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THE NORTHWEST TERRITORIES - AN AVIATOR\'S DREAM
 
(2014 - Spring Issue)

Writer: VALERIE MARSHALL AND ADAM SAUNDERS



The Territories have been home to many aviation pioneers.

When renowned bush pilot, Ted Grant, invited us to visit “his” Northwest Territories we jumped at the opportunity to explore a magnificent part of Canada and check off a long-time wish on our personal “bucket lists.” Much of our interest lay in the aviation heritage that has sustained a way of life here since the advent of flight. Thus imagine our delight as we arrived in Yellowknife to be welcomed by a true pioneer of aviation in the North. 

Yvonne Quick was, in her younger years, a former bush pilot and flight-school operator. She is still chairperson of Yellowknife’s bi-annual “Midnight Sun Float Plane Fly-In”and was recently honoured for her commitment to northern aviation. Yvonne is an ambassador for Northwest Territories Tourism and had a wealth of information to share on the local culture, ensuring we visited some key attractions before continuing on our evening flight to Fort Simpson.

Our first stop was the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. Opened by Prince Charles in 1979, this magnificent structure houses the territorial museum, archives and taxidermydisplays of northern wildlife. Here tourists can get a valuable insight into the history of the land and peoples making up the Northwest Territories. Close by, a visit to the Northern Frontier Visitors Centre revealed a bustling location filled with a tempting array of First Nations’ history and crafts.

Knowing our interest in aviation, Yvonne had arranged for a visit to the home of Ice Pilots’ Buffalo Airways. We felt we were on a movie set as we viewed the vintage DC-3s and a DC-4 maintained and operated daily by Buffalo. These wonderful old planes have been painstakingly restored—some having served in the Battle of Britain and D-Day. Buffalo owns about 56 aircraft in its fleet to fulfill a role that includes international charters, cargo and passenger service to remote communities in the North, and fire suppression with Canadair and Douglas water bombers. Aviators love to “talk planes” and owner “Buffalo Joe” McBryan and his son Mikey were no exception. Surrounded by vintage planes and a significant collection of vintage cars on view in the hangar, we were in no hurry to leave. 

A Very Long Day

Although we travelled at the end of August the long daylight allowed excellent visibility as we took off for Fort Simpson in Air Tindi’s Cessna Caravan. Flying at 2,438 metres we were struck by the vast expanse of uninhabited bush. Visitors choosing to travel by road to Fort Simpson via the Mackenzie Highway should anticipate an 11-hour journey on a partially-paved road.

Reaching Fort Simpson that evening we were momentarily taken aback by the silence. No roaring city traffic, no planes overhead . . . just the breeze in the fir trees close by. There were no limousines here, either, just a large pickup truck and a warm welcome from our host, Reg Bellefontaine of the Mackenzie Rest Inn.

We had not anticipated luxurious accommodation so far north of a major city and greatly appreciated the tasteful surroundings and excellent facilities in this delightful B&B, which, due to unpredictable weather at this time of year, would be our home for the next few days. Generously sharing their kitchen and barbeque, we enjoyed meals (one featuring freshly-caught northern pike) with other “stranded” guests and relished every minute of our time with Reg and his wife, Lois Martin.

Our tour of Fort Simpson included a visit to the new Information Centre to see the 1962 National Film Board of Canada film on Albert Faille. Well worth watching, the film brings to life the story of a legendary prospector and trapper who was determined to find gold in the Nahanni area. Albert Faille’s simple cabin overlooking the Mackenzie River is the oldest surviving building in Fort Simpson and is preserved as a memorial to this remarkable man.

While Fort Simpson does not boast a plethora of entertainment options (one small café serves the community), the general store is efficiently equipped to supply trippers outfitting their Nahanni and Mackenzie River adventures. The weather dictates when planes can take off and land safely and trippers need to plan flexibility into their schedule. Ted Grant, owner of Simpson Air, had scheduled a tour for us over Virginia Falls and into the Nahanni National Park Reserve and, while we waited for low cloud to lift, we were joined by a group returning from an eight-day rafting trip with Neil Hartling and Nahanni River Adventures. 

Simply Spectacular

Talking with the weary but happy travellers, ranging in age from teens to 80 years, they recounted how their float planes landed above Virginia Falls on the South Nahanni River where they camped the first night. Next morning they portaged their equipment below the Falls (a half-day hike), before setting off for five days on the river. The unspoiled geography, enormous cliffs and rapids, and wonderful wildlife sightings evoked such enthusiasm from the returning trippers that several said, “We would do it all again. It was nothing short of spectacular!”

When planning a river adventure in the Territories, travel health insurance is a priority since evacuation can be costly. Fortunately there are many good operators who understand the challenges of the rivers and their goal is to ensure visitors safely enjoy some of the most wonderful geography in the world. 

A Pre-Ice-Age Park

Our hosts planned an unscheduled trip, across the Liard River via the Lafferty Ferry, some 150 kilometres along Highway 1 to visit Sambaa Deh Falls Territorial Park on the Trout River. Here, Ray Michaud introduced us to the ancient history of this fossil valley before taking us on a hike down part of the canyon. It was an awesome feeling to know that, with every step, we were walking on fossilized coral—the remains of an ocean bed from the Devonian age about 416 million years ago. 

Visitors arriving at Sambaa Deh by recreational vehicle are welcomed with a full RV-wash facility after their long drive on the dusty roads. During their stay campers have the opportunity to take advantage of the visitor centre, fish for Arctic grayling and pickerel, as well as collect fossils from an age long gone.

Finally, Little Doctor Lake

Having waited out two days of inclement weather, watching the float planes sit idle at the dock below our B&B, we received a call indicating Simpson Air was ready to take us to Little Doctor Lake and Nahanni Mountain Lodge, about a 40-minute flight in a Cessna 185 from Fort Simpson. Here, in this magnificent, private, wilderness setting one can truly get far from the madding crowd with no phones, no TVs and no means of communication unless equipped with a satellite phone. Now owned by Ted Grant, Nahanni Mountain Lodge has been enjoyed by distinguished guests from around the world and is only accessible by float plane in the summer months. 

We swam in the pristine lake water and marvelled at the surrounding mountains bathed in late-evening sunlight. As dusk fell we cooked our meal by candlelight, taking advantage of the propane stove in the well-equipped kitchen, before enjoying a peaceful campfire by the lake. Two well-built log cabins have been added to the original rustic lodge and, with the night quickly getting cool, we appreciated the comfortable duvets provided. 

We woke the following morning to discover snow had fallen on the mountains around us providing a completely different landscape for a day’s photography. We did regret, since we’d heard the fishing was excellent, that we had too little time to fish for our supper. 

Flying is a way of life in this vast territory where roads are few and long. We stood at the Bush Pilots’ Monument back in Yellowknife and observed the constant traffic from float planes on Great Slave Lake and Back Bay. As we drove by, we stopped to take one last photo of a beautifully-restored 1946 Norseman belonging to “Buffalo Joe” before bidding farewell to this wonderful part of Canada.

Travel Planner

For more information, visit: Northwest Territories Tourism: spectacularnwt.com

Mackenzie Rest Inn: mackenzierest.ca

Nahanni River Adventures: nahanni.com

Simpson Air/Nahanni Mountain Lodge: simpsonair.ca

 
 
 
 
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