Joined: Mon Feb 23, 2004 9:29 am
Location: The Frozen North
|Here is a link to an orientation for canoe trip charter passengers, handy to be able to email them,.along with your company's specific information.
For those of you who are two impatient to click on a link, here you are:
Flying to and from Rivers in Canada
Also see Cliff Jacobson's book, Canoeing Wild Rivers.
Cliff also has a very short article, Flying Your Canoe, in Canoe & Kayak Magazine, October, 1997, page 13.
Chartering a floatplane sounds expensive, and it is, compared to the costs of regular surface transportation. It also sounds like a real hassle, but it's usually quite easy. Then, too, it is the only way to access many of the 'real' wilderness canoeing rivers or areas. Flying one way, usually in, and then paddling back to the road and your car usually isn't too expensive. Because you can split flight costs with your tripping companions, flying a whole party, all gear, and boats into a river, can still be a relatively cheap vacation. Flying a canoe both in and out of a distant river is more expensive. It definitely raises the price above what all but hard-core wilderness paddlers are willing to pay for an on-water vacation trip. You'll see more wildlife and fewer people when you fly, and the wildlife to people ratio usually gets better when you fly both ways.
Some Preliminary Info
Most charter services either have a set price to a location or charge by the air mile. Either way, they should be able to tell you over the phone exactly what your trip will cost when you first call, or at worst, call or fax you back in a day or two with an official quote. Some pilots in popular areas might have a set price for "From here to Lake Far Away," -- known because they fly there very often, but other, less used destinations might have to be figured. Larger planes carry more weight and bulk, but are more expensive to run, so flying in them will cost you more. They can often work out to be less expensive for a larger group, though.
Most charter services figure flight charges on a "per mile" basis, and this includes the round trip distance in the air for the plane (usually figured line of sight, not dodging mountains). If you drive to the sea-plane base and fly into a lake, you are also charged for the return trip the plane has to make. Some rivers might be cheaper if you drive to a lake closer to your drop-off point and meet the plane flying into there rather than at its base. You will probably be charged for that milage, as well, plus the trip home after dropping you off. If the non-base meeting point is closer to your destination, you pay for less milage each trip, and there might be a lower "unloaded rate" for such hops. Can't hurt to ask.
In 1997, in the southern Yukon, A Cessna 185 averaged about $2.50 a mile. A Beaver was about $4.00 a mile, a Single Otter about $6.00, and a Twin Otter about $8-10.00 (all Canadian $). $4 a mile for 200 miles is $800 a flight. That's a lot of money, especially compared to the car used to get to the plane. Heck, that's expensive even for a jet ticket to visit my friends in Germany. But, remember that you are flying personalized service -- your schedule, and no other passengers in line to get on and off the plane in front of you. Your trip companions will each pay a share, and that can make a per-person fly-in canoe trip not bad at all. Those prices above will vary a bit for different areas of Canada and may be out of date already. Usually the more remote the area you are flying from, the higher the price because of aviation fuel costs delivered to the plane base.
Some air services will discount a bit, especially if you prepay, or at least put a reasonable deposit down for your flight (often nonrefundable if you can't go). I'd consider the deposit worth it if you are serious about your trip. What are the chances a flood on your river or predictions of long term bad weather just before or during your scheduled fly-in will cause a no-go? A discount is more likely in popular canoeing areas where there might be competition for the same service. Some operations will quote a firm price -- others will discount maybe 10% of their published fares, sometimes more. Don't count on it, though.
For payment, I've been able to write a check sometimes, even on an American bank, but don't count on this. Certified checks and traveler's checks are usually okay, and most large (and even many small) charter flight services will now take credit cards. That can simplify things a lot, especially as the credit card company has to figure exchange rates. I would definitely ask about method of payment options before leaving home and ending up at a plane base unable to pay for the service. You'll almost always pay before you fly.
Pick a river, how many in your group, what boats (and might they nest? -- info below), how much gear, and when are you going. Remember that if the number of people and boats changes between your commitment date and actually flying, your trip costs will change, too. Unless you like traveling alone, or with just one companion (spouse or other real good friend), you'll discover that splitting costs with a small group can save you some money. Four people, two boats and gear on one flight in a larger airplane is often (not always) cheaper than two separate flights, even on a smaller plane.
