Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017

© Margo Pfeiff

Mike Farrell (right) shuttles passengers and mail around BC’s Inside Passage in his 1959 de Havilland Beaver float plane.

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Campbell River's flying postman

Hop on a float plane in BC and watch Mike Farrell give a new meaning to “air mail”

Mike Farrell banked his float plane, scanning the waters below for things he didn’t want his pontoons to hit on landing — driftwood, a boat, a whale. This isn’t something urban letter carriers have to worry about, but Farrell is a flying postman, the owner and operations manager of Corilair Aviation, based in Campbell River, roughly halfway up Vancouver Island’s east coast. He has the contract to deliver Canada Post’s mail every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to a handful of outposts clustered in the Inside Passage between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland — island hideaways for hippies or billionaires, logging camps, fishing resorts and First Nations communities. If there’s room, he also takes along passengers who want a glimpse of a remote coastal lifestyle.

Farrell was at the controls of a 1959 de Havilland Beaver, a classic workhorse Canadian bush plane that can take off and land on a dime. We landed after a brief hop across the channel at Quadra Island’s April Point Lodge, to pick up a couple visiting from Florida who joined us on a flightseeing trip with a mail mission.

What’s the strangest thing Mike’s ever carried? “Reporters,” he said with a chuckle through the headphones, as we flew over wooded islands and driftwood-littered beaches in waters dotted with whale-watching zodiacs, yachts and fishing boats. “I’ve carried everything from dead bodies to rescued sea life, dynamite, live seafood, and Norman Schwarzkopf.”

Our first official mail stop was Refuge Cove on West Redonda Island. The community is home to about 20 families during the summer, when hundreds of boaters stop in to stock up on provisions and fuel for nearby Desolation Sound cruises. In winter the population drops to 12 residents, including Dave, who met us at the end of the dock. Bearded, wearing a deteriorating ball cap and two sets of glasses, one on top of the other, he grabbed a potato-sack-sized bag that Mike hoisted off the Beaver, as well as a couple of rubber totes bound for the post office/liquor store/general store/laundry and shower facility. “I run the recycling and garbage collection here too,” said Dave, stuffing letters, bills and Wal-Mart flyers into post box pigeonholes.

Then we were off again, flying over landmarks like Inert Rock, oyster and mussel leases and salmon farms. We skimmed across mossy trees and vast log booms, isolated cottages on remote sandy beaches, the lavish spread of luxury Sonora Resort and the ruins of a church in a deserted native settlement. We landed at Big Bay on Stuart Island, a corporate retreat with its own golf course for several large international companies who entertain business associates here. The mail was shuttled to the post office in a wheelbarrow as we perused the marina’s gift shop and general store.

A seasoned pilot, Mike has owned Corilair for 12 years and clearly loves his job. “Sometimes we land and pull up alongside fishing boats and load up with just-caught prawns,” he said. Over the years he’s spotted countless bears, whales and sea lions. “Every day is a new adventure.”

Surge Narrows on Read Island (population 60) was our final stop, a funky community of houseboats and homesteads and, on the dock, one of Canada’s very few floating post offices, which also services the outer islands of Maurelle, Sonora and Rendezvous. “Wednesday is our busiest day with people coming in by car, bicycle, on foot or by boat. So that’s when we do a community lunch on the dock every week,” said Renate Kviet, who has been postmaster for six years. Someone made a hot lunch; someone else brought baked goodies and everyone caught up on news and gossip.

Though Surge Narrows’ general-store-on-stilts shut down not long ago, there is still a wood workshop in a Quonset hut the community bought for $1, mostly for boat building, as well as a community kitchen/gathering space and a school for eight kids. “There used to be loggers and salmon fishermen living here,” a fellow named Louis, lounging on the dock, explained from his deck chair-with-a-view. “But now there’s mostly retirees, artists, writers, weavers, organic farmers and aquaculture workers.”

It’s a quiet life on these Discovery Islands, with the sound of sea birds and the smell of the ocean. I found myself wishing I could stay longer, with time to slow down to the locals’ pace and just sit on the dock, but it was time to get on board the Beaver and soar back to civilization.

Flight plans

Corilair Historic Mail Flights (tel: 888-287-8366; corilair.com; $200 per person) take place every Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon, departing Campbell River’s Tyee Spit floatplane dock. The trip lasts two to three hours.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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