CHAPTER 8 - Gypsy Moth

For years, Rod had been fascinated with airplanes. The craft were not numerous in northern Manitoba, but following the mercy flight that took Toni to Winnipeg, they both viewed the airplane as having a major role to play in the opening of the bushland.

In 1934 Doug Street was the school teacher in Berens River - he and his wife were a well-respected, good-living couple, friends of Toni and Rod. Doug was a veteran of the 1914-1918 war - one who had not received the post-war settlement from the Canadian Government, but who had been promised a lump-sum payment at some future time. For Doug Street, that future time came in the winter of 1933-1934. He had lived for some years in northern Manitoba, and knew, first-hand, the problems of transportation and communication residents of the remote areas faced. Lengthy and arduous trips to Winnipeg were a regular routine for Northerners in the 1930's. Doug Street was also somewhat of a visionary - he glimpsed the future and the profound role the airplane was to have in the province's development.

His great interest in aircraft and the future of Manitoba, coupled with the arrival of the cheque for his veteran's settlement, gave Doug Street the opportunity to clothe his visions and dreams in reality.

A visit with Rod included this proposal: Doug was willing to buy a small plane, provided Rod would learn to fly it and serve as both pilot and mechanic. The primary purpose of the venture was to service their own area, but other prospects were also on Doug Street's mind. He was thinking ahead, and envisioned future acquisitions of mail contracts, passenger traffic, emergency flights and other functions for airplanes to fill -- functions Doug had not yet dreamed of. Both men knew there were trappers in the region who would be more than delighted to have their furs from winter trapping flown to Winnipeg for the more profitable sales in January than to wait, as they currently were obliged to, for the sales in March, when prices were down. The trappers needed to be on their traplines, rather than hauling furs, but with Doug and Rod's plane to do that for them, they could get on with their lines in the bush.

Stated concisely, Doug would own the plane, Rod would fly and repair it - they would jointly share the risks and profits. The partnership was strictly verbal - in 1934 in Berens River, as in so many places in that era, this was the manner in which agreements were made between friends. The partnership went into effect immediately.

In May, Rod delivered his youngest child. In June he became a flying student. Rod's first consideration was how to learn to fly in Berens River, and how to fit his lessons in around his job as Fire Ranger. He worked from eight in the morning until five in the afternoon, six days a week. On Sundays he only made isolated checks from the fire tower - not staying in the tower the full shift as he did the other six days. If there should be a fire in his area, his hours would, naturally, be longer - in the 1930's one's job took precedence over other considerations. He approached his supervisor with the request for permission to learn to fly. The Forestry Branch was most agreeable, but with one proviso - Rod must be on the job during his assigned hours.

The next step was a chat with the flying instructor who had flown in the Gypsy Moth aircraft Doug was considering buying. The instructor was almost as enthused about the partners plans as they were themselves. He would teach Rod to fly! Cautiously Rod explained about the hours he must work - would that be a problem? They talked a while, and agreed the long daylight hours in June in northern Manitoba afforded more than enough hours for flight instructions.

The lessons started almost immediately. Each morning, Rod rose very early, and spent a couple of hours with his instructor and the Gypsy Moth before hurrying off for another day of watching for forest fires. Toni had his evening meal waiting when he returned from the fire tower - then he was off again! Rod loved the new challenge. He was ecstatic about flying - the motor on the plane, plus the other aspects of maintenance of the craft touched that very special interest he had in everything mechanical. Toni watched Rod, and revelled in his pleasure. He raved about his experiences, and Toni felt he was close to 'walking on air'! As his love of flying grew through his involvement, Toni came to understand he was as close to being in heaven as mortal man can achieve.

