As a commercial bush plane pilot in northwestern Manitoba, Shannon Thompson has grown accustomed to the ribbing she gets from male-dominated fishing parties who fly with her to the ruggedly remote Laurie River Lodge.
“Most people think I’m pretty young,” the baby-faced Thompson said. “I get that a lot. But no one has ever remarked about me being a female.”
Thompson, 30, is still early in her career as the operator of a six-passenger de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver floatplane. A resident of Kelowna, British Columbia, she’s part of a growing legion of female bush pilots in Canada’s hunting and fishing wilderness and she’ll be at Canterbury Park in Shakopee this weekend to swap outdoors stories with Minnesotans attending the All-Canada Show, starting Thursday.
Thompson said half the Canadian bush pilots she knows are women, including her own mother and her boss at Laurie River, Erin Fleck. Erin and Shannon are the only two line pilots at the lodge, located 150 miles north of Flin Flon.
“The perception has changed as to who can fly in the bush,” said Brent Fleck, co-owner of Laurie River Lodge and a 25-year industry veteran. “It’s becoming more and more common and I have no problem at all hiring female pilots. They’ve all done an exemplary job.”
Judging from the industry’s upward trend, there’s more to flying Canadian float planes than summers of adventure. There’s also renewed job security.
Gerry Cariou, executive director of northwest Ontario’s Sunset Country Travel Association, said a postrecession business recovery that started in 2012 has gotten better every year. In Ontario, where Minnesotans account for more than half the fishing trip economy at some 450 lodges, most outfitters recorded at least a 10 percent gain last year, with some experiencing jumps in bookings of 20 to 30 percent, Cariou said. Meanwhile, he said, 2017 is shaping up to be even busier.
“For June, if you haven’t already booked a trip, you probably are not going to get a date,” Cariou said. “Whatever’s happening in the U.S. economy has been really good for us.”
Brent Fleck said the Canadian fishing trip business is still in a dramatic upswing after crashing in 2008 during the U.S. recession. At Laurie River Lodge, 2016 was the busiest year since 2007 and this year promises to be “exponentially” better than a year ago, he said. A big part of the surge has to do with U.S. corporations returning to Canadian fishing trips as a way to reward employees or host key customers, he said.
Cariou, whose nonprofit association promotes travel to Ontario’s land of 70,000 lakes, said the currency exchange rate has played a role in boosting bookings, too. At lodges where rates are calculated in Canadian currency, Americans this year are buying travel north of the border at a 32 to 35 percent discount. In other words, a $1,000 charge in Loonies can be covered with $650 to $680 in U.S. cash.
Scott Pautz, co-owner of the All-Canada Show, said the increased demand by Americans for Canadian fishing trips has drawn more exhibitors to the Twin Cities version of the show. This year’s array of 70 exhibitors surpasses 2016 by six to eight lodges, Pautz said.
Pautz and Steve Cegielski, who live near Green Bay, Wis., bought the All-Canada Show in September 2013 from Bay Lakes Marketing. The show wasn’t held in the Twin Cities during 2014 and 2015. The last time Bay Lakes operated it here in 2013, the show was held at Earle Brown Heritage Center in Brooklyn Center.
Thompson, the bush pilot, said she’s never experienced the slowdown that lodge owners recall from the recession. She’s been around floatplanes and flying them since she was a girl. Her mother and grandfather flew recreationally and she became the first in her family to earn a commercial, single-engine license for daytime flying. She landed her job last year at Laurie River Lodge.
Now she shuttles passengers, their gear and lodge supplies back and forth to civilization.
“It keeps me busy,” she said.
Asked if her ambition is flying larger aircraft, Thompson said she’s happiest taking off and landing on pontoons.
“It’s not a glass ceiling situation at all,” she said. “But I’ll be sticking with floats. I don’t really see myself changing.”