North to Adventure: Wilderness Seaplane Pilot Course

By Jeffrey Scheuer

(Reprinted from Private Pilot Magazine April 1997)

Lake-hopping across the Canadian wilderness wasn't exactly the main reason I learned to fly. But when I found myself in the wilds of western Ontario last summer, flying a sea-plane with ace bush pilot Dale De Remer, it seemed almost inevitable.

The summer before, as a newly-fledged pilot, I had reasoned that my license was either a piece of paper in my wallet or a ticket to adventure. So I headed for Moosehead Lake, Maine -- a place of such natural beauty it seemed created just for pilots -- and spent a weekend getting a seaplane rating, probably the easiest and most fun rating a pilot can acquire. 

With the SES (single-engine-sea) on my ticket but no seaplane of my own, and having logged only a dozen hours on floats (eight to get the rating, and four more in a refresher course several months later) the next step seemed equally obvious: an advanced course in seaplane flying. And that's how I came to be in Grand Forks, North Dakota, last July, planning a flight with Dale De Remer into a vast, lake-studded Canadian landscape so bereft of landmarks that pilots call it as "featureless terrain."

De Remer, an affable high-timer with a Ph.D. in aviation science, teaches at the University of North Dakota, and has flown and sailed throughout the world. Each summer, he offers three levels of individual seaplane instruction. Level I is a one-day review of the skills required for the SES rating; Level II involves several days of flying in the Canadian wilderness. Like most of Dale's students, I was scheduled to take both of these courses over a four-day period. The more advanced Level III course is a five-to six-day flight into the sub-arctic region of the Northwest Territories, home of the polar bear and tundra wolf. Dale met me at the Grand Forks airport on a Sunday afternoon, and drove me to the local Holiday Inn, where we immediately began groundschool and flight planning. I'd managed to wade through most of the material he sent me in advance -- including his excellent book, "Water Flying Concepts," the basic primer for the course. Now he added another pile of readings on bush flying. In addition to these readings (and a seaplane rating), prospective students should take a CPR course and, if possible, a course in wilderness survival and safety, such as the one offered at the Seaplane Pilots Association's annual June fly-in in Speculator, New York. And be prepared for a challenge.

* * * * * *

DAY ONE: Early Monday morning, we drove to North Golden Lake, an hour outside of Grand Forks, where Dale introduced me to N2125 Zulu -- a sturdy, roomy Cessna 180 that had seen years of service on Louisiana oil rigs. In winter the floats come off and 2125 Zulu becomes a powerful tail-dragger, which Dale flies to his favorite destination, Baja California, when school is not in session.

Monday was spent on the Level One review of water flying skills. From North Golden Lake, we flew an hour east to Maple Lake, in northwestern Minnesota, where we practiced a variety of basic maneuvers and techniques, including regular and glassy-water takeoffs and landings; step turns (turns during a high-speed taxi "on the step"); beaching, docking, anchoring, and buoying; and sailing the plane on the water, using water rudders, ailerons, and even the doors of the plane to maneuver it on the water.

The basics are easy enough to learn but harder to master, and I soon realized that a seaplane rating barely qualifies one to fly on floats. Seaplanes are similar to land planes in the air (but a bit slower and lower in performance); on water, they are basically terrible boats, which must be operated with skill and precision, and always, except in the takeoff run, at the slowest possible speed. If the seaplane is handled improperly, say, during a landing or a turn, the floats can submerge, with unhappy results. 

Landplanes have brakes; sailboats have large rudders; power boats can go in reverse. In a seaplane, you have to get by with very small rudders and a lot of pure technique. As Dale succinctly put it, "Seaplanes can achieve ultimate stability -- upside down." What they offer in return is access to places no other craft can reach, and a unique marriage of sea and sky.

The day was cool and overcast, and the time passed quickly; when it was over, I had logged five-and-a-half hours -- my longest day yet in an airplane. By the time I got back to the hotel in Grand Forks, supplementary reading seemed less urgent than supplementary sleep.

