By Michael Chaput The Storm - "My land is not a land, it is winter" - Gilles Vigneault I awoke to a fate worse than death, the Macarena blaring from my clock radio, mercilessly shattering my peaceful slumber and setting the tone for what would no doubt be a miserable day. My alarm had been strategically positioned in the opposite corner of the room to force me out of bed, and on this morning became the target for pillow and sock projectiles - anything that would stop the excruciating pain in my ears. Then, as if by divine intervention, it ceased abruptly, and I lifted my head from its comfy nest to uncover the cause of the welcomed interruption. The electricity was off. A symphony of snaps, crackles, and pops, loudly reverberated in the room, the result of a bad hangover, a realistic dream about cereal or some bizarre meteorological occurrence outdoors. I finally succumbed to my curiosity and hauled myself out of bed, opening the curtains to expose the new day. THE JOURNEY DAY ONE DAY TWO DAY THREE DAY FOUR DAY FIVE
It was January 1998. Freezing rain was teeming down. Roads and sidewalks resembled skating rinks, littered with the splintered remains of fallen branches and downed electrical and telephone lines. This was day one of the storm.
Freezing rain continued to ravage Southern Quebec for four days, crippling the city of Montreal and plunging the entire region into darkness. The ice storm, as it has commonly been referred to, spared few of its wrath. My father Denis, a Boeing 767 captain, was flying contently on the other side of the big pond when the ice storm struck. He returned home to discover his recent purchase, a 1952 Piper Super Cub, C-GQWN, had unwillingly fallen prey to the storm, crushed under the weight of five inches of ice that had amassed on the airframe. It had been awaiting work outside of a hangar at a local airport when the storm pummeled it.
Damage to the aircraft was impressive. Both rear wing struts had collapsed under the weight of the ice, awkwardly twisting the wings as the ice receded toward the trailing edge. If this wasn’t sufficient, the ice punctured the fabric on the fuselage as it fell from the wings.
I cringe when imagining my father’s expression the first time he laid eyes on the pathetic remains of his new plane. He had yet to fly the aircraft. I shared his disappointment. A pilot and aviation junkie myself, I viewed the purchase of his aircraft as an opportunity to further partake in his life and share our collective passion for aviation. It is often difficult to bridge the generation gap in father-son relationships, and ours was sometimes, even often, no exception.
Attired morbidly in black with an earring, and coifed with artificially colored hair, spiked in every direction as if I had received a 220-volt shock, I certainly did not conform to Dad’s expectations. In stark contrast, Dad’s crew cut had remained unchanged since Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. His wardrobe was conservative, consisting primarily of timeless classics. He eagerly bragged that this way he was "always in style."
Time is a wonderful thing, however. We’re both a little older, wiser, and, in Dad’s case, a tad heavier. I love and admire my father. He is a softhearted man, although he does make you dig deep to find it on occasion. And flying now gives us something additional to talk about.
Aviation is also responsible for saving my life. Self-destructive as a young adult, with little respect for others and even less for myself, I awoke one day to discover that I had lost everything precious in my life. After hitting rock bottom, the need to focus my energy on constructive endeavours became apparent. I enrolled in flight school shortly thereafter. The rest is history.
His bird grounded, Dad was faced with an interesting dilemma. The insurance money would obviously only cover damage inflicted by the storm. Yet, with so much damage done to the aircraft at this point, it seemed almost absurd not to take the repairs a step further.
Reconstruction was a tedious ordeal, ultimately lasting a full year and 1,400 man-hours. The wings were rebuilt from scratch. The engine cowling, windows and floors were replaced. New equipment was added - a panel-mounted Garmin 90 GPS, an encoding transponder, an HF radio, and a Bendix-King KY-97 Alpha radio, amongst other goodies. A new colour scheme topped off the sundae, Lock Haven yellow with the classic black lighting bolt.
