All of the Saskatchewan Government Airways pilots were great fliers. I know, because I have flown with most of them -- Scotty McLeod who later became operations manager, Lefty McLeod, Don Brownridge, Cliff Labey, Stu Miller -- but there was one who, in my estimation, had that little something extra. Rene Baudais, (photo left) a former R.C.A.F. pilot, was a lean, dark French-Canadian with a quiet sense of humour which always seemed to be bubbling to the surface. I began to ask for him when I booked a charter flight and it gradually became the accepted thing for Rene to be assigned to my flights. Meticulous in every detail, he checked the aircraft from nose to tail, and his searching eyes missed nothing.
Following takeoff, his procedure was always the same. Once the stabilizer was adjusted for level flight, the trailing aerial was unwound and he contacted the base station at La Ronge giving our altitude, direction, weather, destination and estimated arrival time. Thereafter, he broadcast this information every twenty minutes on the hour. Watching his routine always made me feel safe. If heaven forbid, we had to make a forced landing, La Ronge always knew our position to within twenty minutes which would help considerably to narrow down the search. Any decision as to whether we should fly or not was left entirely in Rene's hands.
Sitting beside him in the cockpit of a Stinson 108A and flying at anywhere between 7000 and 10,000 feet, I looked at the country beneath us, spread out in a maze of lakes and rivers of all shapes and sizes. He gave me his aerial maps to study and to follow our course. I tried picking out a small, peculiarly shaped lake immediately beneath us. Rene watched me go through this routine several times and although he smiled quietly, he offered no advice. I was getting frustrated and started to fold up the chart in disgust.
'Can't figure it out, eh?' He opened the chart again and pointing to a large lake straight ahead, said, 'Look ahead of you first, pick out the largest lake and then check the map. You'll find it by the time we fly over it.' By following his instructions, I soon got to be fairly good.
'Where are we now?' he would ask, and when I confidently announced that we were coming up on Lake...., he would ask if I was sure.
' I'm sure,' I replied and pointed to a spot on the map. 'There it is on the map and just south on the left is Lake.....and north on the right is Lake....'
He chuckled and slapped me on the back. 'That's right. I'll make a navigator out of you yet.' In time, I came to know the geography of northern Saskatchewan very thoroughly from the air.
In fine weather, he would occasionally hand the steering controls to me, saying, 'Here, you take her for a while.' The first time he did this, I was petrified and the only thing I moved was my eyeballs for fear that I would put us in the bush.
'Just relax, Hugh.' Then it was, 'Watch your needle. Keep your eye on the compass. Watch the ball and make sure that you are flying level.' Needle and ball' became the watchword. I gripped the controls so tightly that my knuckles were white.
'Take it easy,' he said. 'Don't hold the controls so tight. They won't fall off, you know.' As I eased up a little, he said, ' The plane wants to fly straight and level so let her do so.' That first five-minute flying lesson seemed hours long and there was perspiration on my forehead when he took over again.
After I calmed down, I quizzed him about his experiences at air training school. 'Did they put you through all those manoeuvres?' I asked.
'You know -- looping the loop, side-slipping -- all that sort of thing.' We were flying along at about 10,000 feet from Patuanak and Stanley and the weather was clear as a bell.
He looked over at me and, with a wolfish grin, said, 'You mean you've never seen any aerial manoeuvres?
'Only in the movies,' I replied.
' Then tighten your seatbelt.' Immediately he put the plane through a series of loops and spins, ending up with a 'falling leaf'. It took my stomach a long time to crawl up from my boots.
Another time at La Ronge, I decided to make a short side trip up to Stanley to see how Len Coates was doing at his new post. As we strolled down the dock to our Stinson, I noticed a strange aircraft tied up to a buoy in the bay, and asked Rene about it.
' That's our new Beaver. Now there's an airplane for you. It's going to be the plane of the bush! You can land or take off in a puddle of water.' Then he turned to me and asked, 'We could use the Beaver to fly up to Stanley. How about it?'
It seemed to me that once the plane was up on the step -- which is bush pilot's lingo, meaning that the engine has been gunned for take-off and the floats are just skimming the surface -- it took off in less than a 100 yards. When we reached cruising altitude, Rene handed me the controls. 'Here, you take it to Stanley.' He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes.
