Jack Clarkson: A Legendary Bushpilot in His Own Time

This is an extract from Vikings on a Prairie Ocean published in 2014
It is reproduced here on the occasion of his 90th birthday, April 22, 2020

2014 at the Icelandic festival of Manitoba

2014 at the Icelandic festival of Manitoba

By the 1950s, goldeye were all but fished-out on Lake Winnipeg. It was rumours of a small interior lake packed with goldeye that prompted the establishment of a fishing outpost on a lake 30 minutes east from Berens River, a First Nations community 250 miles north of Winnipeg on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg. The Sigurdsons first began operating in Berens River in 1895. They had known the Boulanger family for many decades. Old Tom Boulanger first brought the goldeye news to Dad, for this was the area where he and his sons had their trap lines, and it was his family that would set up the fishing operation there. The allure soon proved to be an illusion. The “goldeyes” were actually mooneyes. They looked alike, but that’s where the similarity ended, for they lacked the Midas name, the taste, the texture and the price. Like gold turning into fool’s gold, the prospect of a fishing bonanza quickly dimmed, but the pickerel (walleye) fishing was reasonable, so the operation continued for a few years. Transport of the fish by air was the only option.

That takes me to Jack Clarkson, a former Mountie turned pilot. His exploits were already becoming the stuff of legend around the lake when I was a boy. Jack had many lives—nine is probably far too small a number. He had a way of staying alive in the air and on the ground no matter what misfortunes befell him. A couple of years before, he had made an emergency river landing that ripped both wings off the airplane. Nothing deterred Jack. He took on a new mission for Sigurdson Fisheries enthusiastically. He began flying the 30-minute trips in his tiny two-seat Cessna 180, taking supplies and equipment in one direction, and fish on the return. Every day the sight of Jack landing in front of the station pulled me more deeply into his orbit. I pleaded incessantly with Mom and Dad to let me go on a trip. They finally relented.

It wasn’t a great day for my first flight with Jack. A stiff breeze made for a bouncy take-off, the pontoons bumping along the wave tops as we struggled to achieve lift. Then we were up, and away to the east. Our little craft couldn’t ascend beyond the turbulence in minutes like the big jetliners. We had to fly through it.

My eyes were riveted to the ground, my stomach alive with a mix of exhilaration and terror. I knew the propeller was pulling us through the air, but I marvelled at how it had become invisible. My anxiety rose with each twist and bump, and it slowly dawned on me that the feeling had left my legs. I looked down to make sure they were still attached. I explained this fearful development to Jack through the headset. “Don’t worry about it,” was all he had to offer. I flew on legless, frozen with fright, obsessed with getting solid ground beneath my feet, should they happen to reappear.

Jack pointed to a small lake ahead as we began to descend into the heavier turbulence again. The lake was alive with whitecaps. Jack circled and then moved down into the landing approach. The strong wind made it difficult for him to position the aircraft. About to touch down, Jack suddenly pulled skyward again, uneasy about the prospect of a safe landing. Again we circled, approached, and pulled up at the last minute. Jack was not prone to giving up. He’d flown there with supplies for the men and knew they had fish waiting to be taken away. They counted on him, and nothing would stop him from completing his mission. In a carnival of bounces and splashes we finally made it down.

My fears during our struggle to land gave way to a greater terror as I contemplated a future without legs. How could I have been so stupid as to insist on taking this trip? What was wrong with my boat at Berens River? Was my whole life about to change? It’s comical now in a Stuart McLean Vinyl Cafe-gone-bad sort of way, but it was anything but amusing at the time. My fear-fuelled imagination was making plans for the legless years ahead. Finally, the door of the plane was thrown open and someone yanked me out. To my enormous relief, I was standing upright on the shore. I walked about to celebrate, but I had a strange, disconnected feeling running through my limbs.

Jack wasn’t about to waste time on the ground. The second the last box of supplies was offloaded, the first fish box was being pushed inside. He collapsed my seat to make room for as many boxes as possible in the cramped, cone-like compartment. Frightened that he was going to leave me there, I blurted, “Jack, where is my seat?”

Jack scooped me up, plunked me on top of a fish box, and strapped me down with one seamless motion. Weather was closing in fast, and Jack had no time for talk. He jumped across the pontoons and bolted into the pilot’s seat. He fired up the engine and we taxied out onto the lake. Into the wind at full throttle, we bounced for a few moments, and then wind grabbed beneath the wings. We were in the air, but just barely, and the shoreline was approaching fast. Bug-eyed, I watched the scene unfold as we struggled up over the trees at the last second.

My legs were already detached. At least I knew now that they would become part of me again when we were back on the ground. Not something I wanted to pursue with Jack, I let it be, assuming it was just one of the things one has to deal with when flying. Anyway, the overwhelming smell of fish around me was much more distracting than my leg problems.

I was used to the smell of fish; standing at the gutting table as the fishermen dressed their catch was part of my daily routine. The fish slime from the sheds was a magnet for perch. I pulled the hearts from the pickerel heads, the tight red particles of muscle, to bait my hook-shaped from a safety pin. I spent hours every day plucking perch from their frenzied swim below the dock. Often Dad sent me down with orders to have the fishermen push the guts over to me, and I would pull out the livers for Dollie to cook for supper. But I had never been in such close quarters with this much fish. The air in the cabin was becoming hotter, the engines were roaring, and the stink was becoming unbearable. Jack could see my distress, or see that I was turning white, and he reached over and opened a vent. Fresh air streamed onto my face and I gobbled it up.

I could see the shoreline of Lake Winnipeg ahead. My focus shifted to making it land in one piece so I could relate the triumph of my trip to everyone who would listen. Any vomiting would destroy my triumphal ending—I needed to avoid that at all costs. It was blowing much harder than when we left, and there were big waves just out of the station. It didn’t deter Jack. He literally dropped us into the trough between two waves, the wing tips dipping into the crests. We wobbled to the dock.

I jumped out the instant the door was pulled open, anxious to bypass Dad and Mom, who were almost surely on their way to greet me. I knew if I saw them I could never hold back my tears. But with the fishermen I could boast! I ran to the gutting shed to brag of my adventures. I didn’t share my secret oath to never set foot on a plane again. That would have been an oath broken, for I could never have anticipated how much of my life would be spent in airplanes travelling to communities large and small, across Canada from Haida Gwaii to Cornerbrook, and around the world from London to Papua New Guinea.

Reliving those stories of the lake, its history and its people were like comfort food at the end of a long day. Often the memories would make me laugh or cry inwardly. One day I found my thumbs sprang into action on my Blackberry to capture some scene or moment from the past. And then I did another, and another. Soon my chronicling grew into an obsession. Whether travelling on business or for pleasure I was glued to that “damn Crackberry,” as my wife Maureen fondly described my Blackberry when she was with me, usually adding, “You’re an addict,” just to make sure I got the point.