The maiden flight of C-GQWN came about somewhat by surprise. I had spent the initial week of my vacation at home, mindlessly watching Simpsons reruns, renting movies and hitting countless golf balls. Unexpectedly, I received a phone call from my mother inquiring whether I would be interested in accompanying my father and a friend to Quebec’s Lower North Shore region in a pair of Super Cubs. I agreed without pausing to catch my breath.
The Lower North Shore region of Quebec is a sparsely populated area that spans the north shore of the St-Lawrence River from Sept-Iles to Labrador. Small fishing communities caress the shoreline, separated by vast distances and ever-changing landscapes. Isolation is characteristic of most of the coastal communities since road travel is extremely limited. Air transportation has become the essential lifeline to the region and as such, that the majority of communities have exceptional airport facilities.
Our travel mate, Marc Girard, is another Super Cub enthusiast. He also served as guide, having lived in various communities along the Lower North Shore during his life. Four serial numbers separate Marc’s C-GBSO and my father’s aircraft, an interesting tidbit when you consider the thousands of Super Cubs built over the years.
Our Super Cub adventure initiated from our home base of Beloeil, which is located just east of Montreal. We immediately punched the airport identifier for Quebec City into our GPS. From Quebec we proceeded over Ile d’Orleans to the north shore of the St-Lawrence River. After four hours of flight at altitudes often exceeding 8,000 feet in order to avoid the light chop below, we landed in Baie-Comeau to refuel our aircraft and grumbling stomachs. The Special K, as Marc commented, had worn off. I could only muster a pitiful 5.6 from the Brazilian judge for my less-than-graceful, pavement-kissing dismount from the aircraft upon arrival, a result of numbness in my lower extremities. A spacious limousine with ample legroom, the Super Cub most certainly is not!
Following lunch, I flew my inaugural leg in the front seat, between Baie-Comeau and Sept-Iles. The weather was less than perfect, rain showers, low ceiling, and turbulence, but visibility was good and we continued on. My first traildragger approach and landing were far from textbook. Actually, they were far from good, prompting a friendly laugh from a local station attendant who had witnessed the little yellow bird bouncing to a halt. "Just learning, aren’t you?" he asked as I embarrassingly withdrew my head from the aircraft. I replied with a smile.
Sept-Iles (Seven Islands), a fishing and mining community with a population of 25,000 people, is incredibly far removed from the bustling sounds and lights of Montreal. Here life operates at a different pace and rhythm. The city, named for the seven islands that protect its bay, is the last urban post before the great wilderness, and because of its location, serves as a gateway to several northern communities as well as the Lower North Shore and Anticosti Island.
We booked a couple of rooms on the waterfront and relaxed following our long day, but it wasn’t long before our appetites got the best of us and we headed out. When eating while abroad, I have but one philosophy: go local. When visiting the Lower North Shore, seafood is the only choice. Following an exquisite and abundant feast of crab, shrimp, and scallops, inducing the ritual unfastening of buttons, we wobbled down to the old wharf to soak in the local scene.
I’ve become a tad superstitious over the years, so needless to say I had a warm, fuzzy feeling about the day ahead when my breakfast plate, consisting of eggs and bacon resembled a happy face. A quick call to FSS confirmed what I had already suspected – an abundance of VFR weather along our route for the day. Flying the Lower North Shore east of Sept-Iles requires considerable planning. Scantily populated, vast distances separate most communities. Furthermore, hotel accommodations and aviation services are not available at all stations along the coast. While no air traffic control is present in the region, the Flight Service Station in Sept-Iles offers weather and advisory VHF communication services within several of the traffic zones along the way to Lourdes-de-Blanc-Sablon.
With yesterday’s shoddy effort neatly tucked into my experience cap, I buckled myself into the front seat to continue our journey. Favourable tailwinds allowed us the uncommon but highly appreciated luxury of a 125-mph ground speed. East of Sept-Iles, the north shore topography transforms radically. Moors, bogs, wetlands and boreal forest dominate the land.
