel, but packed down very hard. Garith landed on Landing Lake, which had facilities for fueling his aircraft. From there, Garith headed for North Knife Lake Lodge owned by Doug and Helen Webber, and we proceeded up the Nelson River past York Factory, a former trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company which was built in 1684. We then followed the shoreline of Hudson Bay to Churchill.

The weather had gone sour. By the time we landed, it began to rain and the wind kicked up to the point that Barb remained in the cockpit on the brakes, while I directed the airplane between three huge concrete tie-downs and secured it. The fixed base operator told us the combination to the terminal security door, so we walked across the ramp in the rain to the terminal. We punched in the numbers and entered the building.

We had previously been advised that our rental pickup would be parked in spot number 14. We picked up our nice new truck and went back to the aircraft to retrieve our baggage. When we went to the service station to pay for the truck, they informed us that the nice truck we were driving wasn’t the one we had rented. The one we rented was in the garage. It was so old and rusty that it still had the headlight dimmer switch on the floor boards next to the brake pedal. It was like my old car all over again!

There are only 11 miles of road in Churchill and apparently the truck we rented was owned by a local resident, because every time we drove it, someone would wave at us like they knew us. It was very strange. We had asked people at the airport if we could just walk to the hotel, but they said no one could walk the streets of Churchill because of the polar bears. After 9:00 pm, the city blows a siren and that means “do not go outside because the polar bears come to town and will eat you alive!” Needless to say, we took their advice.

There is a jail in Churchill to house bears that have wandered into town and become hazardous. They are kept in the jail and not fed, so when the ice goes out and the bears are released, they find their own way back to the wild.

We drove to our hotel and found buckets in the lobby full of fresh rain water. We checked out our room and then went to the restaurant the hotel manager had recommended. We ordered dinner and didn’t realize we were the evening entertainment in Churchill that night. Everyone in the restaurant seemed to enjoy watching us eat.

At the conclusion of our meal, a couple at an adjoining table came over and asked if we were the people who had just flown in from Minneapolis. The couple were Doug and Hellen Webber who were entertaining Garith for dinner the following evening. I asked what it would take to get invited to that dinner, and Helen said a bottle of wine.

The next morning, a school bus took us to the tundra buggy location. When we arrived, the driver drove all around the parking lot to make sure the area was clear of polar bears before he let us get off. After getting off the bus, we climbed a substantial staircase to get into the tundra buggies. The tires on these machines are about eight feet tall, so when a polar bear stands on his hind legs, he can just barely reach the windows. There were about 25 to 30 people on this trip and the host provided coffee and donuts for breakfast, and sandwiches, beverages and dessert for lunch.

A number of people on the trip were from the Sierra Club and were on a study program. There was plenty of room to walk around the tundra buggy, stand at the windows or find a comfortable place to sit. As the driver proceeded on his route which took us over huge boulders, across small rivers and out into Hudson Bay, he stopped briefly and said “that tan rock wasn’t there yesterday.”

The windows on the Tundra buggy were open and the wind blew through it toward where the “rock” was located. In just a moment, the “rock” moved and we could see the black eyes and black nose of a polar bear. He could smell our scent and the driver said the bear thought it must be lunch time, and we were lunch. We waited for a while, and after rolling in the melted water to cool off, the bear began a casual walk toward the buggy. The temperature this time of the year was unusually warm, about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and so the bear uses the cool water to keep their heat down to a manageable level.

The bear finally arrived at the buggy and decided to scratch his back on a large boulder directly in front of us. He then sat down and relaxed. Rules required us to wait until the bear decided to wander off on its own before our trip could be resumed.

In the 1950s during the Eisenhower Administration, a line of wooden observation towers was constructed across northern Canada where military personnel could observe the horizon to determine if the Russians were coming. The towers were in pretty rough shape after all these years, but I was able to get out of the tundra buggy and crawl up into one to see what standing watch was like. Pretty lonely. I guess the Russians never did arrive.

