UCHI LAKE AND SOUTH BAY
Winter time, Monday morning, line dancing at the Go-Getters. Rick Olson is there, waiting for Susan, one of our group. He is chatting over coffee with guys from the carpenters shop. It is very unusual to hear any of the coffee chatter over our music, but I thought I heard the word ‘Holidaire’, which made me think of flying, which reminded that Rick’s dad Harold was a pilot and long-time member of the Flying Club.
I had been working on putting together a story about one of our more colourful citizens and most famous pilots, Joe Amodeo, rhymes with rodeo, not Amodeus. I beetled right over to see if Rick could tell me anything about Joe, and struck pay dirt. Teenager Rick had actually worked for Joe at Holidaire, Joe’s Red Lake operation, for a couple of summers and knew a whole lot.
Rick told me his dad Harold had grown up at the village around the Uchi Lake Mine, about 40 miles northeast of Ear Falls. This was started in the 20’s, and finally got into production in the late 30’s. It was expanded in 1942, only to be shut down in 1943, apparently on the orders of the Canadian government as gold-mining was not considered an essential activity and the manpower was needed for the war effort. The village consisted of housing for some 300 families, a hotel, stores, bank, barber shop, and received regular air service from Winnipeg as there was no seriously usable road. Teenage Harold was delivery boy for the Winnipeg Free Press, and Rick has a picture of Harold meeting the regular flight from Winnipeg to collect his newspapers.
Government edict shutting down non-essential industry might make sense in a city, but seems excessively harsh in a community where there is only one economic driver and it actually displaced a whole population, turning people’s home into a ghost town. I wonder what compensation the storekeeper or hotelkeeper got for government-caused loss of their life’s savings. The somewhat vandalized but still mostly intact mine and village stood for decades, a holiday destination for some of its old-timers.
The Uchi Lake site was destroyed, I think in the 90’s, along with Gold Rock and many more abandoned mine sites. Prime example, the South Bay mine near Uchi operated from 1971 till 1982, with a modern comfortable village for the miners, with retail shops and a Community Center containing a hockey rink, year-round swimming pool, curling ice, accessed by an all-weather road. The miners trailers were arranged along fully serviced streets, resembling the trailer parks in which so many of us spend winters in Arizona. Perfect for a summer retreat (or even a minimum security prison), it too was destroyed in that sweep, an outstanding example of vandalism and waste.
Blame Ron Brown and his book ‘Ghost Towns of Ontario’ for this – he made a very compelling case for turning Gold Rock into a national-scale Historical Park. Before a ground-swell of support for such an idea could develop, the government bulldozed all these sites flat. Too bad, there are ‘ghost town’ Historical Parks out west nowhere near as impressive as Gold Rock or Uchi Lake or South Bay would have been.
Back on subject, Harold ended up in the Air Force where he learned to fly. Apparently flying for the Air Force did not earn you a civilian Pilots Licence, and Harold got his from Drydenaire, Joe Amodeo’s Flying school, shortly after he arrived in Dryden, about 1959. Harold was an enthusiastic private flyer, and his Taylorcraft could often be seen in the skies over Dryden for the next few decades; Rick reports he has that still serviceable aircraft and it is for sale.
COLOURFUL CHARACTERS – JOE AMODEO
My classmate Bob Curtis and I came to work in Dryden after we graduated as engineers in 1961. He and his cousin George Lever decided they would take flying lessons, and I was persuaded to go along too. We attended Drydenaire, where Joe Amodeo along with Trevor Northcott led us through the less fun part of flying, the classroom stuff, at his base on Wabigoon Lake. We did all our flight training on Wabigoon Lake, ski’s that winter, and floats the next summer; I have never flown an aircraft on wheels.
Navigating might have been the less successful part of Joe’s classroom training. Before you get a licence, you do a solo cross-country flight to prove your navigating skills. The circuit was Dryden-Fort Frances-Kenora and home; we were advised to just go down the Manitou lakes, from the south end you will see the smoke of the Fort Frances mill; travel north-west from Fort Frances, staying east of Lake of the Woods till you see the smoke of the Kenora mill, and follow the railway tracks west from Kenora till you see the Dryden mill smoke. At least one student pilot got onto the wrong railway tracks and ended up in Sioux Lookout!
