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Buffalo AirwaysSomeone once described flying as; “…hours and hours of boredom sprinkled with a few seconds of sheer terror”.

…Obviously they had never flown with Buffalo Airways!

In a region where roads are rarer than rocking horse shit, bush pilots have achieved something of a legendary status in the wilds of northern Canada. In Yellowknife, the ‘Ice Pilots’ of Buffalo Airways continue a pioneering tradition that can trace its roots back to the years following the end of the First World War. Started by the legendary Joe McBryan (‘Buffalo Joe’) in 1970, the distinctive livery of Buffalo Airways has been blazing a trail across the skies of the Canadian Arctic for over four decades, delivering supplies and equipment to remote Arctic communities, in conditions that many of us wouldn’t even take a dog out in. What makes their performance even more remarkable is the fact that they ply much of their trade aboard aircraft that saw their heyday above the beaches of Normandy in 1944.

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Phil and I had gone to Buffalo Airways with no real expectations of anything but a cursory look around the place and maybe a couple of shots of the planes. Phil really wanted to get a shot of Joe himself, but we had already resigned ourselves to that being a non-starter. However, we had failed to take into account the YK-factor…where all things are possible! Not only did we get our shots of the planes…and of Joe, but we got the full tour and a flight down to Hay River on a 70 year old Dakota DC3 into the bargain. I reckon if we had hung around any longer we could have found ourselves on the payroll!

We got the full tour from Scott Blue; not only the coolest named pilot in Canada, but also the tallest! Scott flies the C-46 ‘Commando’ transport planes and the CL-215s…mainly because he can’t fit into the DC3s! Seriously, the man is too tall to fit in the cockpit. Scott would need to be sat somewhere in economy to stand any chance of getting a DC3 off the ground. He did prove a great tour guide though and took us through the hangar, the workshop and practically every plane in the fleet. In fact, the only place we weren’t allowed was the runway! They say that the only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys. Believe me, toys don’t come much better than a fully working Douglas Dakota or a CL-215 water bomber!…I think it took me and Phil about 15 seconds to decide to fly down to Hay River!

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The 45 minute flight takes you across the vast expanse of the Great Slave Lake, the deepest lake in North America and the ninth largest in the world. I very rarely get excited about flying these days, but somehow, the thought of making the journey in a plane whose historical antecedents included every major airborne operation of World War II had me fidgeting in anticipation. This was proper flying. The plane was so old that even mobile phones couldn’t interfere with its navigational instrumentation. Hell, I’m not even sure it had navigational instrumentation! I felt that I should be wearing a fedora, or at the very least a parachute. I loved it, especially when about 20 minutes into the flight ‘Buffalo Joe’ himself wandered out of the cockpit and asked if we wanted to go up front.

IMG_1941…I beat Phil through the door and was sat in the pilot’s seat before he had even picked up his camera!

IMG_1943We spent the night at Hay River, staying with Peter Magill and his lovely wife, Dian. We had never even met Peter until two days previously, when we wandered blindly into his office at Buffalo Airways looking for help and inspiration. But, in the true spirit of the north, he and Dian had invited us to stay with them. How little they knew. They were probably both still regretting it the next morning when we all awoke at 5.30am, suffering from the effects of too much wine and an excess of monosodium glutamate! Peter takes the flight between Yellowknife and Hay River to work every day, winter and summer. I suppose it does help that your office is next to the runway, but even so, his commute is shorter than many who have to endure the daily grind of rush-hour.

…And, personally speaking, give me a septuagenarian aircraft over the London Underground any day.

IMG_1935With thanks to: Scott Blue, Peter & Dian Magill, Mikey McBryan and, of course, the inimitable, ‘Buffalo Joe’ himself.

IMG_1849Three months ago I arrived back from northern Canada with a destroyed liver and a battered notebook full of random jottings, scribbled post-it notes and press cuttings. The intervening months have, thankfully, seen the liver make a partial recovery, but the notebook has, sadly, remained firmly wedged between a copy of the ‘Curious Boy’s Book of Adventure’ and the even more aptly titled, ‘Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls’. As I look back over the notes that I made over those few weeks though, I am beginning to wonder if a better literary comparison might be that of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. I can’t immediately recollect any disappearing cats, or talking caterpillars, but I’m pretty sure at some point between Calgary and Yellowknife I must have fallen down a rabbit-hole! I had quite forgotten what an incredible cast of characters we met during our time there.

