Tying Canoes to Bush Planes, Canada, circa 2013

Starting in late winter and on through spring, we get a steady trickle of inquiries from canoeists wanting to charter a floatplane with a canoe tied to it.    Their goal is to find an affordable way into or out of the north country at the start or end of a canoe trip.  Sadly, this flying of canoes (and kayaks, and small boats) strapped to floatplane struts has become quite difficult.  The difficulty is not the process (which, with some strong rope and a little common-sense airmanship, is stone simple), but the legalities and technicalities. 

There is one obvious solution, and that is to turn the clock back 110 years to the time before airplanes, and ask “what did people do then?”  Clearly paddlers in 1902 did not make recreational trips down the Back River, for instance, but they did go canoeing all around the North.   

And there is another solution, which I will mention at the far end of this post.  (Skip to there and go outside, if you like.)

Here it is tempting to rush in and say “Well if they really want to go on a wilderness canoe trek, they should just paddle from start to finish, and skip the airlift and its mechanized boost.” This is a sentiment which I have been known to utter, sometimes in exasperation, but it is good to remember that almost every wilderness trek involves some mechanized transport.  Even if you are going to go on a wilderness freedom walk,  hiking naked and barefoot with your burlap satchel slung over your shoulder on a spruce pole, you will – unless you depart from your front door (or climb out of the front hole of your burrow) – almost certainly arrive at your starting point with a mechanical boost from a car, motorcycle, bus, ferry, train, or airplane…

The history of “external loads” (as canoes on floatplane struts are poetically known in Transport Canada and F.A.A. vernacular) is one of increasing regulation and, unfortunately, much confusion and upheaval  in recent years.   Back a decade or so ago, it was pretty much “do it safely and train your pilots to do it safely, and proceed with caution, but go ahead and tie a canoe onto the struts of a floatplane.  Use common sense.”  Like so many things in our society, the lawyers and insurance underwriters and bureaucrats have unearthed another vestige of that old common-sense approach to life, and banished it more or less forever.   “WARNING!”, says the label on the woodstove:   “HOT WHEN IN USE!”  Really… who thinks of this stuff?

On December 31, 2010, a mere 30 months ago, those good old days of common-sense  compliance with relatively straightforward rules came to a halt.  I gather (but have not researched) that at about that same time, a similar change took place in the U.S.    Up until that date, we who operate commercial bush plane services in Canada were hauling canoes under an “exemption” to the Canadian Aviation Regulations – our beloved “CARs.”  We had all written External Load chapters and diagrams into our government – approved Operations Manuals.  So long as we documented our canoe-hauling, did a test flight after tying the canoe on and prior to carrying passengers, logged that test flight, and filed some year-end paperwork for the purpose of record-keeping, we were happy and legal when it came to canoe-hauling. 

That is all gone.  Now each operator must obtain what is called a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) or at least a Limited Supplemental Type Approval (LSTA) from Transport Canada, in order to carry canoes strapped to the struts.  Perhaps this is progress.  The real problem for small operators is that each STC must be specifically approved for each aircraft type and model, and – depending upon who at Bureacracy Central  is answering the question  that day – maybe even for the specific length and beam and make and model of canoe you are carrying! 

As a final nail in the coffin of the “common-sense external loads on small commercial bush planes” the mandatory flight testing evidently has to be done under the auspices of a designated aerodynamic consultant, and signed off by a Minister’s Delegate..  I say evidently because no one seems to say for certain that this is the only way to do the testing.  Checking into the possibility of doing this with our Bush Hawk, we received an estimate from a consultant, of $20,000 – with the caveat that any hardware, drawings, and so on would be extra costs on top of that – as would all the costs of doing many hours of test flying.  “Testing” something which was done safely and well by competent pilots for something like 75 years, mind you.  (Don’t get him started…)

In short, I have not completely given up on a return to the common-sense days of tying a canoe to the float struts and hauling canoeists back and forth from the tundra, but it is not a priority for us.   I do sympathize with the plight of the canoe parties too small to justify a larger aircraft, and I would like to provide this service, but right now we cannot do so.  The hours and dollars and piles of paperwork  just don’t match up with the benefits. 

On a lighter note I have tried to point out to the gurus at Transport Canada that Orville and Wilbur Wright were “external loads” at Kitty Hawk in 1903, but no one seems to find this quip quite as poignant and hilarious as I do.   

Bottom line – don’t despair, canoeists, because there are still many small bush plane services which can still legally tie canoes onto their planes, and they are scattered across northern Canada.  What the situation is in the U.S., I am not sure. 