In addition to the unusual hours for flight instructions, Rod's flying lessons had another twist: Customarily, bush pilots trained at an airfield where they learned their skill using wheeled aircraft. In Rod's case, there was no field at Berens River, and his job, essential to supporting his family, precluded time at an airfield further away. The instructor and Rod talked this point over before the lessons began, with the instructor agreeing to teach Rod to fly with floats on the plane. The floats, used for taking off from, and landing on water, made the handling of the plane clumsy and more difficult. Also, during the flight test, each prospective pilot was required to execute a 'tail-spin' - a manoeuvre which floats accentuated, and could represent a fatal hazard if mishandled. The instructor and Rod weighed all these potentials, and went ahead with the lessons.

In the beginning, Toni would rush out of the house each time she heard the plane take off, or come in to land. She would wave excitedly as the plane roared skyward, or splashed into the sparkling water of Lake Winnipeg. But the comings and goings of the Gypsy Moth were so frequent she had to give it up.

All residents of Berens River took great pride in the flying lessons and the partnership - Rod was one of their own - the plane would be based in their settlement (Picture 8 - 1). The community at large took proprietary interest in the entire venture, often standing and gaping at the sky as Rod and the instructor shattered the silence of the bush country as Rod acquired the skills to handle the little plane on his own. The people of Berens River were quite accustomed to Rod's on-going thirst for new challenges and enterprises. They were sure he would soon be a full-fledged pilot in the shortest possible time, and then their community would have a great advantage over neighbouring settlements, with their own resident pilot, and locally-owned aircraft.

Picture 8-1 The chaanging of the times - the retired "Ivory of Poplar River" and the advent of the Gypsy Moth. The Shuetze cabin can be seen just above the plane's wing.

A gold strike was rumoured at Little Grand Rapids. The instructor and Rod flew off to check on it, glad of the diversion and utilizing the time to give Rod some extra flying time. The gold strike was another hoax, and the gold fever subsided as quickly as it had arisen.

Joy Bain was one of two artists visiting the Berens River area that summer. They were fascinated with the rock formations and colourations of that region, and were there to transfer some of both to canvas to take home with them. Both, but perhaps Joy a little more, enjoyed watching Rod as he practised take-off and landing manoeuvres. Like Toni she would rush outdoors at the sound of the motor, to observe the small, but loud, aircraft first take to the air, then circle and settle back on the lake. Her enjoyment turned to dismay when Rod graduated to practising stall-turns. She once told Toni, "When that little plane starts spinning, nose-down, I am just so sure it's going to crash that I cannot watch. I run into the house and cover my ears with my hands and wait for the sound of the impact!" But it never came - each time she listened for the smash of the metal, she heard instead the motor cutting in, and she could breathe easier once more.

Picture 8-2 Rod starting the moth for another flight

After about six hours of instruction, Rod flew his first solo flight (Picture 8 - 2). He had numerous hours of flying time to log before he could take his examination to earn his pilot's license, and he took every opportunity that presented itself. Without his license, Rod could not charge for any service he provided with the aircraft - but the flying time was advantageous to him, so when the Icelandic fishermen from points south arrived in Berens River for the summer fishing season, they brought their problem to him. They had arrived in the settlement at the end of a severe storm on Lake Winnipeg. They had arrived, as was their custom, with their tugs, and had been towing many smaller boats behind. These smaller boats had been lost in the storm, and going out in their tugs to look for them would be a time consuming trip. Would Rod be willing to look for them from the air? That sounded like a great idea to Rod, and at his first available time, he was off on the search. With his knowledge of the lake and its weather patterns, he was soon back, telling the fishermen what bays and inlets to check in to find their lost boats. The Icelanders followed his instructions, and when they found they could not pay Rod for his help, they bought him a drum of fuel for future flights. There were other such incidents and flights, and each time Rod received payment in a non-monetary manner, while he logged more hours in the air, coming closer to his pilot's license and savouring each moment of the thrill of flying.

Rod's flying test was at Lac du Bonnet, at the south end of Lake Winnipeg, and the written test in Winnipeg. Leaving Berens River to fly to Lac du Bonnet, Rod flew over their cabin, sharing a wave and smile of encouragement from Toni. She knew he would pass whatever test he was given - she was so proud of his accomplishment!

