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An Ottawa Valley flying legend page 4

Story by Mike O’MalleyPrincipal photography by Karel Van Duyse

But even these simple instructions proved too complex for some. Chris Harris was guiding a group of doctors on a team-building exercise–a guide’s nightmare. Many lacked ability, but none lacked attitude. Chris, a superb river guide with two decades of experience found keeping this group together akin to herding cats. Self motivated well beyond their abilities, the trip turned into a mile-long garage sale of camping gear with bobbing physicians scattered across several sets of rapids. Chris regained group composure but came up two short on the head count. Experience sent him to the only phone on the river at the Dumoine Club to call for aerial support. Ronny flew a sortie and reported back that the missing pair were up river several sets of rapids. “Any distress,” asked Chris? “No,” replied Ronny, “They were just sitting on a rock taking my picture.” Chris paddled to them and was horrified to find that one doctor had broken his leg. “Why didn’t you wave to the plane for help,” asked Chris. The doctor explained that he was a trained Queen’s Scout and had issued concise instructions to the plane in Morse code using his signal mirror. Chris stabilized the injured doctor and transported him by canoe to the Dumoine Club and called Ronny for a medevac to Deep River. To this day, the exact Morse code instructions go unrecorded, but the story of “12 doctors named Bob” remains a campfire standard among Black Feather guides.

After years of building their businesses with a common group of clients, Wally and Ronny developed a mutual respect that runs far deeper than a business relationship. As fellow historians and nature conservers, they shared a strong sense of stewardship for the land beneath the wings of the Beaver and campaigned against logging and uncontrolled road development in the Pontiac. Ronny diligently watched over Wally and Chris’s interests, insisting their young river guides maintain the highest standards of decorum at all times.

If the Gardes de Chasse had been Ronny’s preferred clients, the self-outfitted executive canoeists were likely his least. They confounded his schedule by arriving late, unprepared to begin their dockside ritual of unpacking, debating and re-packing before requesting the bill be divided four ways on Visa cards. In Ronny’s polite and organized world, these were self-important and inconsiderate folk, woefully unfamiliar with checklists and ill-suited to travel on a wilderness river. Customers nonetheless, they were treated with courtesy but only a polite smile. Ronny worried most about these groups, as they often insisted on travelling without a qualified guide, believing their Hap Wilson guide book would see them through the hazardous whitewater. Often, Ronny followed their progress from above, communicating with the Black Feather guides to remain alert and watchful for these amateurs until they were safely back in the Ottawa River basin.

Common sense produces uncommon safety
According to Paddy Doyle, “No one can maintain an aircraft like Ron Bowes. He has only one standard, and that’s perfect.” In the Da Swisha operation, his combined role of mechanic, pilot and base manager allowed single-minded good sense to prevail over paperwork, resulting in a base log of more than 55,000 flight hours with a flawless customer safety record. Reluctantly compliant, no Transport Canada rule irritated Ronny more than the maximum monthly pilot time limit. At peak season, he and second Beaver pilot John McCullagh ran out of hours long before they ran out of month. Nothing worried him more than his passengers and aircraft in the hands of pilots inexperienced with the local conditions. A great deal of time was spent shuffling around pilot schedules to keep both his and John’s time available for difficult flights. Conditioned as a dairy farmer, daily dusk-to-dawn work seemed more natural than strangers flying in his sky. The safety benefit of the rule eluded both Ronny and his passengers.

Ronny’s skill as a master pilot was fully proven by two in-flight engine failures, both of which were turned into uneventful dead stick water landings. The beauty of the two-Beaver operation was the ability to quickly transport spares and tools to the disabled plane without outside help.

Respect for the value of aircraft was instilled in all his pilots, maintainers and dock hands. Abuse of any kind was not tolerated and reprimands were swift and severe. Violators were usually pressed to assist with maintenance at dusk, providing memorable lessons during blackfly season.

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