As we circled high over the Canadian sub-Arctic, Dubawnt Lake lay below, largely ice-covered. This was in mid-July 1988, and a decision was needed. Either we would land our float-equipped Cessna Caravan on the small portion of the lake that was ice-free and take a chance the ice wouldn't shift, crushing the plane and perhaps stranding us on the lake for weeks. Or we'd continue to fly north.
Either way, we had no fuel to spare.
Finally, Buzz Kaplan said, "I think we should keep going. If we land on the lake and things go wrong, we could have big problems."
Buzz, of Owatonna, was piloting the single-engine Caravan, which he owned. Aiding him was his longtime friend, co-pilot and fellow World War II veteran Tony Seykora, also of Owatonna.
As Buzz spoke, he grimaced because he knew from experience the size of Dubawnt's lake trout — up to 50 pounds — and he wanted one more crack at them. So did retired Vikings coach Bud Grant, who also was in the plane, as was fellow Twin Cities resident Norb Berg.
Some years earlier, on a trip to Dubawnt in a smaller floatplane of Buzz's — a Cessna 185 — Bud and Buzz almost bought the farm. As in, died. That inconvenience notwithstanding, they caught huge lake trout, and lots of them.
Now, as Buzz pointed us north into a strong head wind, on a route that would take us over the Arctic Ocean before we could refuel, thoughts of those monster fish weren't easily dispelled.
The five of us — Buzz, Tony, Bud, Norb and I — had intended Dubawnt to be a memorable stop on a two-week-long fishing odyssey. Our planned route would take us from St. Paul to the magnetic North Pole, or as close as we could get to it, en route touching down on Knee Lake, Ontario, for northern pike and walleyes; on Dubawnt for lake trout; and on rivers in the far, far north for Arctic char and grayling.
From there we would fly southwest over the Arctic Ocean to Alaska for salmon, rainbow trout and halibut, before vectoring due south to British Columbia and home to Minnesota.
Each spring when I see the season's first floatplane fly overhead, I recall this unforgettable adventure.
To me, the sight of these aerial amphibians stirs the imagination and sparks a longing for wilderness destinations that lie far from the madding crowd, where mirror-surfaced lakes are surrounded by tall pines and filled with hungry, willing fish.
• • •
R.W. "Buzz" Kaplan died in 2002 at age 78 when the 1917 Curtiss Jenny biplane he was preparing to fly to the big air show in Oshkosh, Wis., crashed near his hometown airport.
Buzz was by then one of the most widely traveled and respected private floatplane pilots in the world, having flown his Caravan and other planes to six continents, including Antarctica, and more than 76 countries.
Yet whether Buzz was primarily a pilot who fished or primarily a fisherman who flew floatplanes, even his best friends couldn't be sure, so intertwined were his interests.
"I really miss Buzz," Bud was saying last week. "We shared so many interests, and when it came to fishing, his motto was, 'Have plane, will fly.' "
While coaching the Vikings, Bud was known for starting training camp later than most NFL clubs. This was in part a coaching decision. But it also was a fishing decision. Many Canadian lakes he and Buzz liked to fish weren't ice-free until July.
"Buzz would get us to those lakes and rivers any way he could," Bud said. "He had a helicopter for a while, and we used it to land on God's River to fish brook trout. And before he had the Caravan, we flew in his (Cessna) 185, which didn't have the fuel capacity the Caravan did, so we had to cache fuel along our routes so we could get as far north as we wanted to."
On their first trip to Dubawnt, Buzz dropped Bud off at their lakeshore campsite, along with their gear, including the Fold-a-Boat they would use to fish. Then, Buzz flew alone to a lake where he had stashed fuel in jerrycans. But while loading the fuel, he fell off a float into the chilled lake.
By the time he struggled out of the water, climbed into the airplane and pulled off his clothes, he was nearly hypothermic.
"For the longest time he was so cold he couldn't start the plane to warm up," Bud said. "What kept him going, he later told me, was that he knew if he died, no one would ever find me. We were just flying around, fishing lakes. No one knew we had gone to Dubawnt."
• • •
Buzz was assigned to Patton's Third Army during the war and spent a lot of time walking, crawling and sleeping in mud.
"At night when I'd see our bombers go over, I figured whatever hardships they were enduring, and they endured a lot, at least they weren't sleeping in mud," Buzz said.
If he ever made it back to Owatonna, Buzz vowed he would learn to fly.
And fly he did, anything and everything — a passion he could afford to indulge as chairman of Owatonna Tool Co.
On our 1988 adventure, we caught every species of fish on our bucket list.
Challenges? We had a few.
Foremost was a float we punctured when we hit a rock while taxiing after landing in the water near Victoria Island in Canada's Northwest Territories. Only a portion of the float filled with water, but the resulting additional weight meant we had to strip everything from the plane, including its seats — as well as Norb, Bud and me.
"Remember when we got left behind?" Norb recalled.
Buzz had to fly back with Tony to Victoria Island to patch the float. "It took forever before he got that plane into the air, and when he did, the punctured float trailed water from it as far as we could see," Norb said.
When Buzz returned for us, the float fixed, he had only one question.
It wasn't about the mosquitoes, which were plentiful.
Or about the strong wind or cold, spitting rain.
"How was the fishing?" was all Buzz asked.
And, ultimately, all that mattered.
Editor's note: "R.W. "Buzz"Kaplan: The Life of an Adventurer,'' by Kristin Kaplan Holsworth, is available from www.amazon.com.