MOOSE TIME GLAMOUR
Robert S Grant
Each year, Canadian big game hunting attracts sportsmen from around the world. Short-termed hunt seasons vary from weeks to months, depending on the province and the quarry. When opening-day arrives on the North American moose, the ensuing aerial activity resembles the frantic pace of a Klondike gold rush.
Access to the browsing grounds in the remote forests requires the talents of Canadian bush pilots. The popular image of these modern voyagers is usually one of soft landings on serene, untouched lakes, or transport of buckskin draped Indian maiden s and stary-eyed nurses or school-teachers. The truth, however, at least in this season, is that "drivers" of Beavers, Norsemen, Otter or Cessna aircraft undertake unpleasant and back-breaking duties.
Since moose safari packages usually included neatly arranged tents on cleared sites complete with stacks of firewood, pilots often find themselves checked out on the use of chain saw an axe. "Rookies" of Italy learn to erect tents and cater to the usually affluent guests. "They never taught me this at Seneca," bemoaned a first year Cessna 180 pilot as he removed wood chips from bloodshot eyes.
Bush planes, normally shiny most of the year, become gory and slimy with darkening moose blood and sticky with matted, foul-smelling hair. As flying meat-truck drivers, bush pilots carry dripping animal quarters weighing up to 250lbs each that have been dragged from wherever the creature was shot. Stumbling on slippery ladder rungs coated with mud from muskeg swamps, the meet must be lifted and heaved into seat less aircraft interiors. Stooped over, pilots push cargo to wherever approximates to the best centre of gravity position.
Overloads? No weigh scales in the swamp. Pilots rely on their judgement. One of veterans scoffed: "the Air Force Flying Club should be here now to see what it's really like". A Beech 18 pilot, exasperated at full load trips, wondered aloud, "Are all Yanks so big"?
Ron Gangloff, a typical Canadian pilot struggling for a living in the so-called glamorous bush country, told of a typical hunt season day: "we have camps up north that are checked almost every day. I haul everything-outboard motors, bread, rifles and boats. On the return trips, the cockpit is crammed with moose meet, racks or bear hides. The hunters don't always quarter their kills properly so I wind up playing butcher before I can even load!"
To the southerner, autumn means, colourful forests with the crackle of leaves underfoot. In northern Canada, autumn and weather, notorious for associated high winds, freezing rains, snow squalls and fog, brings the dread of overnight emergency stops. Not exactly home and fireside, the only place for sleeping bags is on top of the cargo-stacks of raw moose meat. Sometimes, greasy, black bear hides are included-accompanied by fleas and lice which attack the unfortunate pilot who tries to sleep on the storm-tossed waves as swollen, plastic garbage bags rip and split in the rigid night air.
During darkness, which comes early in the autumn, temperatures lower and ice stealthily creeps from the shoreline to reduce take-of space. Green pilots have landed on what they thought was glassy water, but were shocked to find themselves ploughing through ice, ripping gashes in fragile floats.
Hazards? Hunt season survivors tell of being stabbed with jagged bones splinters as they load still warm carcasses balanced precariously on their backs. Slipping and sliding on ice-covered aircraft as "freeze-up" approaches, crawling towards the rear of a float to unjam frozen water rudders, means true cold. Not as cold, however, as prying float plugs out with a screwdriver so a pump can be inserted-if hands are not frozen through sopping-wet gloves long before sunrise. Frost on the wings, partially removed by throwing ropes over the wings and seesawing back and forth, enters collar or shirt sleeves, melting and chilling to the bone.
At the end of his day, of bush pilot resembles the only survivor of a motorway car crash. Hair clotted with dried, crackling blood, hands and face greasy with animal fat, fingers gouged, crushed or lacerated, he must still unload his aircraft. Dumping meat into half tonne lorries, and hoisting the stone cold and inert sections into the company freezer, he may not be finished until midnight.
Canadian commercial operators employ a colourful variety of aeroplanes in moose season. At busy times, some companies lease additional machines to meet the demand. One pilot watched a Cessna 180 catch fire while winter re fuelling. Months later, when he went to deliver a leased machine, he was shocked to find the same Cessna complete with badly warped front windscreen.
Sounds of aircraft in the wilderness can be fascinating. High-pitched Cessnas accompany throaty de Havilland Beavers into outpost camps. the synchronised sound of float-equipped Beech 18's is often overshadowed by the ear splitting of roar of one of or more "Thunder Chickens", the local name for the Noorduyn Norseman. One north-western Ontario company, operating from a gigantic Lac Seul, commonly dispatches three Otters simultaneously. Occasionally, a Piper PA-18 with a canoe tied to its side, struggles on an extra-long take-off run, held back by the drag of the awkward load.
Moose-hunt flying may be no pleasure, nor does the bush pilot's life appear glamorous to those who 'slog it out' from dawn to dusků but quit? Some of those who cannot cope with the life apply for airline jobs. Others last a year or two and depart for the corporate jest, but year after year there are many of the familiar, rugged faces of those who return to 'fly the hunt'.
This article appeared originally in Aviation News [Vol 12 No.13] 18th November 1983.