They also flew wild animals. Tom Lamb once shuttled 16 beavers as part of a program to restock beavers into lakes around The Pas. At 6,000 feet, the critters started escaping from their gunnysacks.
The cabin was soon filled with curious beavers. They clambered over Lamb's feet, stood on hind legs to inspect the control panels, and hopped onto seats for a better view -- while Lamb tried to navigate his five-seater Stinson.
It got worse. When Lamb arrived at his home in The Pas for a stopover, his three daughters invited their classmates over to help dress the beavers in petticoats and baby clothes. (The famously calm beaver is a bit of a cuddler and, despite the fantastic chompers, doesn't bite the way a muskrat does.)
When Tom's plane finally started landing on lakes to restock, another problem arose. The beavers wouldn't get out of the plane. They were like dogs in cars. They loved it. Tom would push them into the water and they'd scramble back up onto the pontoons.
It was the 1940s and, hard as it is to believe today, beavers had become almost extinct across the province. This was the first restocking program of beaver in Manitoba, 55 of the rodents in total, and just one in a long line of firsts initiated by the frontier Lamb family, who will be honoured March 13 at a Manitoba Aviation Council banquet.
"They pioneered northern flying," said Jim Campbell, who flew bush planes in the 1960s and is well acquainted with the Lamb family's heroics.
Most Manitobans have seen the famous Leo Mol statue of a man in fur-trimmed parka gripping an airplane propeller as if to crank it to start. That's Tom Lamb. (The statues are in the Richardson Building lobby, The Pas Airport, the Leo Mol Garden in Assiniboine Park, and the Western Aviation Museum.)
Tom Lamb started Lambair Ltd., the first northern air service to provide everything from supply drops to medivacs, in 1935. All six of his sons -- Greg, Donald, Dennis, Jack, Doug and Connie -- would eventually become pilots and join him.
"Tom built a company when no one else did. His boys wandered all over the arctic in their float plans and ski planes. Now there are runways but not back then," said Campbell.
And there are better planes today, too. When the first northern flights began, the plane engines weren't built to withstand the cold and would freeze up.
That resulted in many narrow escapes in those pioneering days. Several Lamb family members had to make emergency landings in spruce tops. Fifth son Jack suffered extensive burns in one accident. Unbeknownst to him, a pontoon had ruptured and taken in about 300 pounds of water. On takeoff, the plane dove into a highway ditch and caught fire. Jack and another man scrambled out of the plane, their gas-soaked clothes in flames.
Jack spent four months in hospital having his skin grafted. On the plus side, he said, he did get acquainted with a cute operating technician there named Barbara. They've now been married 51 years.
They ran so many rescue missions. One time was when Joe Keeper at Cedar Lake tried to get his little girl to the hospital in a blizzard. She had pneumonia and would likely die without medical attention. Keeper's bombardier kept getting stuck and he had to turn around.
Doug, the fifth Lamb son, was on the west side of the province by Moose Lake when he overheard Mounties talking on the radio about how there was nothing they could do for the child. So Doug got his plane up and headed to the Keepers.
In blowing snow, he landed his plane on glare ice but the wind tossed the plane into a stand of trees. Joe Keeper pulled the plane upright with his bombardier and Doug flew the family to a hospital in The Pas. The little girl, Tina Keeper, lived and is better known today as a TV star and the Liberal MP for Churchill.
"That's what the Lamb family did all the time. There are probably a thousand more stories like that," said Campbell.
Lambair Ltd. never suffered a single fatality in 46 years of operation. "It's extremely doubtful that any other bush airline has equaled these passenger and mileage safety records," said Leland Stowe, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist who penned the biography of Tom Lamb called, The Last Great Frontiersman (1982).
Tom Lamb was born in Grand Rapids in Manitoba's Interlake in 1898 to English immigrants T.H.P. (Thomas Henry Peacock) Lamb, a school teacher, and wife Caroline, formerly a nanny.
In 1900, the parents moved across the province and opened an independent trading post on Mosakahikan Cree Nation, on Moose Lake about 70 kilometres southeast of The Pas. They were the only white family in the settlement.
That T.H.P. Lamb dared to set up a maverick trading post near a post run by the venerable Hudson Bay Company, tells much about his character. That he would outlast the Hudson Bay post indicates they didn't nickname him "Ten Horse Power" Lamb for nothing.
In a 100-page type-written memoir left to his children and grandchildren, Tom Lamb recalled his childhood growing up in the wilderness,. He'd often sleep in birch bark tents with a playmate's Cree family. The Cree heated the birch bark to flatten it for making teepees.
