British Columbia’s Cariboo Chilcotin Coast; an Aviation Legacy;
Chris Harris & Sage Birchwater
Book design: Bill Horne
The aviation history of the Cariboo-Chilcotin is rich and colourful. Float planes came first, followed by wheeled planes once landing strips were created, then helicopters. Together they played a significant role in “opening up” the country for settlement, development and exploration.
Aided by an array of expert bush pilots who live across the region, photographer Chris Harris and writer Sage Birchwater take you on an aerial journey of discovery where landscapes take on new meaning.
The story is told visually through Harris’s impeccable lens and artistic eye, capturing images fleeting and profound, translating the ordinary into the sublime. Birchwater’s story-telling prowess draws on the memories and experiences of these bush pilot pioneers, uncovering stories of intrigue, romance, humour, and tragedy. Together they offer a breathtaking glimpse into the legacy of the Cariboo Chilcotin region of British Columbia.
Over his career Sage has specialized in telling the stories of the people of the Cariboo Chilcotin Central Coast region. He has written or edited nine books and his work has been selected for several anthologies.
Book Review by Jordon Tucker – Over the Edge; UNBC
Flyover: Talking Passion and Pilots with Legendary British Columbia Photographer, Chris Harris
Chris Harris has vision. In his youth, he spent time hauling himself around the world, sleeping in a tie-dyed canvas tent. Later on, he guided tours of the Bowron Lakes for 20 years, becoming an expert on the region. However, photography and a love for adventure have always been his passion, and it has paid off. The creator and self-publisher of twelve books about the Canadian Outdoors, Chris has won the Northern Lights award for Excellence in Photojournalism twice. His work has been featured in Canadian Geographic and National Geographic, and he has been honoured numerous times by regional, provincial and federal tourism agencies. His three most recent books, Spirit in the Grass,Motherstone and Flyover have been hailed as seminal works on the geography and history of British Columbia, with Spirit in the Grass having been nominated for two BC Book Prizes.
An avid Montreal Canadiens fan, Chris is well-respected by his peers, not only for his extroardinary photographic talent, but also for his extreme warmth, likeability and observable passion. Photography and art run in the family: Chris’ father, Chic Harris, was a highly talented photographer, and his sister, Jane O’Malley, is a critically acclaimed painter living and working in Ireland. The Prince GeorgePhotography Club is hosting Chris’ appearance on March 13th in the Canfor Theatre at UNBC, where he will be discussing his newest book, Flyover.
I caught up with this BC legend over the phone as he sat in his straw bale studio on his property in the beautiful 105 Mile Ranch. It was about 8 o’clock, and I apologized for the lateness of my call. It didn’t matter, because Chris is often up processing images until the wee hours anyway: his photography and the creation of his images is an all-consuming passion, and Chris watches tutorials and works on his craft with a zeal most people of my generation dedicate to video games.
Flyover is Harris’ newest endeavour, an incredible look of the lives and journeys of the bush pilots who essentially pioneered the Chilcotin and Northern BC regions. Flyover paints portraits with words and images of the unsung heroes who, often at their own peril, did what needed to be done to make Northern BC liveable. Harris was amazed to hear about pilots who, on top of flying in food and much-needed medical supplies, would wind up delivering babies in their planes. Bush pilots continue to bring forth necessary progress, flying scientists and researchers to otherwise unaccessible areas to learn more about this vital part of our landscape. “They play a hugely important role for the region as a whole, at great risks to themselves, a great group of people,” Harris remarked.
The idea for the book came from the aviators themselves. During book presentations for Motherstoneand Spirit in the Grass, people would come to Harris and introduce themselves as pilots, saying that if he ever needed to take aerial photos they would be happy to take him up. Harris didn’t seriously entertain the idea until the number of pilots making the offer numbered four or five. He and his partner and business manager, Rita Giesbrecht, discusssed it and realized that there was a story that wanted to be told. The aviators seemed to will the book into creation, and Sage and Chris were there to tell it for them. The risk was great: no such book like this had ever been made. The story was so niche and specific that no mainstream publisher would ever have touched it. Perhaps this was why the story of the aviators had gone so long without being told: no one had been willing to take a chance. Luckily for them, Chris Harris has always had a bit of a renegade streak. Country Light Publishing, Harris’ self-created publishing company, decided to tell the story of the aviators.