Flash back; you are a kid, riding in the car, with your arm out the window like a wing. Hold your hand flat, then rotate it and it will be pushed up (or down) by the air, and you are surprised how forcefully even in a slow-moving car. This is called Lift. Keep rotating, and your hand is pushed up even more forcefully until you reach a point where it is not lifted at all, just pushed back by the wind, with a bit of buffeting. If your hand was a wing, that point where Lift disappears and is replaced by buffeting is called the ‘stall’ point.
Joe would take us up early in our training, to familiarize us with the controls and the feel – many of us had never been up in a light plane. A key part of successful flying is recognizing when the aircraft is about to ‘stall’, and Joe would demonstrate by putting the aircraft into an ‘incipient spin’. If you stall and lose all lift, the aircraft will fall out of the sky, usually going into a spin which is just what it sounds like, and you need to know when that is about to happen and what to do or you will add to the list of casualties.
Joe’s ‘incipient spin’ involved drastically dropping one wing, the aircraft falls away, your body rises up against your seatbelt, and if you upchuck you might not be pilot material. Sort of a test, to weed out those who might not be serious or shouldn’t be there. I didn’t get high marks on that test, but persevered and we all passed and got our private pilot’s licence, which allowed us to fly, but not for pay. Bob and George moved out west in the next few years, and both made flying a part of their lives, but beyond some sightseeing flights I did not.
Drydenaire staff at that time included George Amodeo, Joe’s brother, as general factotum, and Trevor Northcott, an excellent pilot and instructor. Trevor went on to commercial aviation and ended up an international airline pilot; in later life, George became a musician of some note
JOE AMODEO AND DRYDENAIRE
Joe Amodeo was one of those larger than life, charismatic figures who seem to dominate any room he happens to be in. A Toronto native, he was a WW2 military pilot, and probably trainer as well; after the war he did some bush flying around northern Manitoba and our beautiful northwest. He married Dryden girl Brenda Berrey, and determined that a flight training school at Dryden would be in his future.
In the 50’s the Northcott farm (originally pioneered by Beattie brothers) extended on the east side of Van Horne Avenue from the top of the hospital hill all the way to and even into Wabigoon Lake, east of Government dock. Trevor Northcott was an enthusiastic young pilot, and he perhaps along with others developed a landing strip on the waterfront, running northeast from near the present Government dock. Before that, in the 40’s, local flyers were able to fly wheeled aircraft from a grass strip which ran north and a bit east from about where Husky Oil is now; that was the corner of a dairy farm owned by Jim Hatch, patriarch of the Hatch family, who liked the idea of flying and went out of his way to help.
Getting back to Northcott’s farm, Trevor and Joe arranged for Joe to acquire a favourable property on the lake, and this became Drydenaire, Joes flying school and air base. Claybanks Road was extended to it from Van Horne Ave, and the site is now a bed and breakfast.
There was a real demand for a training base. Reliable personal snowmobiles for recreation access to wilderness were still in the future. A small aircraft on floats or skis opened up the whole country to recreation use, along with small-scale commercial uses such as prospecting or minnow harvesting, and was a very attractive idea. Quite a number of Dryden folks learned to fly at Drydenaire; it was a busy little school for a while.
We flew on floats in summer, and skis in winter. As soon as the ice was safe in fall, a runway would be marked by a row of little spruce trees stuck in the snow on Wabigoon Lake, east of the paper mill’s ice road to Contact Bay. Most of the wood used by the mill in those days came from limits south of Wabigoon Lake, the wood being harvested in winter and piled on the lake ice at several landings, including Contact Bay. Big booms were towed down the lake to the mill all summer. Logs which had escaped a boom and floated free on the lake were a hazard to boats for decades, and still are to a small degree as sunken logs get legs and come up. They were a real hazard to aircraft; on at least one occasion an aircraft struck a floating log on landing, and was pretty much wrecked. There would be some downtime in spring, after the ice became too thin to land on, and in fall waiting for the ice to be thick enough to land on.
