I’ve turned my chair to look North, where a thunderstorm is slowly working its way down the lake. I sat knitting for an hour or so while Kelly napped in the cabin and listened to thunder rumbling in the distance, wind in the trees, the snick of my knitting needles, the pair of baby ravens learning how to talk as they danced in the sky around their mother.
We have been in the Yukon about five weeks now, ensconced in our cabin at Fox Lake, totally off the grid and being quite antisocial, to tell you the truth.
But I shouldn’t say we. I spent more than three weeks of that time here completely on my own while Kelly was away having an adventure of his own.
He was hired to ferry this beautiful vintage airplane to the Yukon from Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. I’ll tell you more about that in the next letter, I promise.
As consolation for not being allowed to go, too, the day he left, I stopped into TheItsy Bitsy Yarn Shop (yes, that is really their name) in downtown Whitehorse and treated myself to enough wool to knit myself a sweater in Heritage, from the Briggs & Little Wool Mill in Harvey, New Brunswick. The colour is called Fawn.
Local flight instructor Kelly Collins has spent nearly three decades helping Yukoners earn their wings.
This month he was given the Order of Polaris, one of the Yukon Government’s top honours, awarded to Yukon aviators (and the odd Outsider) for service to the territory, its people and its unique culture.
Collins, who is retiring this year, has spent 27-years training more than 300 pilots from various schools in Whitehorse as well as satellite programs in Atlin, Ross River, Faro and Dawson City.
Until recently he had trained the majority of all private and commercial fixed wing pilots in the territory.
Collins has spent the last twelve years as chief flight instructor with Whitehorse Air Services — the last flight-training school in Canada’s North.
He’s taught everyone from the young to the retired the secrets of flight.
“It’s a pretty wide spectrum,” he says. “For some people it’s just a personal challenge, it’s a goal that’s not that easy to do. A lot of our students are folks who have always had a dream to fly.”
Collins is known for his hands-on approach to training, sitting fearlessly alongside would-be pilots attempting everything from basic aircraft control to emergency maneuvers, falls, spins, takeoffs and landings.
“I call it ‘knowledge through a fire hose,’” he says. “It comes fast and furious… and it’s hands-on from day one.”
After a while the training becomes reflexive — and marginally less terrifying.
“The better you get at the machinery, the farther out your awareness goes from all around you, to in the aircraft and outside,” he says.
Collins doesn’t just teach his students to fly, he teaches them to think like pilots.
“Learning how to fly is one thing — learning when to fly and when not to fly and what not to do and how to stay out of trouble, that all comes under the heading of pilot decision making and that’s probably the big variable in keeping people safe,” he says.
Getting a pilot’s license is hard work, and it’s not cheap —about $9,500 for a recreational pilot, $14,000 for a private license — but it’s probably more likely to lead to a job than your undergrad degree, and you’re guaranteed a good office view.
Sixty-one year-old Neal Letang became a licensed pilot this year. Letang had a lifelong ambition to fly, but says it was Collins’ mentorship and focus on safety that gave him the confidence to finally become a pilot.
“It does do something for your confidence,” he says. “You’re doing something that, for me anyway, was a little extraordinary and [Collins] helped me do it.
“At times when I was discouraged, or dissatisfied with my performance, or whatever I was doing and he’d work me through it,” he says.
As a recipient of the Order of Polaris, Collins joins the ranks of Canadian icons like WWII fighter pilot Ian Willoughby Bazalgette, and pioneering Canadian engineers Ronald John Baker and Alexander Graham Bell.
“Every student is different, every day is different, it’s all a challenge, it’s all rewarding,” Collins says. “Helping people reach that goal of flight for whatever reason they started out on, every day is its own reward. So to be awarded the Order of Polaris is a huge, thick layer of frosting on an already rich and delicious cake. I feel very humbled.”
This year John Van Every, a Dawson City trucker and transportation company owner, was also honoured as the Transportation Person of the Year award, and the late Frank Steele, an early Alaska Highway lodge operator, was named Transportation Pioneer of the Year.