As we approached Stanley, I began to circle around before handing the wheel over. When I jostled him awake, he said, 'Well, are you going to stay up here all day? Why don't you land the thing?' And land it I did. The Beaver was a joy to handle. I must be one of the few men who have flown and landed an airplane but have never taken one off the ground.
On another occasion, we were at Pelican Narrows rather late in December. By the 20th I had finished taking inventory and the weather closed in. The storm continued for the next two days so...no flying. On the morning of the 23rd, Rene said, 'I don't know about you but I want to be home for Christmas so I am leaving in an hour.' The weather was still thick and I wasn't too keen about going, even though I was anxious to be with Bea and the kids for the holidays.
'Are you sure we can make it, Rene? We won't be able to see the ground from the air. How will we know where we are?'
'I think we'll be okay. I've flown in worse conditions. According to the radio, the weather is lifting a little at Prince Albert. Once we get into the air, we'll fly the Saskatoon navigation beam southwest,' he explained. 'We'll be flying into a right-angle triangle with Prince Albert at the apex. From there the highway runs north to La Ronge and the railway runs east to Nipawin. We should hit one or the other.'
The weather might have worried me but I had complete faith in Rene and agreed to go. Conditions were rotten at first but the farther south we flew, the more it cleared. Rene had calculated the elapsed flying time and when this was about up, he said, 'Let's get downstairs a bit and see where we are.' Sure enough, there beneath us was a railway track and a huge grain elevator with the name of the station painted in large letters on the side. In a few minutes we landed safely at Prince Albert and I was on my way home in time to spend Christmas with Bea and the children.
George Greening (right) was a legendary figure in northwest Saskatchewan. As a pilot for Waite Fisheries,
he had a reputation as a daredevil flyer who was prone to take chances. Quite frankly, his reputation scared me and, although he was a very likeable character, I turned down his many requests to fly me around. One day at Big River, Len Waite asked me why I never used George as a pilot, and pointed out how convenient it would be for me to make short hops from Buffalo Narrows -- George's base -- to Ile-a-la-Crosse, Patuanak, Dillon or Portage La Loche. I told him straight that I didn't want to risk my neck. 'You just leave it to me,' said Len. 'I'll have a little talk with George.'
So shortly thereafter, I hired him to fly me from Buffalo Narrows to Patuanak and then to Big River. He treated me as if I was a newborn babe. I couldn't have asked for more consideration. Len must, indeed, have spoken to him. I used him several times after that when it fitted my itinerary.
One cold winter's afternoon, we landed at Patuanak to find the post manager worried sick about his clerk; he had gone out in the Bombardier that morning to visit a fish camp about twenty miles east of the post and still hadn't returned.
'Leave it to me,' said George. 'I'll find him.' He was back in an hour or so with a very cold and very scared clerk. The Bombardier had conked out on the return trip about ten miles from the post. He tried in vain to restart it, then set out to walk back to the post. The young man was wearing heavy flying boots and when George spotted him, he was making slow progress.
'Why didn't you use the duffle socks and moccasins in the survival kit on the Bombardier?' the manager asked. 'You would have made much better progress.'
' I've never had to use the survival equipment and I didn't think they were necessary so I left them behind,' answered the young clerk, sheepishly. I'm afraid I gave both the post manager and the clerk a rough time of it for disobeying the Company's strict instructions about always carrying the survival equipment.
'Believe me, Mr Ross,' said the clerk, 'I'll never leave the post without that equipment again.'
The weather continued to be extremely cold and when George flew me down to Big River next day in a small Cessna 120, the in-cabin heater wasn't functioning and by the time we reached our destination, we were both frozen stiff and could hardly climb out of the plane. As quickly as my icy limbs allowed, I made my way to the hotel bar and had a good stiff snort of Scotch to thaw me out.
I was only involved in an emergency landing once. Don Brownridge and I were flying from Portage La Loche to Buffalo Narrows on another very cold winter morning. About halfway across the twenty-mile strip of land separating Methye Lake from Big Buffalo Lake, Don put the nose of the plane down sharply and headed for a small lake. Unaware that anything was wrong, I jokingly said, 'What's the matter, Don? Sudden nature call?'