FLYING IN THE 60’S
There were some Dryden lads who went to world war 2 and came back pilots, ‘Doc’ Ernewein being the outstanding example. These along with Joe had faced the trials of war and had flown warplanes capable of much more extreme maneuvers than our light recreational planes. They would push the limits and this perhaps created a more cavalier attitude to safety than might be acceptable now.
Ray Fread’s excellent book “From Pickle Lake to Paradise” graphically documents this wild wild west aspect of early bush flying, and how government regulation has improved things. Perhaps excessive regulation, it has made recreational flying too expensive for the masses. Local author, fun book, read it.
Our aircraft back in the 60’s were very basic machines, generally for local use. They had minimal instrumentation; I remember the gas gauge on the Aeronca Champ we flew was a cork in the gas tank, which was right under the windshield like a Ford Model A, with a wire sticking up through the gas cap. The more wire sticking up, the more gas you had. They had no radio, and no navigation gear. But they were quite adequate for local flying and much more economical to own and operate than aircraft meeting today’s standards.
A popular trick was to ‘buzz’ somebody; cut back the engine and coast down as though landing behind whoever will be your victim, and he will not be aware you are there until the last second, when you crack the throttle wide open just over his head and the sudden noise scares the bejiggers out of him. Old ice fishermen might recall such incidents. I recall a young Roy Swanson set out to ‘buzz’ Ron Weare, travelling down the ice road in his jeep. Unfortunately, Roy misjudged and a ski struck the top of the jeep, Ron’s first inkling something was happening was a thump on the roof followed by an aircraft summersaulting down the ice road in front of him! Miraculously, nobody got seriously hurt!
Then there was the time Joe thought he would scare the class in session at his airbase by buzzing the building with the Cessna 180 he was bringing back from a commercial trip. Of course the students all came out to see him land, and saw that he had got a bit low on the buzz job; there was grass from the bank behind the building on the skis. The joke was on Joe!
There are no brakes on skis, and I recall an incident where the wind came up from the east while a fairly green pilot was out, when he came in he misread the windsock, and landed toward the west as usual, but the wind was behind him. The wind kept him skimming along on his ski’s, past the end of the strip laid out on the lake, all the way past government dock, up and over the ice road and the big snow banks on each side, and on down toward the west arm before he got stopped. He had to sheepishly taxi back to the base, bouncing the aircraft over those snowbanks, and the nickname ‘Downwind Bob’ followed him the rest of his flying career.
Anyway I am sure there is an endless supply of stories like this at the Dryden Flying Club, next will be more like history.
BOB ERNEWEIN, FLYING HISTORIAN
When I ask local flyers questions about local flying history, sooner or later they refer me to their unofficial historian, Bob Ernewein. He is one of our most colourful flying characters, with a lifetime connection to local flying and with a lifetime career in flying light planes. I am indebted to Bob for much of the historical information behind these ‘flying’ columns.
Joe Amodeo’s Drydenaire business grew through the 60’s to include charter work as well as flight training, and within a few years Joe opened a parallel business called Holidaire in Red Lake. That did very well and in a few years the tail came to wag the dog, and in 1969 Joe sold his ‘Drydenaire’ business and air base to Roy Swanson, one of his star student pilots, and Roy re-christened it ‘Swanair’.
Holidaire did well, Rick Olson reports working there as a dock boy for some of his teenage years, and it was a busy, growing business. But after a few years, Joe sold it and moved to Winnipeg to take advantage of a larger opportunity still, and progressed from there to a venture in Vancouver, where he lived out the rest of his life. The Dryden Flying Club held a big fly-in celebration of Joe’s life, and his ashes were buried in Dryden cemetery.