Something even better is called 'split fares.' This is splitting the costs of a flight with another group who, at the same time, might be taking out where you put in, or putting in where you take out. The pilot hauls one group in and the other out on the return flight (rather than fly empty one way), and you split the costs of about half the trip with another group. This scenerio is not real likely, but can happen in more popular canoeing areas like the Nahanni Country. I've not had any luck with split fares yet, but you might be able to save some money if your schedule is flexible enough to arrange this with another party (usually through the charter service). One or both groups may have to be able to move their scheduled put-in or take out date a day or so to make it work, but the cost savings can be significant enough to make it worthwhile. The flight service may make less money than with two complete fares, but they make more than if they lose one of them to another pilot. It also frees up their time for more chargeable flights, so most charter services will work with you on this. Definitely ask.
Steps in Finding a Pilot and Plane
Check with the tourist bureau in the territory (or province) your prospective river is in for a list of charter floatplane companies. The Canadian Government Office of Tourism
has links to pages with addresses of the tourism offices for each province and territory on it. Another general tourism link to try is
You might even find some useful Web site URLs on those pages, but few provinces have much info suitable to us self sufficient wilderness travelers yet. You will have to write for info until the Web is recognized as a useful medium by more government bureaus and businesses. While you are writing, also request a provincial or territorial road map, a campground list, and a hotel/motel list if you are feeling rich. For future reference ask for copies of any documented canoe routes they have.
Telephone, fax or write any air services that sound as if they might cover the area you are interested in and tell them what you want to do and approximately when. Calling them is highly recommended as most charter companies are small and seldom have much in secretarial services. You'll often be talking or corresponding directly with a pilot. You need to know if they'll for sure go where you want, what planes they have on floats (or wheels, if there's an available landing strip near the river), and what loads they'll carry in each with one or more canoes tied on outside. Have them add up all their charges and include GST, Provincial, and local taxes. Not all operators charge a canoe tie-on or an outside load fee, but many do, especially those in popular canoeing areas. A charge can range from $25 to $75 a boat. Ask about any other special surcharges. You want to know exactly how much it will cost you, and in writing.
The Common Floatplanes
Following are some general load guidelines. Be sure to ask what your pilot will not allow you carry on a flight (see hazardous items below). Equipment bulk is often more of a problem than weight, mainly because expedition paddlers try to keep weight down anyway. The canoe as an outside load of a floatplane complicates things, though. Enough so that it is usually illegal to carry one anywhere in United States airspace, including Alaska.
A Cessna 185 will carry about 800 pounds. That's good for two passengers, gear, and a canoe on the floats. Laurie, John, Dennis, and I don't travel real light, and we've never had any trouble with either space or gear. We've only done two trips in Cessna 185s, though, and both were short flights of 80 and 110 miles one way. The pilot may be more demanding of weight limits on a longer flight. I've heard from a plane mechanic that Cessna 206s on floats can have problems getting off the water when loaded heavily, so be careful of them when carrying boats.
One pilot mentioned to me that in some areas (not his!) a new Canadian law says it's now illegal to carry a canoe on a Cessna 185, so I recommend getting a written commitment from the company before you drive up. Many Cessna pilots will not carry boats longer than 17 feet on their plane. I have had an 18½ footer on one for a short flight with no problems, but not all pilots will do that.
A DeHavilland Beaver's payload is about 1,200 pounds. There is no problem with one canoe outside, two passengers, and a lot of gear. Beaver pilots of long ago (1970s) used to carry one canoe on each pontoon (unnested), but that no longer happens. Many pilots will still carry two canoes at the same time, but only if they nest, which requires the seats and thwarts (including the portage yoke) be removed on the larger boat. The smaller canoe is then placed inside the bigger one, and the two are tied on as one boat. A party of four in two canoes, traveling fairly light, can often get into a not too distant river in one trip with a Beaver. These planes can both land on, and take off from, smaller lakes than most other bush planes.
