Enjoying the wilderness on the wings of a Beaver

Published on August 9, 2014

What are some of the most iconic and recognizable symbols of the Canadian wilderness?

Think of your favourite artwork depicting folks doing stuff around woods and waters. I bet canoes are in there, either front and centre or looming in the background to generate serene atmosphere.

This versatile and truly Canadian watercraft always gives me that goose-bumpy, woodsy feeling when depicted on canvas either by brush or lens. I have a lovely painting on my living room wall that includes a perfectly proportioned birch bark canoe pulled ashore on the edge of a flat calm lake. The sun is setting and two very voyageur-looking men are smoking pipes and preparing camp for the night. I won this piece from one of those shopping mall Ducks Unlimited silent auctions. For the satisfaction it has given me, and knowing that the money went to a very worthwhile cause, I got a stellar deal.

Another symbol of wilderness that needs no formal introduction in adventure circles is the essential snowshoe. You can’t go anywhere in the winter without a pair of racquets on your feet. Their appearance has changes much from the original deal, fashioned by hand from birch and hide, but they are as indispensable as they ever were. The modern ones are lighter and longer lasting, but you can’t beat those traditionals — Algonquin, Ojibwa and Bear Paw — for their artistic charm and nostalgic appeal. I still use mine sometimes, like when I get disillusioned with the new age.

Notice that both these iconic symbols have to do with wilderness travel. That’s not surprising. You have to travel to enjoy the outdoors.

Another mode of transportation and symbol of the Canadian outdoors is the bushplane, without which the wilderness would be inaccessible to all but the hardiest runners of the woods, like the boys in my painting. While the canoe and snowshoes opened up the frontier in the fur trade era, it was the airplane on floats that provide access to the 20th-century Canadian North.

Is there anyone that has travelled the North and not landed on a lake to the harmony of a rotating propeller and pulsing cylinders?

No one airplane symbolizes the northern regions of our country, and wild places in general, more than the most iconic bushplane of them all — the de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver.

Why, I wonder? Let’s investigate a bit.

What are the generally accepted attributes of an aircraft designated as a bush plane? At the top of the list today, just as it was for the de Havilland engineers in 1946, is STOL (or for those not versed in aviation terminology, short takeoff and landing capability). There aren’t a whole lot of long runways in the north woods. In lots of places there aren’t any airstrips at all.

Another critical element of a bushplane is the ability to be fitted with winter skis and summer floats, in addition to traditional wheels. Bushplanes also need the capability to carry lots of freight, all shapes and sizes of stuff. The Beaver’s doors were specifically fashioned to allow loading of 45-gallon drums, and on both sides. Why on both sides? You don’t know which side of the dock you might be tethered to, depends on the wind.

Makes sense doesn’t it?

De Havilland wisely sought the advice of real-life bush pilots when tasking its design team to put together the Beaver. Armchair experts would most certainly have failed.

Here’s a funny one. You know how professionals in any area of endeavour are often not very open to end-user advice. It’s always a mistake when you think you know what’s best for someone else, especially a client.

So the aeronautical whizzes at de Havilland were correct to point out that all this bush stuff was going to slow the Beaver down quite substantially. They were fresh off designing warplanes where speed is essence. A pilot in the consultation process responded with, “It only has to be faster than a dogsled.” That was the end of that debate.

The engineers heeded experienced woodsman pilots. The result, the Beaver, was super reliable and did everything without complaint that a bush pilot required of it, better than any other aircraft.

The first Beaver went into service in April of 1948. The Ontario Department of Lands and Forests put the first one to good use. With a 450-horsepower engine the airplane’s takeoff and load-carrying capability was amazing. Initial sales were slow, but the wonders of this incredibly capable bushplane soon became obvious and widely known.

By the time production ceased in 1967, 1,657 Beavers had been built.

What’s even more amazing is that many hundreds of them are still in service, not for nostalgia, but because the Beaver remains to this day the best available tool for the job. There are few better options for ferrying folks and gear in and out of remote lakes and rivers. There are many outfitters and fishing camp owners who have upgraded from a new Cessna to an old Beaver.

I can’t think of another piece of technology that has such remarkable longevity and bragging rights.

The United States military continues to operate two DHC-2s at the United States Naval Test Pilot School, where they are used to instruct students in the evaluation of lateral-directional flying qualities and to tow gliders.

Harrison Ford collects private planes and his absolute favourite is a Beaver.

All across Canada Beavers are still used as primary transportation for hunting and fishing camps. There are a few still flying at home here in Newfoundland.

Both Thorburn Aviation and Clarenville Aviation use them in their Thorburn Lake operations.

Jim Burton still uses a Beaver, vintage 1951, to service his hunting and fishing camps in Labrador.

I’ve flown in Jim’s Beaver a few times, most recently, with Jim himself at the controls, on a trout fishing trip to Igloo Lake.

The de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver is considered by aviation historians to be the classic Canadian bushplane, a single-engine, short takeoff and landing utility aircraft that’s never been bettered. In 2008, the Royal Canadian Mint issued a special gold coin honouring the DHC-2 Beaver. In 1987, the Canadian Engineering Centennial Board named the DHC-2 one of the Top 10 Canadian engineering achievements of the 20th century.

Some things are tough to improve — snowshoes, canoes, the 30-06 Springfield, the de Havilland Beaver. I’m going to have a look on eBay for one of those gold coins.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at flyfishtherock@hotmail.com  or follow him on twitter at @flyfishtherock