He spent the afternoon hauling supplies to a drilling site near the old Colomac mine north of Yellowknife; he would be off to Fort Simpson later that night. In the intervening hours, Joe Reid—a man whose love for the Twin Otter has few rivals—landed in a downtown Yellowknife office building to talk about his 45 years in the skies. He got his start in Stony Rapids, Saskatchewan in 1972, flying the first DHC-2 Beaver ever built (FHB) into the territories. This was, of course, back before GPS, when it was about old school bush flying with a map and compass. For all the changes he’s seen over the years, there’s still nothing like Northern flying.
How did you start working for the RCMP?
I was working for an outfit called
Norcanair. [My wife and I] were 19 when we got married. In those days, the RCMP didn’t take married people or women. The day they announced [that they would], the two constables from the detachment in Stony came down to the floatbase and said, “You gotta join the Mounties!” I saw they had a Single Otter flying out of Prince Albert and it was just a beautiful airplane and I thought, “Boy, that would be the job.” So the RCMP hired me. I had to spend five years doing police work and then I started flying for them.
What kinds of work did you do flying for the RCMP?
All kinds of things. Prisoner escorts. If there was a murder or something in a community, you would take the investigators out of Yellowknife. Or for an emergency call, you’d take the emergency response team out. We moved a lot of the members when they’d get transferred. If you were going, say, from Inuvik to Igloolik, you’d take them and their families and fly them to their new postings.
So you’ve been everywhere?
Pretty much in the territories, yeah. [Laughs.]
Were you involved in any manhunts or searches?
Yeah, we did some flying after the mine murders here. Chasing people around.
Yeah, doing surveillance stuff with the airplane. That got quite interesting at times. That was probably the worst summer of my life—I think most people in Yellowknife would agree with that. No, that wasn’t a lot of fun.
What are some of the more unique approaches and airstrips across the North?
Grise [Fiord, Nunavut] is an interesting one because of the mountains. There are mountains in behind it—actually, on both ends of the runway. It’s right parallel to the ocean there, so you can only kind of go in one way and out the other. And they get some really crazy winds there. I remember I took off out of there one day and the wind-sock was straight out going one way at one end of the runway and straight out going the other way at the other end of the runway. [Laughs.]
The airport [in Whatì, NWT] used to be just a street in town. We were going in one day and as soon as I’d come on final [approach], this kid jumped out in the middle of the runway and started jumping around. I’d get low enough and he wasn’t getting out of the way, so I’d have to overshoot. I did this about three times going this one direction. Now I’m getting a little bit upset with this kid, so I ended up going to the other end of the runway and landing really short and shutting the airplane down. He was still looking the other way and I come up behind him and grab the little son of a gun. I told him that’s not a very good thing to do. Now they’ve got that new airstrip there that’s away from town and fenced in, so it’s different. Trout Lake was another place where you just landed on a street in town.
It wasn’t fenced off or anything?
There would be cars back and forth and houses like right off the end of your wing. You always did a pass overhead, fairly low, so that people knew there was an airplane landing.
The RCMP eventually switched planes. You kind of liked the Twin Otter, eh?
Well, they sold the Twin Otters off and bought these Pilatus PC-12s. I flew the one here for about a year and a half and I just hated it. I had enough service to retire, so I quit. The Arychuks—Peter and Teri, [owners of Air Tindi]—were friends and Peter had been kind of after me to come and work for him. One day I said, “Yep, I’m ready.” I’ve been there ever since.
What do you do nowadays? Mostly mining stuff?
Exploration’s down. There isn’t very much going on right now. When I first started at Tindi in 2000, we were really busy with exploration. There were people drilling all over the place. Now there’s nothing. Unless we start looking again, we’re going to end up with nothing because once these diamond mines are done, there’s not something else.
Are there some jobs that feel less like work than others?
The water survey stuff is fun work. I like doing that. We go out to Baker Lake and we stay at Kazan River there and you can always catch a trout for supper. And there’s some pretty spots they go to. Up on the Back River. A long way from nowhere.
When most people think of that area, they probably don’t imagine much there. But you must have an encyclopaedic knowledge of it.
The areas you fly a lot, you don’t need a map anymore. You do it enough times that you figure it out. It’s interesting country. It’s beautiful country.
Everyone talks about the caribou declining—have you seen that?
Oh heavens, yeah. You didn’t have to go very far out of Yellowknife and every lake had caribou tracks on it. Well, we saw just a few caribou out of Colomac today, but not anything like there used to be. It’s just crazy.
It’s noteworthy now, where back in the day it wouldn’t have been?
Everywhere you looked you’d see lines of caribou miles long, in the spring, walking, heading north, just in a great big, long line. As far as you could see, there would be caribou walking. Thousands of them, everywhere you looked. Now you hardly ever see them. You see more muskox now than you ever used to see.
Do you have any favourite places to fly?
The East Arm of Great Slave Lake is probably as pretty a spot as you’re going to get anywhere on earth. The Mackenzie Mountains are pretty. A really pretty area is around Holman—Ulukhaktok now. Up in the Minto Inlet, it’s just absolutely beautiful.
I remember one day I was going from Grise Fiord down to Pond Inlet and I was just following the east shore of Devon Island. It was the summer, so it was that little bit of time you actually got open water there. It was just clear blue and you could see these icebergs calving. It was just spectacular.
(This interview has been condensed and edited.)