Few faces in the north grab your attention like that of Sarah Smith. Her blonde hair and freckles are plucked from lasting Scandinavian descent and placed in this rugged terrain where freshwater replaces fjords.
The day I joined Sarah in the air, we were going bear baiting and the weather was what you could call inclement. You’d never guess bear baiting is a regular job done by pilots, but you also wouldn’t guess being a dockhand, aircraft fueler, propane attendant, trail-clearer, and maintenance worker also come with the title.
Although an irregular career for both men and women, piloting bush planes in Ontario’s north is not as uncommon as you think.
It’s no coincidence that bush planes have been popular in Ontario’s north since the 1920s. The hostile terrain offered thousands of lakes and rivers that could be accessed by planes outfitted with floats or skis, connecting the north with the more-developed south.
While some industries suffered in the Great Depression, bush planes allowed the mining operations and the north itself to thrive, building a utilitarian need into a tourist luxury.
I’ve been in my fair share of floatplanes with my fair share of pilots — and I would call Sarah’s runway by far the most technical — but her ride was the smoothest.
At 24, Sarah is a fully licensed commercial pilot with a float rating and a full-time job. She began training immediately after graduating high school and by 18 she was already a privately licensed pilot. Through the winter, she guides dogsledding trips through the boreal forest full-time with Borealis Sled Dog Adventures.
Finding a niche that allows her to be outdoors year-round and doing something exciting every day is what she thinks her family is most proud of. She’s happy with herself for getting her licences at such a young age, but also notes, “I’m always a little proud of myself when I have a nice landing in a howling crosswind.”
Once airborne, it’s clear that to Sarah, flying a plane is as easy as driving a car. It could be the bush plane culture of northern Ontario, or the ease she puts you at, but you feel as natural up there as she looks.
“I really love doing something that brings people so much joy. Many of the customers I fly are extremely excited for their trip, and it’s often the highlight of their entire year. The same goes for dogsledding, it’s very satisfying to know that I am helping to provide a once in a lifetime opportunity for someone,” Sarah says.
“My family has been extremely supportive in all of my endeavours and I was raised to believe that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to. I was never dissuaded from doing anything that I was passionate about.”
There was no point when Sarah knew she would become a pilot, but she didn’t have to go far for inspiration.
Sarah’s family is brimming with pilots, including her grandfather, a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force, her grandmother, who completed her commercial license with floats as a 50-year-old, her uncle, who’s flown with a private licence for most of his life, and her dad, who’s been flying commercially for more than 40 years.
The need for this form of transportation is still at an all-time high — Canada is experiencing a shortage of at least 3,000 pilots and even more workers in the aviation trade.
“I’m not exactly who anglers expect to see at the outpost,” Sarah said, explaining how she has encountered more annoyances than obstacles in the male-dominated trade. “I get asked occasionally if I’m the new stewardess or if I’m cooking for their group for the week, which makes me want to tear my hair out.”
But she quickly highlights the positive side. “The majority of people I talk to on a daily basis are very kind and usually in a great mood because they’re about to go fishing!”
I was mistaken in believing Sarah, as a float pilot, has downtime in the winter. She’s quick to assure me that being a sled-dog guide is not an off-season. “Dog sledding is a huge part of my life and I’ve grown to love it just as much as flying.”
Any of Sarah’s downtime is spent between waiting for ice to build or break. That suits her just fine because as one season of work passes, she’s looking forward to a change in scenery.
“I do get a little stir crazy or ‘bushed’ if I go too long without a change in routine. I don’t have the time for other types of adventures in either the winter or summer and it would be nice to spend a bit more time skiing or hiking.”
A restless and yet somehow content soul, Sarah’s drive for the outdoors resonates with everything she does.
“Don’t be afraid to go for something because it’s not traditionally a woman’s job or because you don’t think you’ll be strong enough for it. You can always change your mind later but that’s better than regretting something or missing an opportunity.”
While most of our conversation took place in a de Havilland Beaver or a jon boat filled with bear bait, it’s fair to say the sky is no longer the limit for Sarah.
Not that it ever had been.
Originally published in the May 2020 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.