A minor problem forced us to land in Mingan, a recently decommissioned airport used by the military as a maritime patrol base during the Second World War. As if the strong westerly winds weren’t sufficient to contend with, the new tenants of the airport, the gulls, were less than compliant during our approach and subsequent departure.
The Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve is the largest attraction in the area, comprised of a unique collection of more than 40 limestone islands spread out over more than 100 miles from Longue-Pointe to Aguanish. Monoliths and rock arches, eroded by water action, ice and the natural chemical reaction between water and limestone, stand resplendently in tribute to mother nature. The islands also support a great diversity of bird and mammal life, including the colourful Atlantic puffin, and nine species of whales, including the blue and humpback, which come to this part of the Gulf to indulge in the all-you-can-eat marine buffet.
Our small repair complete, we departed Mingan for Natashquan, the last refueling stop west of Lourdes-de-Blanc-Sablon. Along the way, we soared over the archipelago, eyes fixated on the pristine blue waters below, relentlessly searching for the spout of a humpback. Disappointment set in when none was encountered.
Our track then took us over Havre-St-Pierre, the largest community east of Sept-Iles with a population of nearly 3,500 people and Baie-Johan-Beetz, a tiny village of 110 souls named for a Belgian aristocrat who immigrated there prior to the turn of the 20th century. Aguanish followed shortly thereafter.
In Natashquan, a spectacular white beach, visited by the great French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534, stretches six kilometers north from the river mouth, welcoming visitors from the west. Natashquan is the eastern terminus of the north shore highway and birthplace of one of Quebec’s most prolific poets, Gilles Vigneault. His beloved land and people foremost in his words and music, Vigneault also commonly wrote about the severity of the local climate. Although temperatures occasionally exceed 18 C during the summer months, they usually hover around 13 C in July, and the winters are downright harsh. Upon arrival, we learned a valuable lesson: always make arrangements for fuel when exploring these parts, especially on Sunday. We waited upwards of an hour for an attendant to arrive.
Shortly after topping up our tanks, we flew directly over the first of the roadless communities, the quaint fishing village of Kegaska. However beautiful, the loneliness of such isolation seemed overwhelming to these urban eyes.
From Kegaska to the Strait of Belle-Isle, the landscape becomes increasingly rugged. Boreal forests pull back to the interior, allowing moss and lichen to monopolize the terrain. A sprawling network of small islands, shaped by ice and water and polished by rain and unrelentless wind, powders the coastline, allowing us the privilege of flying over open water while still ensuring ample glide distance to land in the event of engine problems. Whenever my enthusiasm carried us a little too far offshore, the words "Mike, you know I can’t swim" echoed in my headset.
The villages of Chevery and Harrington Harbour were next to appear. Harrington Harbour, with a population of nearly 300, is renown as one of the most charming villages in all of Canada. A wooden boardwalk links all buildings in town. Nestled comfortably on a secluded island, Harrington is accessible only by boat or helicopter, which depart from neighboring Chevery.
The towns of Tete-a-la-Baleine, Mutton Bay, La Tabatiere, St-Augustin, and Middle Bay pass beneath us. Our destination, Lourdes-de-Blanc-Sablon, is the easternmost point in the Province of Quebec, and borders on Labrador. Upon arrival, we arranged for accommodations. We were greeted hospitably at the door by the innkeeper who immediately asked whether we would be interested in seeing his mongoose, the tail of which was only slightly visible in a homemade cage at his feet. Cautiously inching closer to catch a glimpse of the animal, our heart rates surged when a trap door suddenly snapped open, flinging a lifeless animal pelt in our direction. After performing CPR on Dad, we laughed incessantly.
In Lourdes-de-Blanc-Sablon, old and new collide. Atop Cap-aux-Corbeaux, next to a statue of the Virgin Mary, images of great ships emerging from the fog are evoked, the eerie growl of a foghorn faintly heard, the flickering of an old lighthouse spotted in the distance. Gulls soar high above the hills, circling in the updrafts in search of their next meal. On the dusty road below, an old truck rattles by. A 70-kilometre road links Lourdes-de-Blanc-Sablon and Red Bay, Labrador. There is also ferry service to St-Barbe in nearby Newfoundland.
