Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.
NORTHERN Ontario’s aviation pioneers are a special breed. From lone bush pilots to small fleet owners they hop-scotched into a growing number of remote communities as airstrips were hewn out of the boreal forest. Gradually, scheduled air services were established. Names like Wieben, DeLuce and Kelner are among a long list of adventurous fliers who took on the challenge of opening up such a vast region as this.
The list is short a key member this week with the sudden death of Harvey Friesen. Together with his brother, Cliff, they grew Bearskin Airlines from a two-floatplane operation to a large, scheduled airline with 50 years of service — a remarkable achievement in an industry where longevity is rare.
The company was created in 1963 by a bush pilot named John Hegland from a base in Big Trout Lake, flying charter service to Sioux Lookout. (Hegland named the operation after Bearskin Lake where he owned a store.) A second hop to Thunder Bay was a logical step.
New owners turned Bearskin into an air taxi service with Harvey Friesen one of its pilots. In 1972, at age 24, he bought half the company and purchased most of the rest of it five years later. Brother Cliff bought in shortly after and a family business was born and grew with the addition of a base in Thunder Bay to augment the one in Sioux Lookout.
As the Ontario government began a remote airfield network, building new airstrips to make remote communities accessible year-round by air, Bearskin began buying wheeled commuter planes. Soon, Bearskin was serving 20 communities.
Growth continued and following the collapse of NorOntair in 1996 Bearskin picked up most of the routes, adding scheduled service to all major Northern Ontario cities and later to Manitoba.
The sale of its remote First Nations routes to Wasaya Airlines in 2003 marked the formal end of its bush flying past but not the Friesens’ adherence to its importance in their lives.
The loss of Harvey Friesen is especially tragic, coming not long after the brothers retired. Not long before that, a deadly crash in Red Lake was said to have hit the brothers hard when employees were found to be among the five victims.
Friesen was in good health and was enjoying a golfing holiday in California when a heart attack ended a good life and a large part of the evolution of Northern Ontario’s rich aviation history.