The flying test went very well. Rod had learned his lessons well, and his solo hours had honed his flying skills razor sharp. But the written test presented a problem. He had not understood the necessity of comprehending the total of the flight manual, and since he would neither be doing any night-flying, nor piloting any international flights, he over-looked these sections. Therefore, he could not answer questions on these matters, with the result he did not qualify to be licensed. Greatly disappointed, but wiser, Rod arranged for a second sitting, and returned to Berens River.

Picture 8-3 Rod flew Toni and the girls to 'Bunny Castle' on Whiskey Jack Lake

When autumn came, Rod gained the distinction of being Manitoba's first flying trapper when he took Toni and the girls to the cabin on Whiskey Jack Lake (Picture 8 - 3). The size of the plane created a small problem for Rod and Toni, since it could take only Rod and three passengers at one time. The five Schuetze's could not all fly together. Since the Caldwell family had set up a school for their children, with one of Mrs. Caldwell' sisters, a qualified teacher from Ontario, as instructor, the Caldwell's volunteered to have Ray stay with them during the trapping season and begin his schooling. The Caldwell's had a large family, and one more small boy would be no imposition. All agreed this was an excellent arrangement, and Toni and Rod gathered up their necessities and planned their flight to the trapping cabin. First, Rod flew Ray to Poplar River and the Caldwell residence. Then back to Berens River to pick up Toni, the girls and their gear. Enroute, they stopped to see Ray and the Caldwell's - banking the plane to prepare for landing, Toni suddenly realized she had blacked out briefly during the turn. She mentioned this to Rod, asking him not to turn so sharply on future occasions. Rod looked at her a little strangely, and commented - "I think I blacked out, too." It was an unsettling experience for Toni's first flight.

The next day the four of them continued on to the cabin, covering the distance in about forty-five minutes, as compared to three days by outboard motor powered canoe. Toni and Rod smiled at each other as they secured the little Gypsy Moth to its temporary moorings at Whiskey Jack Lake.

Rod made two flights to the trapping cabin - first he flew Toni and the girls out, along with as much of their gear as the small craft would carry. Then he returned to Berens River for more aviation fuel, the skis for the plane, plus the balance of their articles for the winter.

The zenith of the autumn days were still quite warm as they worked together putting the cabin and trapping gear in order before the on-set of winter. The summer's insects had one last round, with Rod bearing the brunt of their attack. He was badly bitten by black flies, especially around his head and on his hands. His temperature rose and face swelled. These conditions continued until Toni became worried about him. They had no treatment with them for this condition, and waiting for the problem to run its course did not seem to be working.

Earlier they had purchased a small radio which they now tuned in to a Winnipeg station. The weather forecast was good, and one day Toni said to him: "Rod, please take the plane and fly out to get some help - you'll only be gone briefly, and then the bites will heal. The girls and I will be fine here, but please go now before the weather turns on us."

"No, I will not leave the three of you here, running the risk of freeze up before I can get back. Either we all go, or we all stay."

The days slipped by and the bites showed no sign of healing, so Toni and Rod planned their flight out. They could not take many items with them, since it was necessary to take the aircraft's skis, plus the necessary undercarriage, as freeze-up could arrive at any time, necessitating a landing on the ice rather than on the water. Departure day dawned, becalmed and grey. The small plane was loaded heavily and Rod was concerned about take-off. He circled the lake, creating waves to help lift the aircraft from the water. Slowly, they crept skyward. The plane handled clumsily, because of the heavy cargo, and looking ahead, Rod saw grey, ominous clouds, foreboding stormy weather. Rod was displeased with the changing weather conditions and turned the plane around, landing again at their cabin. They would try another day, he said.

The weather was no better the next day, but for the first time in days, Rod's temperature dropped. By the time the weather conditions were amenable for flight, Rod was well again, and the flight cancelled.

