My first ever encounter with a float plane (an airplane that has pontoon floats that allow it to land and take off on water) was up in the northern reaches of Maine. I was on an archery bear hunt with a fellow Suzio employee, Bob Bozzutto.
We had just arrived at the cabin on Grand Lake that we would be calling home for the next week when an airplane glided by the window and landed on the lake. It was the lack of noise when it landed on the water that fascinated me the most.
I told Bob, “We have to get a ride on that plane before we leave.”
That happened sooner than later because we went up in that float plane the same day. I had my camera with a zoom lens and figured on shooting a couple of rolls of film while we were in the air.
The pilot was able to show us various landmarks that were only noticeable from the air, and the trip left me wanting more.
That chance came again in Maine when Edna and I spent a week at Hardscrabble Lodge up in the Jackman area by the Canadian border. Steve Coleman was the pilot and he took Edna and me up off of Spencer Lake for a sightseeing tour. We saw a number of moose that were feeding in some of the smaller bodies of water that abound in the area and I expressed a desire to get closer to them.
Coleman said, “I have a smaller float plane back at the river. I can take the door off and we can get down close to the water and look the moose right in their eyes.”
It sounded good to me, and that afternoon Coleman came into Spencer Lake with his smaller float plane.
We took the door off of the plane and roared off into the wild blue yonder to see some moose. It was indescribably fantastic! Steve came in low over some of the ponds and we really did get a chance to look some of the moose right in the eye.
When we landed, I was so excited I wanted Edna to go up and see what I had just witnessed. She was going to do it with a little girl from the lodge, but decided at the last minute to defer her chance to a younger couple. The door was replaced and they took off to see what I had seen on my trip.
After a while we could see the plane circling a cove on the southern part of the lake and I told the parents of one of the passengers that they were probably looking at a bull, cow and calf moose.
The plane then disappeared behind one of the mountains and, after a long wait, it did not reappear. It had crashed on the back side of the mountain!
All three occupants escaped unharmed. Steve lit a bon fire for them before trekking to the lodge using the North Star as his compass. It was a joyous reunion when they returned to the lodge. That’s a story for another time.
My next encounter with a float plane was again on Spencer Lake and Steve Coleman was the pilot. I took off with a couple of my hunting buddies, Ron Andrews and Paul Robbins. And once again I had my camera with the zoom lens and we were on a sightseeing flight.
This one had an unwanted passenger. I have vertigo and a number of things can set me off, like riding in the rear seat of a vehicle, tight turns in an airplane — get the picture?
I was taking some photos and the plane made a couple of quick movements because of the wind, and I started to get that old time feeling again. Steve turned to Ron and Paul in the rear seats and asked them, “Are you guys all right?”
They told him they were, and then I said, “Well I’m not!”
I swear a look of terror came over Steve’s face when he got a look at me and knew what was coming next.
“Quick, hand Mike one of those barf bags,” he said as he turned the float plane in a downward glide back to the lodge.
That didn’t help matters at all.
Those standing on the shore watching our descent said they never knew a float plane could land that fast. I scrambled out of the plane into the water even before the plane got to the dock. For the next four hours I had the worst case of motion sickness you could imagine.
Make no mistakes about it, while most bush pilots fly by the seat of their pants, they are very good at what they do. I could never fault any of them for a bad flight, including the one where the plane went down. They had hit a downdraft and it dropped the plane a couple of hundred feet I the blink of an eye. Steve knew that a crash was inevitable, so he gunned it and flew the plane into the treetops, using the floats to cushion the hit. In a later conversation he said that when they retrieved the frame of the plane with a helicopter, the frame was like new.
The next encounter with float planes was a trip into Canada. That started off on a sour note when my truck was pulled aside and searched for hidden firearms. Fellow outdoor writer Tim Lajoie and I had won a trip to Gogama Lodge up in the further reaches of Canada. They specialized in float plane trips into various secluded lakes, depending on what you wanted to catch.
The lodge had a fleet of float planes. Each morning, after a hardy breakfast, the lodge would give us a brown bag lunch and we would meet our assigned pilot for that trip and away we would go. The winds in that area were quite strong and remembering that ill-fated flight in Maine, I was not at my best when we were in the air. The land in that area was flat and loaded with lakes, so it seemed if an emergency arrived we would be all right, and we were.
We were told to bring a backpack with rain gear, bottled water and any medications we were on “just in case.” That meant if a storm blew in that evening and the planes were unable to pick us up, we would be spending the night on the lake until they could fly, most likely the next morning. Luckily, that never occurred, although it was close a couple of times.
The fishing was fantastic for four days, with a different lake being fished each day. The owner of the lodge told us he had a “secret” lake that was loaded with huge brook trout and he would take us the next day. He also said, “The only thing is while I can land in the lake with the two of you, I can only take off from the lake with one passenger because of the smaller size of the lake.”
Both Tim and I passed on that trip.
Flying isn’t for everyone, and even though I had to fight off a touch of vertigo on a couple of the flights, I’ve had no regrets and some fantastic memories.
See ya’ and God Bless America and watch over our troops wherever they may be.