Drydenaire’s first class of budding pilots started in fall, 1959, and historian Bob as a teenager took lessons leading to his private pilot’s licence the next year, starting in fall 1960. He got his commercial licence, and went into bush flying for Swanair. He says Swanair operated a flight training school until about 1974, and ran a successful charter business for many years from the Wabigoon Lake base. Bob credits Roy Swanson with pioneering the aerial fire spotting protocol used by MNR, and this was carried on by successor companies and perhaps still is.
In 1988, Roy Swanson sold the Drydenaire business and the equipment but not the air base to Bob Huitikka, who integrated it into his own charter and outfitting business called Wilderness Air. It had been operating from his base near Vermilion Bay for some years, and still operates as a busy and successful float and ski plane operation.
Following our historian Bob Ernewein’s career, he flew for each of Swanair and Wilderness Air for some years. Also Boreal Air, which operated from the Dryden waterfront catering to his friends Bob and Shirley Korzinski who operated Green Island Lodge on Upper Manitou Lake. For a while he was Chief Pilot of two operations, Boreal Air and Keyamawun Air which operated from Deer Lake as part of a Lodge operation. After more interesting adventures including some time in California he ended his career flying Turbo Beavers for MNR for 14 years, retiring in 2015.
DRYDEN FLYING CLUB
The Dryden Flying Club was chartered in 1955 and incorporated in 1958, one of the folks deserving credit for its creation is its first President, Trevor Northcott. The first Board of Directors were Trevor along with Chuck Wintle; Rudy Strutt; Don Wheatley; Randy Dennie; Pat Skillen and Ron Rutter. Some early members include Henry Johnson, Ed Kusnick, Roy and Alf Orvis, Gord Hansen, Reg Crigger, Keith Rutter, Cyril Lobreau, Clayton Bailey, Charlie Waller, along with those mentioned in previous columns, Clare and George and Bob Ernewein, Harold Olson and Roy Swanson.
With apologies to anyone I miss, and in no particular order, others who have played a big part in the history of the club include current President Martin Lappage; past President Bob Bunney; Brian England, Peter Burns, Lorne Crawford, Gord Hall, Ray Fread. I was privileged to attend a meeting this summer and was very impressed with the very dedicated and amiable club we now have.
One of the club’s main issues was the need for a better landing strip so wheeled aircraft could land at Dryden. They determined that a town-owned site on highway 502 would be suitable and the town agreed to this use of the property. Dryden Paper Company and some smaller entities notably heavy equipment contractor Henry Johnson provided a lot of help and the club established a grass strip suitable for landing light aircraft, opening in the late 50’s. They built a clubhouse (1958) and acquired an aircraft for members use.
In the mid 60’s Transair announced they were starting a scheduled air service from Winnipeg to Kenora to Sioux Lookout to Thunder Bay and the notion was advanced that if the Flying Club base were improved Transair might also land at Dryden. With some initiative from the Rotary Club the Town started a process to build an airport suitable for larger aircraft. They concluded that it would be better to build a separate airport at a larger site, and the result is the modern airport we still use. It opened in 1969, and the runway was paved in 1970, and Transair did indeed add us to their schedule.
Also about 1970 personal snowmobiles became enormously popular, and this made winter flying less attractive. All this made the 70’s a time of change for the club. Their clubhouse and airplane were seriously damaged in the big windstorm of ’73, and they abandoned their Highway 502 base. (The property still belonged to the town, and a few years later it was selected as the site of the landfill needed to replace the old burning dump.) The club established their own water base just up the lake from Drydenaire with an aircraft stationed there, also stationed an aircraft at the new airport, both to be available for rent to its members, but not a huge success.
Finally, in the late seventies they were able to reorganize themselves. They acquired their present property on the west side of the river and developed their present sea-plane/ski-plane base, a lot like Joe’s original Drydenaire base. One club aircraft (available by the hour to qualified members) and seven member’s aircraft operate from there on skis and floats.
The club is now stable and an important part of the Dryden scene, even though there is nowhere near as much private flying as in the 1960’s heyday. It is among the oldest continuously operating Flying Clubs in North America, and the only one in our glorious northwest.