Article by Rich Thistle ©

Sunset Solitude by Rich Thistle © The dark pine forests of the north;
The whistling wings
Of osprey,
Keen, black, unflinching eyes.
Bull moose calling,
Bawling in the twilight.
Eerie voices
The hunting call of the timber wolf Along the shores
Of crystal lakes.
Dark shadows
Skitting down the forest corridors.

It hardly seems possible that so many years have passed since my poem was published in my high school yearbook under the title NORTHLAND as the "prize junior poem". I remember the act of writing it as vividly as if it were yesterday. The warm spring sun was shining benignly through the metal framed windows in my grade 10 homeroom class at the Collegiate in small-town Stratford, about as far from Canada's north as you could possibly get. But my heart carried me again to a place I had visited many times in my imagination.

It's a place of danger, mystery and loneliness. It's a place of unrelenting, endless ruggedness easily dwarfing the largest ego. It's a place most Canadians carry with them somewhere in the back shadows of their being. In fact it's the place which somehow defines Canada, fairly or unfairly, in our own eyes and in the eyes of the world, the true North, strong and free. Canada is a vast land, and with a few exceptions along its southern fringe, so sparsely populated as to seem entirely bereft of humanity. Dominated by daunting distances, periodically punctuated by dots of civilization, the North constantly looms at the horizon of the Canadian sensibility. A challenge awaiting a champion.

It was after World War I that hundreds of pilots returned home filled with a new sense of the place of aviation in the "modern" world. Having tasted the air, they were looking for a way to keep their wings. And for these daredevils of the sky, ordinary life would be just too ordinary! The rugged North was to provide their new frontier. Without dependable radio, without weather reports, over the toughest terrain in the world, and in small secondhand aircraft which were sometimes barely more than a "collection of spare parts", they pioneered the use of airplanes to carry people and goods to places previously thought inaccessible. And they did it with flair! Of course, the lexicon of the "bush" pilot is not solely Canadian. The remotest places in the world were pulled into the twentieth century by this new breed of entrepreneurial adventurer. Bush pilots and their planes connected remote settlements and lone individuals with the outside world. Cargoes included medicines, food, mail, essential and commercial commodities and emergency aid.

In Canada, names such as Wop May, Punch Dickins, Roy Brown, Doc Oaks, Grant McConachie, Max Ward, and many others will forever be entwined with the sometimes romantic, sometimes terrifying, early history of Canadian flight. Flying - almost always on the ragged edge - in aircraft manufactured by the early giants of aviation such as Avro, Curtiss, Junkers, Fokker, Vickers, Boeing, DeHavilland, Fairchild, Lockheed, Stinson and Noorduyn, these intrepid pilots made life in the north not only possible but, at times, even tolerable. Besides supporting isolated settlements in the north through good and bad times, the bush pilots instructed thousands of young pilots during World War II and, after the war, spearheaded the search for new oil and mineral wealth in Canada's North. In aircraft such as the Bellanca CH 300 Pacemaker, depicted in my painting SUNSET SOLITUDE on twin Edo floats, pilots put their complete faith. Often preferred over longer routes - in 1931 a Pacemaker set the world non-refueled endurance record of over 84 hours - this six-seat cabin monoplane was one of the first products of the Bellanca Aircraft Corporation incorporated in 1927.

Whether full of food, fur, fish or Molson's Ale, it was aircraft such as this Bellanca, and pilots such as the one in my painting, grabbing a magic moment to wet a line, which helped to make the remote North a place where people could live and thrive. My hat is off to all those who continue this proud Canadian tradition.

  • original painting available