* * * * * *

DAY TWO: To eastern eyes, the little town of Warroad, Minnesota, has the look of a place where the wilderness begins. It sits on the south shore of the Lake of the Woods, the immense boundary water between Minnesota and Ontario. We stop there for lunch on Tuesday, pulling up at a sandy beach in front of a lakeside restaurant. A curious youngster on the beach, watching us tie up, asks for "a free ride in that thing." But there is no extra time for diversions; we still have to clear Canadian customs at Kenora, a harbor town on the Ontario side of the lake, and then fly on to another lake where we will camp overnight. After lunch we head north across the Lake of the Woods toward Kenora. Along the way, we pass over the shoreline of the Northwest Angle, a remote peninsula that belongs to Minnesota, but has no land connection to America, acquired by treaty in 1783 as the result of a surveying error. Tim O'Brien, in his haunting mystery novel about the region, "In the Lake of the Woods," writes: "A geographical orphan, stranded by a mapmaker's error, the Angle is the northernmost point in the lower 48 states, a remote spit of woods and water surrounded on three sides by Canada. To the West is Manitoba; to the north and east lie the great dense forests of Ontario; to the south is the U.S mainland. This is wilderness."

Like map-making, seaplane navigation gets tricky up here, especially on the Canadian side of lake, where hundreds of small islands form something like a pictureless jigsaw puzzle -- an endless labyrinth of land and water. And beyond Lake of the Woods lies more of the same: hundreds of thousands of square miles of forest and lakes.

Aerial navigation up here is an art form, and Dale De Remer literally wrote the book on it. Nav aids are scarce in the region, and pilotage is very difficult over a featureless landscape -- and one not always known for high ceilings or good visibility either. We had GPS as a backup, but the real challenge here is honing one's dead-reckoning skills to a knifepoint.

Among other things, this requires calibrating the magnetic compass often (including inflight, a procedure De Remer explains in "Water Flying Concepts"); estimating wind drift precisely and repeatedly; and offsetting the course just the right amount. One technique De Remer uses is spotting an object ahead of the plane: "somewhere out there ahead of you," he explains, "there is a tree or a rock or a pond or some other feature that is coming straight at you." Then you compare your wind correction angle with the angle to the object that is approaching head-on. Dale uses small sighting bead-pins on the top of the control panel to make this easier for students. To fly the desired track, the WCA should be equal to the angle off the nose of the object that is coming directly at you.

Flying over the Lake of the Woods, I mused that it must be even harder for sailors, lacking an aerial perspective, to find there way among these islands; Dale agreed. There are few natural landmarks, and few buoys or other navigational markers on the water. It made me appreciate having wings as well as floats.

The afternoon sky was clear, and an hour out of Warroad, we caught sight of Kenora's picture-postcard harbor. A large settlement for these parts, with about 7,000 inhabitants, situated on the Trans-Canada Highway, Kenora is part-resort town and part-staging point for trips into the bush, in a region owned by the native Sioux tribe. Tom Ivey, the owner of Walsten's Air Service, a major provider of seaplanes for charters into the wilderness, greeted us at the dock and helped us make fast. "Hushpuppies," he joked, when he saw our knee-length rubber boots. "Planning on doing some bad docking?"

A Canadian customs official, notified in advance by radio, was also there to meet us. Clearing customs was a simple matter of answering a few questions, and took five minutes. We then spent an hour in Kenora stocking up on food and hardware, and proceeded on our way. We were carrying about ninety pounds of baggage in all, including our personal gear, groceries, emergency food and water, survival gear, water, fishing tackle, an axe and saw, and equipment for repairing the airplane and floats.

From Kenora it was a brief flight to our first overnight stop at Red Deer Lake, some 15 miles to the northeast. But once down on the pristine lake, we could have been anywhere in the far north, beyond the world of roads, rails, and runways. After unloading our gear at a small floating dock, we moored 2125Z in a nearby sandy cove, securing the tail and each wing with three separate lines to nearby trees. We spent the night at a camp owned by a Canadian friend of Dale's, a rustic cabin perched on a rocky bluff fifty feet above the lakeshore. With no bedding, electric-ity, or hot water, it was less than a house, but a lot more comfortable than actual camping. And the scenery was nature's best.

