Fourth of July Seaplane Adventure To The Sub Arctic

by Philip Mattison

Philip and Kathleen Mattison

My wife, Kathleen (Kath), and I were looking for a floatplane trip last mid summer, so we called Brian Schanche of Adventure Seaplanes at Surfside Seaplane Base in Minneapolis. Brian invited us to fly a two-ship trip with him to the Sub Arctic.

Brian had a young pilot and his girlfriend from Innsbruck, Austria, signed up for a 10-day trip to Churchill, Manitoba, and the Sub Arctic, departing on the fourth of July.

Adventure Seaplanes teaches pilots about bush flying on trips to northern Minnesota and Canada. They do several short trips a year and a few Arctic trips, with the furthest trip to the Arctic Circle each year in August following EAA AirVenture.

I have been on several of these trips including the first one north of the Arctic Circle to the Chantry inlet north of Baker Lake. This is where the mouth of the Back River meets the Arctic Ocean. Standing there on shore casting at the base of the rapids with a yellow five of diamonds spoon will produce monster Lake Trout and Arctic Char, every other cast.

I own a Super Cub on floats, but chose instead to rent a Cessna 185 on straight floats from Adventure Seaplanes to make the trip even more enjoyable for my wife so she could sit up front with me and have plenty of room. This would be her first trip to the Sub Arctic.

In preparing for the trip, Brian gave me several hours of dual flying out of Surfside. Adventure Seaplanes provides both floatplane instruction and rental. Brian and his girlfriend, Lori Malbrank, spend their summers working in Minnesota and winters working out of Cherry Pocket Fish Camp & Resort near Lake Wales, Florida, about an hour south of Orlando. They first met the Austria couple, Christoph Ganner and Alice Annelien Lugger, when Brian got Christoph his floatplane rating at Cherry Pocket.

We all met at Surfside Seaplane Base the morning of July 4, 2011 for departure. These trips often have a loosely planned route, as long-range weather forecasting in the wilderness is very poor. It looked like high pressure was setting in for the next several days in Minnesota and just north of the border. Never the less, we packed for all kinds of weather.

We have camping, cooking, and fishing equipment, as well as a shotgun in each airplane. I keep a can of bear spray with me most of the trip, and we carry the Spot GPS satellite messenger in each plane, as well. Brian also has a satellite telephone and a 406 MHz personal ELT.

That morning was hot and clear as we flew north to Duluth, then followed Lake Superior’s north shore past the Split Rock Lighthouse. The lighthouse should have been packed with tourists this holiday weekend, but the lack of a government budget had shut down all of the state parks in Minnesota. Amazingly, we have three long weekends of summer in Minnesota when these parks are positive cash flow, and yet they were shut down.

Passing the lighthouse, we turned north, landing at Hungry Jack Lodge on Hungry Jack Lake near the border for a rest and a few snacks, and then finally landing at Crane Lake on the border for fuel.

Tim Johnston at U.S. Customs & Border Protection, and Daryl Scott of Scott’s Seaplane Base & Restaurant at the fuel dock in Crane Lake, told us we should stay the night there. It seems that the big Crane Lake Fourth of July parade and evening fireworks would be starting in just a few hours, so we opt to stay at the Norway Lodge in Crane Lake. Owners Paul and Sarah made us feel right at home.

People came by land, sea, and air to enjoy the parade. The floats included the local volunteer fire department, an insurance salesman, a clown on a bicycle, and a kid on a motorized wagon, but the highlight of them all was the float from the local taxidermist with a big rubber doll on the front and a sign that said, “Big or Small, We Mount Them All, One Dollar An Inch!”

A very windy thunderstorm sent us running from dinner to our floatplanes to add extra ropes from the wings to the dock. The fireworks were delayed by the storm, but the show kept on a going! It was a good show.

The next morning we made the 5-minute flight to the very friendly Canadian Customs base at Sand Point Lake, then a 2-hour flight to Green Airways Seaplane Base at Red Lake for fuel, followed by lunch at the Lakeview.

Another 20-minute flight landed us at Brett Geary’s Sportsman’s Lodge on Little Vermillion Lake. The weak dollar, the new U.S. Customs & Border Protection requirements, and the poor economy have all combined to make it tough on the northern resort operators. We spoke to Brett on the radio in his Beaver as we arrived at camp about 15 minutes ahead of him.