Travelling to the trapping grounds by air created a problem: they needed a canoe to use on the rivers and lakes when the water was open. Water craft they currently owned were too heavy and too large to be loaded into the Gypsy Moth, and, had it been possible to secure them on the outside of the plane, would have created too much wind resistance to fly them in to the trapping cabin. So Rod considered this dilemma, and developed his own response: a collapsable canoe. The framework was of light weight wood, cut to fit a previously prepared sheet of heavy canvas. The canoe framework was fitted into the canvas, next the fitted keel was inserted, followed by the ribs which stretched the canvas out and held it in place. Rod added pieces of wood in the bottom of the canoe, so one could walk in it, without damaging the canvas. The canoe was designed to be taken apart, the wooden pieces stowed in the aircraft, and transported wherever the plane flew. The canoe could accommodate two people, but was only used one season, and it's fate is unknown.

Later in the winter, a visitor came to the Schuetze cabin from Clear Lake. The man was one of a trio of native Canadian trappers working in the Clear Lake area - his brother and sister-in-law were still at the cabin and she was very ill. Rod was away checking his traplines, and Toni gathered as much information as she could. The man spoke only broken English, and did not fully understand Toni's questions. They wanted Rod to come with the plane and fly the woman out for medical attention. Their cabin was on the shore of Clear Lake, but Toni was not familiar with that lake, and could not make her visitor understand the need for detailed directions for Rod. Before the man left, Toni assured him she would tell Rod of their plight. The trapper strapped on his snowshoes and started on the journey home. When Rod learned of the visit and request, he decided to make the flight the next day, flying the sick woman to Berens River.

The weather was cold and the Gypsy Moth was an open plane (Picture 8 - 4). Clear Lake was a sizable body of water, and while Rod had some knowledge of it's shoreline and features, he did not know the exact location of the cabin. Gazing down on a snow-covered landscape and lake, the topography blended so thoroughly it was hard to be sure, except where the trees were tall, exactly where the lake ended and the shoreline began. There were no tell-tale trails, made either by snowshoes or dog-teams, and Rod spent valuable time searching for the cabin. In the course of his search, his face was frost-bitten. A wisp of smoke from the chimney finally guided him to his destination.

Picture 8-4 The Moth served as a mercy flight for a woman trapper

The three men soon had the sick woman aboard the Moth; Rod took off for Berens River where they were fortunate in meeting the mail plane just arriving from points north and due back in Winnipeg later the same day. Rod's patient was transferred to the other craft and was later checked into hospital in the city. Back at Whiskey Jack Lake, Toni listened intently to the radio broadcast of messages to residents of the north - and there was the information she was wanting - it came in the form of word to the woman's husband, telling him his wife was resting comfortably in the Winnipeg General Hospital. Toni knew that Rod had arrived safely in Berens River.

Picture 8-5 Rod in his flying gear. Photo by Dan Patterson, outside the Hudson's Bay post in Berens River

(Picture 8 - 5) A few days later Rod continued into Winnipeg with the plane where he re-wrote and passed his written examination for his pilot's license.

A few weeks after this flight, Rod was out with the plane, checking on a trapline far from the cabin and landed on a small lake that looked smooth and safe from the air. When he set the plane down, he discovered he was in over-flow - the water had broken through the ice, covering the first ice to a depth of about two and a half feet with a shallow layer of ice on it, topped by a fresh fall of snow. In landing, Rod nicked the propeller on some rocks - his situation, should he not manage it very quickly, would be very serious. He taxied the aircraft around on the lake until he found an area where there was no overflow water, and quickly found tools and rocks with which to beat the propeller into safe flying condition. He flew home immediately.

The changing of the aircraft from floats to skis was a task that needed some ingenuity as well as skill. To switch the landing apparatus, the undercarriage also required changing. In order to be sure he could manage such a change under all circumstances, Rod improvised a method as workable at Whiskey Jack Lake as at Berens River. He found a suitable spot on the lake shore where he could pull the plane out of the water and hang it between trees by ropes. With the aircraft totally off the ground, it was relatively simple for one man to drop off one undercarriage and attach another. The skis and floats presented no problem once the undercarriages were changed.