It was a grim-faced pilot who turned and said, 'No, but my oil pressure gauge suddenly registered zero so I picked the first landing spot I could see in case the motor packed up in mid-air.' He got us down on the lake quickly and, while I stayed inside the still-warm cabin, he lifted the cowling and fiddled around in the engine. God, it was cold outside! I felt sorry for Don but I knew I would be utterly useless as a mechanic's helper. Neither one of us looked forward to spending hours in the bush if the plane was unserviceable, although we had survival equipment and the radio was working. Eventually, he climbed back into the cockpit with a broad smile on his face.
'Everything's okay,' he said, trying to rub some feeling back into his frozen hands. 'There's a lot of oil in the sump. It looks as if one of the pipes leading to the pressure gauge has frozen.' Greatly relieved we took off again and arrived safely at Buffalo Narrows. He was right. It was a frozen pipe and Don and George Greening spent the afternoon at Buffalo Narrows making repairs.
Coming off a trip up the west side of the province in early December on my way to La Ronge, I decided on the spur of the moment to have Rene drop me at Beauval to look in on Jock Mathieson. Although it was a casual visit, Jock seemed apprehensive and kept up a nervous chatter as we walked around the store, checking merchandise here and there. Jock just didn't chatter as a rule. He wasn't his usual phlegmatic self and I came to the conclusion that something was amiss but went about my business until finally, Jock couldn't stand the suspense any longer.
'You're not going to take inventory, are you? I just did the semi-annual inventory two weeks age.'
So that was it. Something was wrong with the inventory. 'I might as well do an inventory as long as I'm here,' I replied. I told Rene to carry on to La Ronge and I'd wire him in a few days to come and pick me up. It was a very worried Jock Mathieson who followed me closely all around the warehouse, assuring me at each department that everything checked out -- until I happened to look up. When I queried Jock about a bunch of fishnets hanging from the rafters, he broke down. 'Almost every post has a good commercial fishing business and their profits are much higher than mine, so I gave the nets to the natives on credit.' He was very distraught. 'It could have worked too, Mr Ross, but the fishermen didn't pay for them so I took the nets back.' He pulled the used fishing nets down and lamented, 'They're useless now. They're used and no one will buy them. What's going to happen now?'
I couldn't help it, I started to laugh. 'Jock I can't say I blame you for trying. But you should have known better. The natives here don't have many furs and trying to collect the extra debt from them would try the patience of Job.' 'He was visibly relieved at my reaction to his earnest though unauthorized attempts to make a profit. 'Tell you what. We can't take these nets on inventory, so we'll have to write them off. You send them up to Ile-a-la-Crosse on the next truck and I'll write Bill Watt to sell them for you there or at Patuanak. They should get enough to at least cover your costs.' And so it was done. Jock got credit for the nets in a couple of months and his percentage profit returned to normal.
When I wired La Ronge for a plane to pick me up, most of the regular planes were busy and they advised me to expect a plane from Prince Albert. The pilot was a complete stranger. He was a pilot-instructor from Prince Albert but he assured me that he was familiar with northern flying. All the bush pilots were masters of their craft and I assumed we would have our normal flight. How wrong I was! When we took off, I automatically looked at my watch, expecting the pilot to check in by radio. When a few minutes passed and he didn't, I said, 'Aren't you going to contact La Ronge and advise them that we are on our way?'
'Oh, right.' And he called. The weather was bad, snowing quite heavily and the visibility was gradually diminishing. The pilot climbed up through the muck until we came out in clear sunshine. We kept flying on and on. I attempted to make conversation but was met with monosyllabic answers so gave up. And we kept flying on until I got restless and looked at my watch again.
'We should be at La Ronge by now,' I remarked. 'Don't you think you should call them again?' I was so used to Rene calling in every twenty minutes I was getting a bit worried about this man.
'Oh. Right!' He raised La Ronge again. When the transmission was completed he turned to me and said, 'I think we have over-flown La Ronge. They sounded fainter than the last time I called. With a worried frown, he pulled out the aerial maps, checked his compass and said, 'My God, we must be up over the Churchill River!'
'Well you better get down and find out where we are.'
Down we went through the snow which got thicker the lower we got. 'I can't go any lower. Look at the altimeter. If I get any lower, we might crash. I can't see the ground, he cried in a panicky voice.