(Find out which canoes will nest)
A Single Otter (also DeHavilland) will fly about 2,000 pounds. It easily carries four passengers, all the gear you want, plus two canoes on the floats. Pilots vary. One commercial outfitter told me that, in the early 1990s, he had a pilot carry seven canoes strapped to the pontoons for a Single Otter flight, admittedly without an excess of gear inside, and no passengers along. I've heard of other pilots of Singles who refuse to carry more than one canoe at a time. I, personally, have seen three canoes on one Single Otter flight (two tandems and a solo, also carrying passengers), though I wasn't on that flight.
The Twin Otter (another DeHavilland) is the workhorse of the bushplanes with a payload of 3,000 pounds. Six paddlers, three 18 foot canoes without portage yokes, and gear for a month will usually fit inside the plane. On one 250 mile flight in we had the above, plus an extra drum of fuel inside (which really stinks), so the plane would make it back. I've heard of four boats in the cockpit -- two of them solos, with one nested inside a larger tandem. The Twin is the least expensive floatplane for a party of six, and what we try to use when flying. Because everything is inside the plane, they are also the safest. Twins are not available in all areas, though.
Remember, the above payloads are theoretical maximums for a reasonable flight distance. Depending on the pilot, it might be less with a canoe on the pontoon struts, especially for a longer flight. A good standard rule for outside loads is to figure that a canoe decreases payload by about 20%. Some services figure a flat weight for the canoe on the float, typically about 400 lbs. Check for allowances with operators in the area you are considering, and the river run you plan on doing.
Get it in Writing
After talking on the phone, you need to formally arrange a flight with a letter of commitment. Some charter companies require a deposit, some don't. In your letter, restate all the facts as agreed to on the phone. Flight date, flight time, prices, payment method, when how much money is due, etc. How many people, how many boats, how much gear, how many flights. If you change the arrangements later, expect the price to change accordingly. The pilot or dispatcher needs to know all this, usually well before you get there, so they can arrange their schedule.
With a reasonable (nonrefundable?) deposit and letter of commitment, most charter companies should hold the price quoted against milage charge increases between the time of commitment and your flight. You might want to ask about this on the phone and mention it in your letter. Paying in cash, or by certified check upon arrival might also be sufficient to overcome price increases.
Things to Remember
1. Remember that milage charges are computed from the floatplane base, and are round-trip for the plane, so flight logistics are easiest if you start and end your trip there. As mentioned above, it is sometimes logistically easier (and sometimes cheaper) to have the pilot meet you somewhere else, especially if there isn't a flight service at or near your proposed put-in or take-out. My group has been offered a "quantity discount" with a small plane, to the effect that if you guarantee them two or three flights, they'll not charge for the short hop to the pickup point -- given there's aviation fuel available where they are picking you up. I've heard of pilots flying fuel drums with them into a pickup point and refueling between shuttles. Check with an available flight service for possibilities to see if this is an economically viable option on a trip you are contemplating that might benefit such planning.
2. You can be "bumped" to a different date or flight time if a more expensive charter becomes available to the flight service after you make your arrangements. Be polite about it, but firm when you specify the date and time you wish to fly. They agreed to your terms earlier in the year, and should honor them on your June, July, or August flight date.
3. Help the pilot load your gear, though your help will often entail handing the pilot something when he asks for it. Do as much of the 'grunt work' that you can. If there is more than one flight involved, make sure that all gear for a given set of paddlers accompanies them on the their airplane, in case of subsequent flight problems. Hand carry light items that can blow around, like your life jacket and maps, and fragile items, like your camera and binoculars. Don't forget the spare paddles. Make sure the painters at both ends of your canoe are tied to the cleats on the pontoons. You want that boat on tight, so it doesn't even wiggle. I don't know any wilderness paddlers who use flotation bags, but if you do, I recommend deflating and removing them before a flight, then reinstall them after you land. 100 mph and more wind can beat them to death.
4. Have tools to at least remove the carrying yokes, and if you are nesting boats, the other thwarts and seats. Carry the tools on the plane with you, as you'll need them to reassemble the boats when you get to the drop off point, and to take them apart again if you are also flying out at the end of your run. The pilot could take them back with him after dropping you off, but he might not want to wait, and might forget to bring them back with him if he's picking you up. It also might not be a bad idea to have them along on the river with you for possible repair scenerios. A couple wrenches, screwdrivers, and maybe vise-grips should be sufficient.
