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An Ottawa Valley flying legend page 3

Story by Mike O’MalleyPrincipal photography by Karel Van Duyse

The fall hunt was the busiest season for the charter business. All aircraft maintenance had to be completed prior to the relentless October onslaught of dawn to dusk flights. On one day, a record 19 flights and 74 passenger trips were recorded on C-FODA alone. In 1972, Beaver C‑FJXO, piloted by John McCullagh, replaced a Cessna 180, and later, a third Beaver, C‑FOCU, was ferried from Frobisher Bay (Iqaluit) for the fall season overload.

In sharp contrast to the polite summer clients, the moose hunting season brought an influx of unscrupulous meat seekers to the docks of Da Swisha. Testosterone, alcohol and firearms turned rational men into liars, cheats and thieves in their quest for an opening day trophy. Dockside skirmishes were commonplace and Ronny found it necessary to keep the flight booking register under lock and key to prevent queue jumping.

At the end of the hunting season, the Beavers migrated back to the Bradley hangar at Carp (YRP). As the airport has no water, the aircraft landed on their floats beside the runway in what appeared to onlookers (and the pilots) as a controlled crash. In spring, they returned to Da Swisha by departing from the main runway on a wheeled dolly, specially built to de Havilland specifications. Ronny says that even after 33 years, “It’s just not the sort of thing you get used to.” The event was a popular spectacle in the flying community and drew crowds of onlookers. Often, Ronny and John McCullagh would sneak the Beavers out the evening before they were expected to leave just to get a little privacy.

In the late seventies, the Quebec government began reclaiming private land leases, spelling the end of the fish and game clubs and the close of an era. The Gardes moved on and the village general store and hotels faded into Ottawa Valley history.

A new recreational industry is born in the Pontiac
As the camp charter business declined, spaces in the spring and summer flight schedules were claimed by growing numbers of recreational canoeists seeking transportation to the headwaters of the Dumoine river. Canadian wilderness outfitters Wally Schaber, founder of Trailhead retail stores, and Chris Harris of Black Feather Adventures, built their business together on the Dumoine. Wally and Chris were pioneers of organized and guided tripping in west Quebec, introducing thousands of urbanites to the wilderness. Customers fell in love with the beauty of the wild river, made accessible by the Beaver. Originally equipped to carry aluminum boats, the Beavers proved ideal to carry paddlers and their gear to the headwaters. If weather conditions permitted, Ronny flew up river between the hills, providing his passengers a trip preview en route to Lac Benoit, the launch point for the popular three-day descent to the Ottawa River. With a round trip under an hour, the Beavers provided abundant shuttle capacity to the wilderness playground. By the early ’90s, canoe trip flights accounted for 90% of the summer bookings. In a continuing tradition, the first flight of the season carries Wally Schaber, and the inner circle of veteran river guides to Lac Dumoine, for the May 1 icebreaker run.

As Schaber says, “Starting a paddling trip with a Beaver flight sets the mood for adventure. There isn’t anything romantic about banging over logging roads for three hours, and nobody ever asked to have their picture taken with the driver in front of a dusty Suburban. Our Black Feather trips always fly in; Ronny and the Beaver are a huge part of our history and an occasion that everyone remembers. He taught me the true meaning of service, to treat customers like friends and make them clients.”

Ronny used his view from the Valley’s busiest airplane and astonishing memory to track the progress of the Black Feather trips and watch for those in difficulty. His parting words were always the same, “I’ll keep an eye out; wave if ya have trouble.” For tens of thousands of canoeists, the left float of C-FODA has been the headwater launching point for their Dumoine River adventure.

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Da Swisha tugboat

How a river obstacle became the site of the Valley’s busiest seaplane base

The Ottawa River settlement of Rapides-des-Joachims, or Da Swisha as it is known locally, came into being at an impassable river hazard and logical resting place at the bottom of a mile-long rapid. A historic meeting place of the Algonquin Indians, the Hudson Bay Company established a trading post and the Oblate Fathers a mission church at the island site. In the 1800s, the settlement grew as a logging and steamship depot and became the site of a road link joining the upper and lower shipping routes divided by the rapid. By the turn of the century, bridges linked the island village to both the Ontario and Quebec shores as an interprovincial transportation corridor. Construction of the hydro electric dam in 1951 silenced the once spectacular rapids, reducing Da Swisha to a river crossing and tranquil harbour that became home to a seaplane base.

By every measure, Da Swisha was an odd location for seaplanes. Shrouded in hills that trapped morning fog and funnelled the afternoon winds, with a bridge above and treacherous river currents with whirlpools below, it was not a fly-in for the meek. Even with aviation fuel available at the dock and abundant floatplane traffic, the Department of Transport never recognized it as an approved base. It was believed departmental inspectors found the one million logs that constituted the annual spring log drive to be an insurmountable obstacle. Technically, the base was upstream from the log chute, but large logs were frequently caught in the whirlpool and launched under the protective booms. Regular waterfront maintenance was required by Ronny with the aid of his antique tugboat.

Da Swisha pilots became skilled at spotting the sleeping pine and spruce giants. The spring of 1988 saw the last log drive on the Ottawa River, but even today, submerged deadheads can be a hazard to flight operations. |

Myro Mykolyshyn photo © 2011. All Rights Reserved