The teepees were open at the chimney and everyone would lie around a fire in the centre. They slept on beds of balsam branches. But the birch bark teepees were disappearing because the natives could now buy 10-ounce canvas from his father.
"I liked sleeping in a birch bark tent when it was raining. The sound of rain put you to sleep. No matter what camp you arrived at, there was always lots of room...in any family's tent."
He learned much about the wilderness and nature, like how to snare groundhogs and rabbits from his Cree friends. Or to fill his canvas mitts with fluff from bulrushes to make them warmer. He was as fluent in Cree as he was English.
But Tom quit his formal education, such as it was, after Grade 3. The reason, he explained, was his teacher Elijah Constant, a Cree man from The Pas, had only a Grade 2 education. "There was no sense in me continuing school as I held one grade higher than Elijah."
By age 12 and 13, Tom and his brother Eric were already "teamsters" freighting frozen fish in the dead of winter with teams of horses. They would freight between Moose Lake and The Pas, a three day trip, sleeping in tents twice each way.
There were many colourful characters in the north like Reverend Jimmy Settee, their sly Metis minister who was always cadging gifts from parishioners. "Jimmie was the champion preacher and storyteller mixing Indian folklore stories with the bible. Church services never seemed long with Jimmie up in the pulpit," Tom Lamb wrote.
Lamb was one of those special people who seem to get four to five times more from life than most people. He was at the same time personable and never forgot a friend. Biographer Leland Stowe had been a war correspondent and known many world leaders in his time. But he said the most extraordinary person he'd ever met was Tom Lamb. He never heard anyone say a bad word against Lamb.
Tom bought out old Ten Horse Power's trading post in 1926 at age 28, and took it to the next level. He expanded it to include commercial fishing, tractor freighting, river freighting, a sawmill, a muskrat ranch, a cattle ranch, and a northern airline called Lambair. He bought his first plane in 1935, two years before he would learn to fly.
"He was really an aggressive, far-sighted business person. He saw the North as open skies and unlimited horizons," said Bill Zuk, executive director with the Manitoba Aviation Council.
As employees in Lambair, the family would spread out across Northern Manitoba as far away as Baffin Island. Mom Jennie would take roll call by radio every morning. The rule was that if a family member didn't report within 48 hours, the others dropped what they were doing and flew out to look for them.
"I don't know how many Christmases the Lambs flew. (At one point, Tom flew 16 straight Christmas days.) People were always getting stranded or there'd be Medivacs," said Campbell.
Tom Lamb had his first heart attack flying a rescue mission in 1955. He'd simply pushed himself too hard, flying one rescue mission too many at the end of a long day of flying.
He had his last heart attack in 1969. He and Jennie were holidaying in Honolulu. Holidaying was something Tom had a hard time doing. Jennie had to drag him. He had a heart attack in his sleep and died.
"These guys (the Lamb family) were pioneers times seven," said Doug Eryou, who used to run a small airline out of Lac du Bonnet and now lives in Flin Flon. "It's amazing they all lived. They had so many adventures. Not that they were cheating death but they were working against the elements all the time."
Tom Lamb's daughter Carol and her husband Greg McAree took over the trading post, which had been moved to The Pas, and ran it until 1997.
The airline company, Lambair Ltd., went out of business in 1981 when it was caught by 22 per cent interest rates. Calm Air took it over and continues flying many of its Manitoba routes. Calm Air was founded by Carl Arnold Lawrence Moberg, whose initials spell out CALM.
The Nunavut government honoured the Lambs, who all learned how to speak the Inuit language, with a ceremony last year in Rankin Inlet.
The Manitoba Aviation Council two-day conference, including trade show, is being held at Hilton Suites Mar. 12-13. The dinner is March 13 at the Western Canada Aviation Museum, where surviving Lamb family members will be presented with the MAC Pioneer of Flight Award 2008. The Richardson family won the award last year.
"We feel quite humbled and very appreciative for the honour," said Jack Lamb, 74, who has self-published a book about his own piloting exploits titled My Life In the North.
Lambair on Wikipedia
The Otterflogger's tribute
Been reading 'Flying the Frontiers (Vol.II)' and there's a nice chapter where Keith Olsen looks back on his flying career, including flying on Noorduyn Norseman CF-INN (seems to rest on a bottom of a lake), CF-MAM (these days preserved in Petro-Canada building, in Calgary) and DHC-3 CF-MEL for Lambair in the early 1960s. Many a tale told there, very nice reading.
Shirlee Smith Matheson wrote three editions of 'Flying the Frontier', well reported documents of Canada's pioneers in aviation, recommended reading.