When spring trapping was completed, the Schuetze family was re-united in Berens River, and their summer work patterns fell into place. The two room house that served Rod and Toni so well when Ray was their only child was now becoming crowded. The two little girls slept in the same bedroom as their parents - Eileen in a small bed that sat along the foot of their bed, and Helen in a crib that, during the day, was suspended from the ceiling. Ray slept on a cot in the kitchen. The cot did double duty as a settee during the day. Toni covered it with a throw, added a couple of cushions, and visitors sat on it. The accommodations were crowded, but the family was together and they were happy with their lot.

Protecting the Gypsy Moth aircraft from wind and storms was a concern for both Rod and Doug Street. Indoor storage for such equipment was unheard of in the 1930's, and if one had considered it the idea would soon have been discarded because of the cost and lack of money at the time. The plane was usually moored on the shore of Lake Winnipeg, close to the Schuetze cabin. When the lake became rough, such as during storms, Rod taxied the plane up a small estuary which led to what local people referred to as "the hay meadow". There, tall grass grew up from the shallow water, and a few medium sized trees provided a measure of shelter from the sweep of the wind across the lake, and from the waves it produced. Here Rod stored the plane in bad weather. There were native Canadians living close by who could see the plane from their cabins, but there was a small knoll between the Schuetze cabin and where the plane rested in the hay meadow.

One night a severe wind arose. Rod had the Moth in the hay meadow and considered it safe. He was very surprised in the afternoon when the son of one of his neighbours knocked on their cabin door and told him the wind had flipped the plane over. The wind was still very strong, but Rod's friends, native and white alike, turned out in force to re-set the aircraft on it's floats. They succeeded several times, only to have the wind flip it over again.

When the storm abated, Rod assessed the damage to the plane, checking to see what he would have to do to return it to flying condition. He removed the motor, checked and cleaned it, then stored it away until he completed the other repairs. Friends from the Forestry Branch came to see what help or advice they could offer, and all were surprised at the limited damage the plane had suffered. The local forestry officials urged Rod to make the necessary repairs, but to "get the parts and materials through us - we can get them much cheaper than you will be able to."

Doug Street made only one brief visit to the scene, and Rod continued to honour his part of their partnership - he had agreed to see to all repairs. Meanwhile, Doug had plans of his own - saying nothing, he travelled to Winnipeg where he sold the plane for scrap. He said nothing to Rod, or to anyone else in Berens River until the deal was complete.

Rod was devastated. He knew he could have repaired the Moth, had he been afforded the chance. Rod and Toni did not understand why Doug sold the plane without saying a word. While Rod could not have raised the money himself to buy the plane, there was a local group of trappers who were so well pleased with the increased returns on their winter and spring trapping that they would have banded together and purchased the aircraft to have it available to them during future winters.

Rod thought of all the others who had turned out to try to save the plane from the windstorm. They were all friends, even though the closeness of the relationship varied. He recalled one native hunter who had approached him several years earlier, his rifle broken and unable to repair it himself. Rod said he would fix it. Later, when the man came to retrieve it and asked what the repair charges were, Rod had smiled and said: "Bring us some venison the next time you shoot one." Toni knew nothing of this, until one summer's afternoon the man came by their cabin with a large piece of fresh venison. Such was the relationship existing between Rod and those who lived around him. Now, through no fault of his own, Rod felt he was letting them all down. The little Gypsy Moth aircraft had been such an asset to the small settlement - and now it was gone. Doug Street never explained his actions, and the other residents of Berens River could only look at one another and wonder why it happened.

Even fifty years after the events, Toni's eyes flashed with anger. "Why did he do that to Rod?" Rod's disappointment and hurt have become her feelings, and his emotional intensity can be read in her conversation and voice.


©1992,2006,2007 E.Woytowich