Brett had been having a problem with a bear getting into the camp garbage when the camp was unattended. We all pitched in and cleaned up the bear’s trail of garbage into the woods.

Brian Schanche of Adventure Seaplanes with a trophy Lake Trout.

Little Vermillion has a reputation for lots of Walleyes and big Northern Pike, and we were not disappointed that evening. Brian even caught a big Northern that hit a Walleye that he already had on the hook, and he landed them both much to the delight of Alice and Christoph who until then, did not consider themselves fishermen. Fresh caught fish for dinner did the job and for the rest of the trip, our two friends from Austria were hard core and excited fishermen.

We enjoyed two days of fishing and relaxing at the Sportsman’s Lodge. The second night we made our way to the deck as Brett came around the corner with his shotgun. He said the bear was over by the tool shed less than 100 yards away. A little birdshot in the butt from a 20-gauge shotgun sent the bear running down the trail.

The next morning we departed for Gillam, Manitoba, and Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay. Christoph and Brian had some of the new Go Pro Video Cameras attached to the floats. We enjoyed taking films of each other doing touch and goes along the God’s River.

Polar bear at Churchill, Manitoba.

Flying low we saw over a dozen moose, then along the shore of Hudson Bay we saw over 50 polar bears, several caribou, hundreds of beluga whales in the mouth of the Hudson River, and even an arctic wolf. Most of the bears were right along the coast, but the first one that Alice spotted was 20 miles inland.

The lake at Churchill is very clear and a little low due to a lack of rain. The rocks really stood out as we flew over causing us to carefully pick our landing run. The docking there is set up for the local operators only. There are no good tie-ups and the docks for visiting aircraft are rotten to the point we could fall through with a poorly placed step.

The lodge at Churchill is called Lazy Bear Lodge and operated by Wally and Dawn Daudrich. They arrived shortly after we landed to give us a ride in a van.

There are no roads in or out of Churchill. In fact, Churchill is the end of the line for the railroad. Churchill is Manitoba’s only seaport, exporting many shiploads a year of grain from over central Canada.

Churchill is also one of the most historic places in all of Canada. Lazy Bear Lodge provides beluga whale and cultural tours of the area. We saw several hundred beluga whales in the mouth of the Churchill River.

Christoph even stuck his hand in the gin clear, frigid water of Hudson Bay and took video of the whales under the water until his hand went numb. The old Prince of Wales Fort across the bay is being restored and is very interesting to visit. There are two Indian sentries with shotguns posted at the fort to protect the visitors from the polar bears.

Two nights in Churchill and we were off to a small Inuit village 150 miles further north along the coast for fuel. Our goal was to visit the Kazan Falls 50 miles south of Baker Lake. As we continued north we found ice on the inland lakes and received reports from Baker Lake that they were still iced in. We decided that we needed to turn west to Kasba Lake for some trophy Lake Trout fishing.

The Kasba Lake Lodge is one of the most famous fishing lodges in the Northwest Territory. Trophy Lake Trout and Grayling are regularly caught there. The lodge and the accommodations are first class.

There are white tablecloths at dinner, and a complete menu and homemade apple pie for dessert, served by attractive young Canadian ladies.

One of the ladies played the guitar and sang songs she had written and recorded in Nashville. Her dream is to become a professional entertainer. One of the songs she sang was about a small child missing his daddy who was off protecting our freedom in the war. As the song comes to an end, the family gets bad news, and I found myself with a tear in my eye. She had such a beautiful voice that I am sure we will hear more from Beth Marie Anderson in the future.

The author’s Super Cub on another trip.

We departed the next morning heading south for Dog Skin Lodge in west central Manitoba. There were white caps on the river at the seaplane base, and the engine sputtered as I reduced power over Thompson to land. The plane landed hard as it skipped across the whitecaps causing me to wish I had read the water a little more carefully and landed closer to the protected shore. Our Cessna 185s seemed small next to the long nosed turbine Otter already at the dock. While Brian fueled the planes, Christoph and I handed freight to the Otter pilot and chatted about the conversion from the original 650 hp piston Pratt engine to the 900 hp turbo prop. Helping load freight had earned us the opportunity to look inside the cockpit and interior, which still had all the sex appeal of a 1963 aircraft.