For the benefit of the Sierra Club members, I said to Barb, “Wouldn’t that bear hide make a beautiful jacket.” None of the club members would speak to me after that. Finally, we got back to the bus and rode to town, but by this time, the liquor store had closed. There went our ticket for a nice dinner. As it turned out, Doug Webber had plenty of wine and so they came and picked us up for dinner just after 6 o’clock. And what a fine dinner it was. Helen Webber is a fabulous cook who has written seven cook books about preparing moose, goose, caribou, trout, northern pike and a variety of gourmet desserts.

Helen told the story about waking up a group of hunters for breakfast that were staying in an adjacent cabin. Normally she would run from the cook cabin to the sleeping quarters in the dark to wake the hunters and never turn on the outside lights. One morning she had a thought… “maybe I should turn on the lights this time.” Before running next door to wake her guests, she flipped on the outside lights and saw an eight-foot polar bear between her cook shack and the bunk house. Somebody was looking out for her that day.

At the conclusion of dinner, I asked where they kept their house key when winter arrives. They said that no one shows up in the winter months. Temperatures reach 50 below zero with 50 knot winds. The growing season in Churchill lasts from August 4-25. The short pine trees only grow on the east side of their trunk because the high winds stunt their growth on their west side. The pine trees only grow to about 4 feet high. So, if you want to go to Churchill in the winter, the home we had dinner at is always open.

The next morning, we went to the airport to fuel the airplane. We had to purchase a 55-gallon drum of 100LL octane fuel in advance. They only had three drums left for the season. Another old pickup arrived with a pump that would transfer the fuel from the drum to our aircraft. In order to check for water in the fuel, a gob of something was stuck on the end of what appeared to be a broom handle which was put into the barrel. When the broom handle was pulled out, the gob was gone, which understandably made Barb very nervous. She wasn’t aware that there was a large filter in the hose line to our aircraft, so not to worry! The gob indicated there was no water in the fuel container. We could not use all the fuel in the drum, so we left the rest for Garith.

Two personally owned helicopters had taken on fuel at Churchill and left for the lower 48 the same day. We proceeded to Gillam to gas up once again. After we filled the tanks, we noticed that a commercial aircraft had just arrived and someone was on a dead run from that aircraft directly toward us. It was Doug and Helen’s son-in-law enroute to Churchill. He had spoken with the Webbers about the delightful evening the night before and was anxious to meet us. We had a brief conversation and he said he was about to start a polar bear observation camp which would be open the following year. He then ran back across the ramp to catch his flight before it left for Churchill.

After we were airborne, it became obvious we would be unable to comfortably make our destination. We called the flight of two helicopters to determine their plan and they said the copter with the reciprocating engine had run low on fuel and had to set down on a beach. The jet-powered copter went on to the airport and brought fuel back for his buddy. Their plan was to proceed to Weagamow Lake, popularly called Round Lake, because no one can pronounce “Weagamow.”

They told us to land in the back bay because the waves were very high in the main part of the lake. We landed, taxied across the lake and fueled up at the seaplane base. We then thanked the copter pilots for their help and were on our way to Lac Seul. The first hint of civilization occurred when we noticed a two-rut logging road. Our ETA to Lac Seul was close to sunset. If we couldn’t make it before dark, our backup plan was to land at the Sioux Lookout Airport (CYXL) in Ontario.

As it turned out, we arrived at the Lac Seul fishing camp just as the sun was setting. The camp had one available cabin left which had been aired out all day and was full of hungry mosquitoes. We closed all the doors and windows and fell asleep, regardless of the buzz of the man-eating creatures. The next morning, the staff left the food our cabin mates had overlooked the previous day when they left for home. We enjoyed a coke, toast and jam breakfast. We were in the air by noon, cleared U.S. Customs at Scott’s Resort & Seaplane Base on Crane Lake, Minnesota (KCDD), and were back at Crystal that afternoon.

There are only a couple of ways to get to Churchill. You can fly your own aircraft, ride on a commercial aircraft, or go to Winnipeg and ride the train. The problem with taking the train is that the railroad didn’t compensate for the construction on the tundra, and so it travels at a very slow pace and all there is to see are acres and acres of wheat. The trip from Winnipeg takes about three days.

If you have a longing for adventure, find a friend and fly to Churchill. We had a terrific time and enjoyed all the interesting people we met. After writing this article, my interest is renewed and we may take another trip back there sometime soon. Looking forward to another adventure!

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