This is the third in a series of posts about my trip to NWT, Canada’s Northwest Territories.
I don’t often find myself in the outer reaches of cable, so I hadn’t kept up on the emerging popularity of the NWT as a hotbed for reality stars. On my visit, tour guides caught me up, fast. First came Ice Road Truckers, which shows long-distance drivers on the “ice roads” that the Canadian government builds during the winter in the north. And that was followed by Ice Pilots NWT, a reality show about the goings on at Buffalo Airways, a family-run airline based in Hay River.
I couldn’t help being fascinated by the ice roads. While I had heard the term, I wasn’t exactly sure what they were before this trip. Basically, the NWT has so many lakes that it’s impossible to build roads to some of its smaller towns (and almost every town, save Yellowhorse, could be categorized as “smaller.”) During the summer, people use float planes or ferries to travel back and forth.
But in the winter, when it’s cold enough, the government builds actual roads on the ice so people can get in. It’s a big engineering feat, one that employs many for several months a year. Even though it’s a costly process, getting goods and materials to these towns is even more expensive, so the government continues to pay for it.
NWT Tourism highlights the ice roads as a tourism activity during the winter months (along with dog sledding and the aurora borealis). While I doubt that I’d brave the cold and dark to go driving on an ice road, it would be something special to see. I guess that’s why Ice Road Truckers is such a popular show here (it’s on the History channel).
Ice Pilots NWT hasn’t gained the same traction in the States. While it started off being shown on the Nat Geo channel here, it’s been reduced to a half-hour on The Weather Channel. In Canada, though, it’s a big deal – and I met a few tourists who had traveled to Yellowknife from cities such as Calgary and Toronto just to fly with the airline.
Locally, Buffalo Airways enjoyed a good reputation even before the show started filming. Not only does it offer regular passenger service between Yellowknife and Hay River (a trip that would take six hours by road) on its renovated World War II-era planes, the company runs a cargo service and also has several “waterbombers” that come in handy during the territory’s frequent forest fires. Owner Joe McBryan, also known as “Buffalo Joe,” is apparently well known for his safety record (six crashes since 1994, with no fatalities) and often donates flights to needy families or during difficult times.
I didn’t have the chance to meet Joe, but I did take the airline on a short trip. Before take off, we toured the Buffalo hangar, where several historic planes, including a Fleet Canuck, were suspended from the ceiling. The aviation buffs among our group were extremely excited.
A one-way ticket between Yellowknife and Hay River was not cheap, about 200 CAD. You couldn’t beat the casual service, though. You can’t book through email, and there are no e-tickets. Luggage was loaded on the Douglas DC-3 without any mention of baggage fees, and people were bringing their pets on board without charge.
As we waited, I talked to Danny Alexander, a flight attendant who said he has been in the show (regular viewers will have to tell me if that’s true). He came from Toronto to fly, and his coworkers had bets on whether the “city kid” would end up sticking. His parents “down south” enjoy seeing him on television. Then they announced it was time to board.
When you buy your ticket, ask if you can pre-board the plane. That way, you’re certain to get a window seat so you can look out the vintage plane.
I boarded, and walked up hill to the front of the plane. The seats were similar to those you might find in an old truck, with old -fashioned buckles. While the flight attendant told us to keep the backs up, I wondered if the seats could recline. Bu my seatmate, a Hay River resident who uses the airline frequently, sang Buffalo’s praises. “You don’t want to take anything else,” he said. “Joe doesn’t risk it. If it’s too bad to fly, he won’t fly.”
The propellers whirred and within a few minutes, the light plane was airborne. From the window, you could see the ice still choking Great Slave Lake. When you think about the violent and extreme weather that the Territory faces during the winter, you can see why locals keep track of airline accident rates.
About halfway through the flight, the attendant brought people up, one by one, so they could get a glimpse of the cockpit. As the southern tourists went up, I could see the look of joy on their faces. Clearly, this was more than a simple flight. It was a bucket list item.