Aikens, Float Plane Photos and Stories from the 1960s
Mar. 24, 2017
Art Gaffray bought his first float plane in 1954. In the 63 years since, he’s flown to all corners of the Canadian wilderness, harvested wild rice with Goldy the Ox and watched his sons follow in his footsteps as full-time aviators, despite his advice. The 82-year-old also owned and operated Aikens Lake Lodge for a half dozen years in the late 60’s, collecting a lifetime of stories along the way.
Art was gracious enough to share his stories with us the other day, and we were thrilled to have the opportunity to listen to living history.
“Things have evolved,” said Art, whose sons now operate Bluewater Aviation and fly our guests to and from Aikens. “It’s been very interesting. It hasn’t always been fun. At times it was very hectic, but I’ve had a good life and a very interesting career.”
Art was one of four Gaffray boys who grew up around Winnipeg with a love of flying. His oldest brother, Ted, served in the Canadian Air Force during WWII as a navigator on a Halifax bomber on night operations over Europe. Art’s brother, Lawrie, got his pilot license in 1950, and four year later teamed up with Art to buy his first plane.
In 1961, Art partnered with his other brother, Don, to start an air service company and “pretty well flew for 45 years.” The Gaffray brothers flew supplies and guests to various fly-in lodges, including Aikens Lake Lodge, as it was called then. The duo initially flew Stinsons, followed by a Cessna, a Beech 18 and a Norseman, until the Otter became the standard aircraft for years.
“We had no means of navigation, you had a compass but that’s it,” Art said. “You had to see the ground to navigate. We didn’t have weather reports like you do now, the difference was unbelievable because there was very poor communication. You’d go out there and if you ran into weather that you couldn’t go through you would wait. When you were trying to push weather, that’s when problems would start.”
“If you were 50% of the way to your destination and you ran into bad weather, you don’t fly around you’d just sit down (on the nearest lake) and wait until it lifts. We had rations on-board in case you got stuck for a while.”
A half dozen years into his operation, the Gaffrays bought Aikens Lake Lodge from Eric Carlson. During their tenure, the kitchen, dining room and motel unit known as Master Angler’s Row were constructed. They also constructed new staff quarters.
“It was hectic. I was flying all day and staying at the lodge overnight,” said Art, who was simultaneously running his full-time flight service. “My wife, Andrea, was running the lodge and we had started our family. We didn’t have time to run the lodge, so we sold it and continued with the flight operation, continuing to fly guests to and from Aikens.”
In the early days, a significant opportunity spawned from his flight business: harvesting wild rice.
“I had a partner who was one of the early bush pilots,” Art said. “He had a keen eye for opportunity. He spotted a number of lakes where wild rice was growing. He got a license to process rice, and it slowly went from there.”
Over the decades, Art has done it all from harvesting, processing and transporting rice across Canada. He got started in the early days, an opportunity that spawned from his flight business.
Art recalls the early days when one partner used a strong ox, named Goldy, to pull a stone boat which was then critical to the harvesting process. Today, he marvels over the technology used––technology that’s made it possible for Art and his operation to process upward of a million pounds of rice per year.
Above all, he’s glad to see his sons, Edward and Steven, doing so well with Bluewater Aviation. He never encouraged them to get into aviation as he didn’t want to steer them down what he knew could be a difficult path unless it was truly what they wanted to do. In the end, the boys were determined.
“I’m quite happy to sit back and let it go,” Art said. “They’re doing their thing, and they do a great job. I learn from them now.”