I grabbed the aerial maps. 'Well, we can't stay up here all day. You'd better ease down so we can find a place to land. Once we get over the Cambrian Shield there are damned few lakes to land on in a hurry.
Very diffidently, the pilot eased down and we came out just above the treetops, much too close for comfort. 'Look, there ahead of us...a lake.' He pointed excitedly. It looked familiar. It was shaped like a clam with an island in the centre.
' I know where we are,' I said. 'We're south of La Ronge, I'm sure.' I examined it closely. 'That looks like Meeyomoot Lake, east of Montreal Lake.
'It can't be,' said the pilot. That's impossible. My compass can't be out that much.'
'Impossible or not, this is Shield country. If I'm right, there's a small river flowing out of the north arm of this lake which goes north to La Ronge. Just follow the shoreline and see.' Sure enough, there was the river. I heaved a sigh of relief and blessed Rene Baudais for teaching me to read maps.
'Now keep low and follow the river until we hit Lac La Ronge. Then just follow the shoreline west until we come to the settlement,' I said. And so we did. My knees were trembling so much I could scarcely walk when I got out of the aircraft. I tersely told the pilot I was through with him and walked away. Thank God we had flown south where the ground was flat, instead of north. We wouldn't have had a chance among the high granite cliffs of the Shield.
I raised hell at the Airways office in Prince Albert and vowed never again to take a chance with an unknown pilot.
Bush pilots are a breed apart and I salute them all. Day in and day out they fly the North over rugged Pre-Cambrian Shield terrain, often in areas not always accurately mapped. In the winter their job is particularly arduous. Not only is the weather bitterly cold but fierce winds and snowstorms are encountered frequently.
There are no airplane hangers in the bush. When the plane has landed for the night, it is run upon four or five long poles -- always provided by our post managers -- to ensure that the aluminium skis do not freeze to the snow or slush overnight. Then the engine oil
is drained into a pot and the battery disconnected and both are carried inside to the warmth of the post. Afterwards, a canvas tent-type canopy is placed over the propeller and engine cowling and lashed down.
Before takeoff, the procedure is reversed. The pot of oil is placed at the back of the stove to warm up and the pilot bundles himself up warmly and trudges down to his plane. Unlashing the canvas canopy, he crawls underneath it with a blow pot -- something between a blowtorch and a bunsen burner -- and lighting it, stays inside the canopy aiming a stream of hot air directly up against the engine until it is thawed out. The whole operation can take up to two hours. Then it's back to the house for the now-hot oil and the starting battery. The canopy is removed, the battery installed and the hot oil poured into the engine sump. Then, with eyes lifted heavenward, he prays that the motor will start the first crack. If it does, the motor is run until the inside of the cabin is warm.
Meanwhile, the passenger has breakfasted comfortably in the warm house, while the pilot has laboured in sub-zero weather. Once passenger and freight are aboard, the pilot guns the motor, wrenching the skis loose from their supporting poles and away they go over the snow to the next post.
After I had gotten over my initial apprehension of flying in a small plane, I came to love bush flying, especially when I had learned something of the topography of the North. Every season was different -- from the delicate light green poplars bursting into leaf in the spring, to the yellows and browns and reds of the autumn, with always the dark blue-green of spruce and pine, and the whole scene reflected gloriously in the hundreds of lakes.
In the winter, elk and deer and the occasional moose were easy to spot through the bare trees or silhouetted against the white snow. Every year thousands of caribou passed Brochet. One year the edge of the herd went right around the post buildings. Their southernmost reach was halfway down Reindeer Lake where they crowded in bays along the west side of the lake until instinct told them it was time to return to the Barren Lands. Occasionally 'sportsmen' flew up to bag a good rack of horns. Some sport! It was like shooting fish in a barrel.
I only saw caribou in other parts of Saskatchewan twice. Once they came to Porter Lake about thirty miles north of Patuanak and another time, close to the settlement of Portage La Loche. I was told they were part of the Fond du Lac herd and usually didn't venture south of Cree Lake. Caribou steaks are excellent -- much better than deer or moose meat. At Least that was my impression when I first tasted them at Brochet. Or perhaps it was just Mrs Garbutt's excellent cooking. I also had my first taste of another northern delicacy at Brochet -- smoked caribou tongue or, as it was always referred to locally, Fond Du Lac bananas.