Working behind the scenes, Lori had notified Dog Skin Lake Resort to expect us for dinner. Kathleen was flying this leg, and both she and Christoph agreed we should descend below the overcast layer ahead just as Brian commented that Gunisao Lake, Manitoba was off to our left and has a reputation for the largest average size Walleye in Canada.

The overcast layer went quickly from 1,000 ft. AGL to 300 ft. AGL. I radioed that this was going too low too fast and that we were doing a “180” to the left. Christoph replied he was doing a 180 to the right. Our navigator, Brian, quickly called for a heading of 030 degrees and said, “Let’s go see if they have room for us at Gunisao.”

David, the camp cook, heard us circling overhead and was there to greet us as we shut down and our floats gently kissed the bumpers of the dock. Brian explained our situation and asked if they had room in camp for us that night. David soon located Dusty Budd, the manager of Gunisao Lake Lodge, and the son of the camp’s owner, Dr. Budd.

There were only two small groups in camp that night with a changeover to take place the next morning. We sat in the dining room while Dusty went to look at the schedule. Meanwhile, David had one of his waiters deliver coffee and a nice tray of hors d’oeuvres to our table. Dusty suggested we stay a few days and offered that he had extra guides available to take us fishing after dinner. We agreed!

Brian called Lori on the satellite phone to explain our change of plans. She would notify Dog Skin not to hold dinner. Alice, responding to the flavor of David’s homemade Tiramasu cake following a wonderful steak dinner exclaimed, “I am a fan of detours caused by bad weather.”

Dusty explained that one of his Indian guides, Avery, would take us fishing that evening and the next day. Jamie, the camp’s 182 pilot, would take the second boat with Christoph and Alice. Kath and I were quick to get our gear in the boat. During the evening fishing, Christoph and Alice said that a half-day of fishing the next day would be good enough for them. By now, they had learned about the guide tradition of cooking fresh Walleye for “shore lunch” and they were looking forward to it. Brian who is also an A&P, offered to help Jamie look into an oil leak on the camp’s Cessna 182 parked next to the 3500-foot gravel runway.

Our jigs were just touching the bottom when Kath set the hook on a nice 22-inch Walleye. Gunisao was living up to its reputation for terrific Walleye and large Northern Pike. The shore lunch the next day was picture perfect and of course Alice, the rookie fisherman in the group, caught the largest Walleye on the trip at 27 inches, just one inch short of earning a Manitoba Master Angler Award.

We had three 200-mile legs remaining. The first stop was at Red Lake for some fuel. Princeton Flight Service gave us a transponder code for crossing the border about 50 miles out. Tim Johnston of U.S. Customs & Border Protection met us at the dock, again. After we were all cleared, we showed him some of our photos and the video of the beluga whales.

Lunch, complete with milk shakes for all from Scott’s Seaplane Base, marked the beginning of the last leg of this successful and safe trip.

My wife, who often won’t eat prior to flying, even had lunch and flew most of the three legs on the last day. I guess if you do something long enough, you get used to it. Altogether, we flew 32.5 hours in 10 days and burned 487 gallons of fuel, and enjoyed five different destinations. Fuel costs were between $5.00 and $9.25 per gallon.

If you would ever like to add some real adventure to your flying, and earn a seaplane rating – all while seeing great scenery, lots of wildlife, meeting interesting people, and catching the biggest fish of your life – then I recommend giving Brian and Lori a call at 612-749-1337 at Adventure Seaplanes, drop them an email at fly@adventureseaplanes.com, or check out their website at www.adventureseaplanes.com.

Pilots interested in getting a seaplane rating during the winter are urged to contact Brian and Lori about visiting them at Cherry Pocket Fish Camp in Lake Wales, Florida. You can get your rating in just two to three days in some of the best freshwater and weather central Florida has to offer.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Philip Mattison is president of Core Products, Inc. in Osceola, Wisconsin, and the past chairman of the airport commission at L.O. Simenstad Municipal Airport (OEO) in Osceola.


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