…So, as the Walrus himself said, ‘The time has come…to speak of many things’…

My dictionary defines eccentric as…‘odd or capricious in behaviour or appearance; whimsical.’…It is a definition that should really be accompanied by a picture of Rolf Heer, without doubt the ‘Mad Hatter’ of our story. Rolf was born in Switzerland, where he trained as a forester before moving to the mountains of Alberta with a herd of goats, a chainsaw and a natty array of colourful headgear.

Rolf Heer

Today he lives in a rambling wooden stockade on the outskirts of Radium Springs, his goats occupying the penthouse suite, whilst the man himself spends his days surrounded by hundreds of enormous chainsaw sculptures. Rolf has spent over three decades cultivating his eccentric reputation, carving a unique collection of wooden faces during the summer and then taking off for months on end to spend the hard Canadian winters wandering alone across the wild backroads of Pakistan, Iraq and the Hindu Kush.

If Rolf ever decides to have a tea party I hope I get an invite…

Rolf's Lair

I have to admit that before I went to Yellowknife the name of Alex Debogorski meant little to me. I had never seen an episode of ‘Ice Road Truckers’, so the man’s reputation and notoriety was completely lost on me. Outside of Yellowknife he was an international TV star, feted throughout the American midwest for his exploits in hauling 70-ton rigs across hundreds of miles of Canada’s frozen lakes. In Yellowknife though he is just…Alex, a larger than life character who once ran for mayor, speaks his mind on practically every subject and generally follows it up with a booming laugh that could start a small avalanche.

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The man is a walking paradox. A father of 11, he was raised by his own father following his mother’s suicide when he was just 12 year’s old. His mother had been Cambridge educated and descended from Polish aristocracy and, had she lived, Alex’s life may have turned out very differently. As it was, his formative years were influenced by a father who learnt the harsh realities of life in the trenches of World War II and, on first impression, Alex is a man forged in his father’s image; tough and hard, with hands like shovels and a no-nonsense attitude to life. But beyond the intimidating exterior is another Alex, a devout, contemplative and literate individual who will happily philosophise on life, religion, communism and the failings of Canadian politics! He was also very quick to begin taking the piss out of our borrowed car…mainly, I think, because it didn’t have horns!

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Hidden away between Willow Flats and Ragged Ass Road is the Woodyard, one of Yellowknife’s more eclectic neighbourhoods. Dating back to the late 1930s, the area today is home to an interesting collection of modern-day settlers who still hanker for a more simple way of life. Miranda Curry lives here with Kensey, the ‘lazy sled dog’. Miranda and Kensey share a tiny wooden shack close to the lapping waters of Yellowknife Bay and on the day that we met her the city council had just turned off the water for the winter.

Miranda Curry

Miranda’s story was both inspiring and tragic in equal measure. She had been stranded in Yellowknife in 2009, when her car broke down en route from Whitehorse. Undaunted by the prospect of a busted clutch, she decided instead just to stay put and settle down on the shores of the Great Slave Lake. Three years on and she was still there, teaching and playing fiddle in a local band called The Back Bay Scratchers. She was also recovering from a near fatal accident that had left her with a serious brain injury.

She had been out on the frozen lake the previous March when she had been dumped on her head, leaving her unconscious and miles from home. Luckily for her, Kensey was with her and it was him who dragged her off the ice, first waking her up and then walking her slowly back to shore. Every time she stumbled or slowed down, he would go back for her and keep her moving. I wanted to adopt Kensey there and then!

Kensey

It was evident from her speech that Miranda was still struggling with the after effects of the injury, but she was making progress and I think it was Miranda’s story more than any other that brought home the real sense of community that we had found up north. Whilst she was ill they held a party during the local SnowKing Festival and raised some $1500 for her. She also told us how she would go out and return home to find food left for her. I liked Miranda a lot. She seemed to epitomise the true character of the place. She was vibrant and funny and instantly welcoming. She even invited us in for homemade banana muffins.

…I just wish she hadn’t told us that the bananas had come from a skip!

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To be continued…