A nearby cabin was also occupied by friends of Dale's, a couple from California. The husband had taken the Wilderness Seaplane Flying Course a few years before, and was now shopping for a seaplane. We joined them for a beer before settling in for our dinner of Chinese take-out from Kenora. After shooting the breeze for another hour in the dwindling light, we retired to our sleeping bags and drifted off.

* * * * * *

DAY THREE: By the time I awoke Wednesday morning, Dale had already prepared a breakfast of hot cider and granola bars. It was a warm, sunny day and the wind was calm, so we spent an hour or so practicing glassy-water landings and takeoffs on Red Deer and nearby Wonderland Lake. Glassy water operations are among the trickiest in water flying, mainly due to the difficulty of judging one's height above the mirror-like surface. The biggest danger is flying into the water when landing, rather than onto it. When taking off, the suction effect of smooth water can make it hard to get airborne. Like other water flying maneuvers, these take practice and need to be done exactly right.

Later we worked on aerial beach- and landing-area assessment, which calls for a keen eye and sound judgement while maintaining the plane in a level attitude (and circling) at about 800' AGL. Landing assessment involves choosing an anchorage on a lake or river from the air, and planning both a safe landing area and taxi approach to the beach, and a subsequent takeoff path. (There are lakes one can land on but not take off from.)

At mid-morning we returned for our overnight gear, which we'd left on the dock at Red Deer Lake, and then continued on to our next stop at Bissette, a small wilderness settlement and seaplane base in eastern Manitoba. There, a friend of Dale's at the local grocery store had prepared a fruit pie for us -- an early and filling lunch. After refuelling, we flew on to Shining Falls Camp on Family Lake, a large, island-studded lake some 100 miles further north.

A string of cabins circle the cove at Shining Falls, a commercial camp catering mostly to fisherman, set on a narrow isthmus between two parts of Family Lake. We had plenty of time that afternoon to rent an outboard from the owner and try our luck. Walleye, lake trout, and northerns inhabit these waters; the lakes farther north also contain arctic grayling. We motored out to a recommended spot, where the wind whipped up and we were pelted with rain, but we managed to land a half-dozen walleyes, which Dale cooked up with breadcrumbs for a tasty dinner.

* * * * * *

DAY FOUR: A strong southerly wind blew up Thursday morning at Shining Falls, making it inadvisable to proceed to the Pigeon River for the last, hardest leg of the Level II course. And as a low-time pilot struggling to master new techniques, I wasn't ready for maneuvers such as landing in a narrow river canyon with 90° bends at either end. So after spiralling up from Family lake -- always keeping water beneath our floats until reaching a safe altitude -- we headed south into a strong headwind, crossing over Flintstone, Aitken, Snowshoe, and Shoal lakes (most of which I could now identify from the air), and back over Lake of the Woods. But we weren't home yet.

An angry sky, with numerous scattered thunderstorms, met us at Lake of the Woods. When several flashes of lightning appeared within a few miles of the plane, we had to divert sharply around and between the storms. The week before, I had taken a scenic flight around Rapid City, South Dakota, where thunderstorms roll out of the Black Hills like bowling balls on summer afternoons. But over the high plains there had been ample room in the sky to evade the widely-spaced boomers. These discharges were scary and close, but we managed to avoid them and reach the Minnesota shore safely.

A fuel truck and a U.S. Customs agent met us at the seaplane dock on the Rainey River near Baudette Airport, a few miles upstream from the lakeshore. An hour and a half later, we were back at North Golden Lake in North Dakota, putting N2125Z back on the ramp. With everything stowed, I would still have time to gather my gear, enjoy a quick final lunch with Dale, and catch a flight back to the East Coast.

With sixteen hours of accumulated seaplane time and Dale's instruction, I had learned a lot -- including that wilderness flying demands more skills than I, for one, could pick up in just a few days. With another 10-20 hours of previous time on floats, and my instrument rating (still in progress), I would no doubt have gotten even more from the course.

But if I sometimes got lost, I never got wet. And I kept in mind that for those who love flying and nature, seaplanes are a means, not an end. They link us, as nothing else can, to the remaining inland wilderness of North America. Once there, you can find further adventure without machines of any kind, and with the naturalist Henry Beston, "Touch the earth, love the earth, honor the earth ... rest your spirit in her solitary places."