As for our little company, all I can say is that a person has to choose his battles.   I am not sure I am going to fight this one. 

If I may be so bold as to predict the future, I would say that within fifteen  years or so the cost and complexities of chartering a floatplane of any size (from a Cessna to a Twin Otter) will have risen to the point where this mode of starting and ending northern canoe adventures will be relegated to a bygone era.  Already paddlers starting trips in the central Barrens are seeing charter bills for parties of six (with three canoes stuffed into a Twin Otter and a separate plane carrying the passengers)  upwards of $24,000. 

Even when split six or eight ways,  a bill of over $20,000 makes a very convincing argument for finding more affordable ways to reach the remote parts of the north.    Truck, boat, commercial airline, trains, combined with the one truly magical solution (however difficult for some paddlers to embrace):  – collapsible, i.e. take-it-apart-and pack- it-in-a-bag, canoes and kayaks.  

Not as pleasant to paddle as that old reliable Kevlar or cedar-strip or what-have-you, but perfectly welcome on any airline, train, bus, ferry, or floatplane.  Because it’s just a piece of baggage, and last time I checked we can still carry baggage in airplanes.  However, I think someone in Ottawa is looking into the baggage question, so stay tuned.  We may soon be even more protected from ourselves than we already are.

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  1. Megan Routley said:

    Ah ha! I barked out loud in laughter when I got to the “skip to there and go outside” for I’m plowing thru computer work and other inside gack…..with a beautiful day outside tugging hard. Paul sent this link and I had to stay put for another minute. Always a pleasure to read your insights Dave. I remember something you once said that has always stuck with me. “You gotta laugh or you’d cry” I can hardly stand it anymore…all this protection from ourselves. Drives me mental. I think over time the brain is going to be bred right out of homo sapian. Or is our brain too large? Hope you’re all doing well up there. You’re in my thoughts often.

  2. Guntram Wagner said:

    Hi Dave,
    thank you for your post. As an EU-citizen and canoeist I’m kind of relieved that we’re not alone in the world with our bureaucrazy to (over-)regulate nearly all aspects of everyday life away from “the common-sense-approach” (a wonderful expression concerning in our countries for example the regulation of canoe-traffic on quite a lot of lakes and rivers). But nevertheless it doesn’t help to overcome the legal problems of carrying canoes in the wild. And I don’t want to pinpoint on canadians and americans and to gloat over that. It seems to be a phenomenom of western societies. Merely I want to express my sorrow about that issue and I hope you can balance out the loss of canoe business.
    Thank you for your interesting blog!
    Bye, Guntram from Germany

  3. Gordon Hommes said:

    Over twenty grand for a canoe trip?!!! When we (4 of us) paddled from Yellowknife to Baker Lake back in 1991, the total cost of the trip was $6000 (1,500 per person). 41 days on the water, barge out the canoes, fly commercial to Churchill, train south. Being long on time and short on cash has always been my rationale to avoid flying, but the 2000 bucks we saved by not flying from Yellowknife to Reliance seems trivial in this day and age.

    One can only describe the regulations that effectively ban the external transport of canoes on bush planes as idiotic.

    With a chunk of time, like 4 to 8 weeks, an arctic paddle can still be done at a reasonable cost, especially if you sell your canoe at the end of the trip in a northern community and don’t have to fly it out (find a used Tripper on eBay, and this is not a big sacrifice). I suspect most folks don’t have that option–or don’t want to be in the bush for that long–so, if your cost prediction comes true, the Far North will effectively become the sole domain of the big mining corporations or any other enterprise that can extract resources from the land.

    Excellent blog.

  4. Dave-
    Discovered your blog not long ago and it makes me wax nostalgic for my days in the North. I built a log cabin on Nonacho Lake in 1975 and spent many summers and one winter there. Your comments about external loads make me sad. I remember helping Merlyn Carter tie everything from pianos, to tractors, to 16 foot Lund boats to the pontoons of his single Otter CZP. It was part of the magic of the North. You are also right on about the barrenlands, I did a canoe trip (pak-boats) north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska this summer and could not believe how lush the landscape was and the amount of wildlife we saw. The NWT is another story, but sometimes, the emptiness was all the more astonishing. But I also remember the morning in late November when the caribou arrived at Nonacho and with them the wolves, foxes, ravens, even the hares and for ten weeks the bush was alive. But maybe those days are gone. The snot has been knocked out of the Beverly Caribou Herd perhaps to a point of no return, and I wonder if the Bathurst herd can avoid the same fate. In any case please keep writing, your words resonate with the truth. And your voice is important.
    Happy Trails,
    Rob Kesselring

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