5. Be where you're supposed to be when you're supposed to be there. Especially for a flight out after a trip. If you are not, I can guarantee you'll pay for an extra flight! If you were demanding as to the flight date and time (in and/or out), I'd recommend being there, and with all your gear, ready to go at the prearranged time.
6. I've not flown with a large enough charter company yet, but Cliff Jacobson says that a present for the flight dispatcher presented on your arrival can induce premier service from the company. A couple six-packs of high quality American beer (a good microbrew, not the typically weak American standard stuff), a fifth of Yankee bourbon, or even a bottle of 151 proof Jamacian rum is usually sufficient. Something special for your pilot(s) would go over well.
7. If you are in the real bush with few flight services around, carry and watch a set of maps as you fly. Especially if the pilot does not typically carry wilderness canoeists. This is not a problem in popular canoeing areas like the Nahanni country, but even if the pilots really does know where he is going, he may not know exactly where you want to land. Help him out, for your own sake. If the pilot navigates using a GPS, check the entered coordinates yourself. Both the put-in and take-out coords are supplied for the routes covered in the tripping section here.
8. As mentioned before, regulations are slowly changing in Canada. I understand that in some areas it is now illegal to fly outside loads, or at least on certain planes. Check with the flight operators in the area you are interested in. If there are several and one says he can't do it, check all you can find. I would not recommend getting back to the first in case it really is illegal, and he reports the guy who said he'd cheat for you. Then it costs you more (or maybe you don't get to go at all?).
9. I have not heard of problems with double charging because of inclement weather, or other reasons that are not your fault, but that could happen(?). You theoretically contract with a flight service to get you somewhere for a price, and they do it. Might be a question to ask. Conditions might be too nasty to land once you get there, and so you fly back and try again tomorrow -- for no extra charge. This happened to some friends of mine in the Nahanni Country, anyway. Two flights, no extra charge. One day less on the river, but at least they did get to do the run.
Hazardous Materials and Equipment
Before you arrive at the plane base, ask your pilot about flying gasoline, propane, butane, bear spray, guns and other 'hazardous' items. They will certainly want to know about things. It is illegal in some areas to have hazardous materials inside the cockpit (though I already mentioned I did a flight with a 55 gal drum of avaition fuel in the passenger compartment once -- stinky!). You don't want a pepper spray canister to go off and incapacitate the pilot (or you) while in the air. Pilots will want to check any guns to make sure they are unloaded (etc.) before stowing.
Small hazardous items can often be stowed in small compartments in the floats of the plane, which satisfies requirements. I've heard stories of operators who said, "Put that stove fuel bottle in a pack, 'cause if I don't see it, it's okay!" I recommend asking about this sort of thing on the phone, well before the trip, rather than after you show up to fly. Some pilots are more cavalier about what, how, and/or where they'll carry things than others. Pilots know you need to eat on a trip, and will work with you in order get you to your destination. They don't want to lose the money your business generates for them.
Flying a canoe as an outside load (with passengers) is illegal in the USA, including Alaska. I have been told by an Alaskan outfitter that outside loads are legal if the airplane has special brackets as a factory installed option (later retrofits don't cut it). I would guess that few planes do have these. It certainly cannot hurt to ask, and the pilot would know. Some newer, preliminary, info on this subject is appearing at: http://www.kck.org/trip/aircharter/external.html. More might be available at: http://www.faa.gov/. Basically, the info says that, in Alaska only, it is up to the pilot's disgression as to whether to carry an outside load, and a passenger or two are allowable if the pilot needs help handling the load.
The alternatives are that the boats will have to be flown in separately from passengers, or you will have to use folding or inflatable boats (ugh!). That may beat not going, but I'm not sure. If two trips have to be made anyway, can most gear go with boats and just the pilot on one trip, and all the passengers go on a separate flight? A question to ask the pilot charter flight service dispatcher. A wilderness paddler in Alaska I've talked to (and supplied the info in the URL immediately above) said he's managed this with at least one Alaska charter flight service, and the pilot usually takes one of the trip participants along to help unload the boat(s) and all that gear. [/u]