Overcast skies, high winds, and rain were forecast for most of the Lower North Shore region, grounding us from our return home. With a day of spare time on our hands, we elected to rent a car and visit Red Bay.
The drive was spectacular. Along the shoreline, rugged cliffs drop abruptly into the ocean. Icebergs carried by the ocean current casually drift by to melt in the warmer Gulf Stream to the south. Mountains, sculpted into intriguing shapes, are littered with large rocks deposited by glaciers in random patterns. Away from the sea, snuggled in cozy inlets, houses are built on rock, without trees for protection.
The tiny town of Red Bay owns a storied past. During the 16th century, it was the centre of Basque whaling operations in the region. Appropriately named, the water in the bay was said to turn red with blood during the slaughter of the animals.
Strong westerly winds were forecast, but otherwise fine VFR conditions for the trip back to Sept-Iles. Dubbed the "poor man’s helicopter" for obvious reasons, the Super Cub’s take-off performance in the blustery morning conditions was astounding. The strong surface winds were also present aloft, confining our ground speed to 65 mph.
The slow trip back to Sept-Iles allowed for several hours of reflection. It occurred to me that the Lower North Shore is a great contradiction. On one hand, it is a barren, rugged, frigid, uninhabited, God-forsaken land. On the other hand, the Lower North Shore is almost Edenesque, a paradise of blue skies, majestic beaches, awe-inspiring landscapes, picturesque villages, and warm people, completely uncorrupted by the industrialized world at large.
I was saddened by our return. The trip had been wonderful so far. My co-existence with Dad had been effortless and thoroughly pleasant. We had shared flying duties, living arrangements, meals, a few beers, and hours of stimulating conversation. Most importantly, we enjoyed each other’s company.
A surprise awaited us in Sept-Iles. After tying down the aircraft, we hitched a ride into town only to find no vacancies whatsoever. We rented a car and drove to Port-Cartier, 50 kilometres away.
After loading up the Super Cubs for the final time, we departed Sept-Iles for Montreal, via Baie-Comeau, Forrestville and Montmagny. Just west of Forrestville, Marc radioed to us to look down immediately. Directly below us in the St-Lawrence were two gigantic humpback whales. Fumbling for my camera, I realized that I had recently taken the last picture of the roll and had not reloaded. I reluctantly resigned myself to recording the image to memory. Further west over the Tadoussac region, we were again blessed by the gods above, spotting two dozen beluga, easily visible from our altitude because of their distinctive white colour. It was a wonderful site and a fitting end to our trip.
Besides being the longest uninterrupted time that I’ve spent with my father in years, it was also unquestionably the greatest. Life scatters us and keeps us apart. Aviation brings people together. Not only does it physically transport us from one location to another, but the euphoric sensation it delivers to those few who dream of the skies is intensified when shared. Aviation has certainly brought me closer to my father. What more could I possibly want??
By Michael Chaput
The Storm - "My land is not a land, it is winter" - Gilles Vigneault
I awoke to a fate worse than death, the Macarena blaring from my clock radio, mercilessly shattering my peaceful slumber and setting the tone for what would no doubt be a miserable day. My alarm had been strategically positioned in the opposite corner of the room to force me out of bed, and on this morning became the target for pillow and sock projectiles - anything that would stop the excruciating pain in my ears. Then, as if by divine intervention, it ceased abruptly, and I lifted my head from its comfy nest to uncover the cause of the welcomed interruption. The electricity was off. A symphony of snaps, crackles, and pops, loudly reverberated in the room, the result of a bad hangover, a realistic dream about cereal or some bizarre meteorological occurrence outdoors. I finally succumbed to my curiosity and hauled myself out of bed, opening the curtains to expose the new day.