The book was written by Sage Birchwater, a BC landmark in his own right who has earned his salt writing the stories and history of the region. Their words and images flowed well together, telling the stories of past people and present landscapes. According to Harris, “Sage was a great guy to work with. [We] just got along really well… He knows everyone in the Cariboo Chilcotin. [Sage] was a natural to do the book, [he] knew most of the pilots before the project began. All in all it was a great relationship.” Birchwater’s stories of the pilots were interspersed with historical images of the aerial settlers of the region. Sage interviewed over 60 bush pilots, getting their stories about the joys and dangers of flying. Sometimes, according to Harris, these pilots would fly when not even birds would dare to. Many of the pilots were men who had returned from the dangers of war, only to find themselves bored with the everyday. They longed for peril and excitement, and piloting welcomed them like long-lost comrades. One pilot interviewed had flown more hours than anyone in Canada, having been in the sky for over 42,000 hours. Harris noted that flight in such small crafts required lots of incredibly intelligent decision making, “lots of right decisions to stay alive.” The pilots themselves were adventurers, the first real colonizers of where we call home. It isn’t easy, however: the supporters and storytellers of Flyover were hit with a loss when one of their most experienced pilot friends died in a crash right around the release date. The danger was worth it to these brave pilots.
Harris’s photos show the reader why someone would take up such a dangerous job: the landscape viewed from above was simply staggering. What the first pilots saw and continue to see from their perch in the skies is something almost no person will ever get to witness. Stretches of green mountains, azure lakes and reddish rock: almost abstract in nature, it is hard to believe that the images Harris took weren’t from a fantasy world, and were just seen from a higher plane. Harris, an unfathomably energetic person, was faced with the challenge of having to work when he could find someone to fly for him. Accustomed to picking up and going out shooting at a moment’s notice, Harris was unable to make decisions around weather and temperature when creating the images for Flyover. He was dependent on the schedule of pilots who had spare time to help him out. Even if a day wasn’t necessarily fantastic, Harris had to find beauty from his seat in the cockpit. He had twenty five flights with twenty different pilots in a variety of different planes, and flew over the entire Cariboo Chilcotin, an area the size of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick combined. Harris was struck by the newer feel of the landscape from the air: “[I had] hiked, canoed, seen most of the landscapes..Seeing it from the air provided an entirely new perspective. [I] was able to concentrate more on patterns, lines, form..[It was] a very fresh perspective.”
On top of the beautiful images displayed in the book, Harris also gained a great deal of respect for pilots: he experienced the passion they had for the land that they loved so much.
“When you’re sitting beside a pilot who has 40,000 hours of flying time, you can feel their confidence, you can feel their substance. It’s an incredible feeling to sit next to them.”
He described being with the experienced pilots as similar to being with an elder. “You can feel the energy. They feel like they’ve lived. It was very cool to feel that energy. I had total confidence flying with these guys. I got a sense of the dangers, of the things they’d done, there was no room for error.” Harris described his awe for the risks these pilots took, and his admiration for them.
The experiences Harris cultivated while flying, further contributed to his understanding of his job as a photographer. “Having travelled extensively over my lifetime, I feel that this region, which has more biodiversity than any other landscape in Canada… I just know that this region has some of the most precious landscapes left on the planet. It has the one and only interior rainforest and the largest and most pristine intact temperate grasslands in the world. And the Chilcotin ark. These are extremely precious. My role through my photography and my artwork is to make people aware and appreciate the value of those assets. They are the greatest we have. One day these assets will be worth all the jobs and wealth we have.” He reflected for a moment, and then continued, “There will come a time when these regions will become our greatest assets. You just have to think long term. I have seen enough to know the value of what we have here.” And when asked about the best part of making Flyover, Harris said without falter or pause: “ I made a lot of great friends.. met great people.”
Harris’ passion for his work and the land he lives in were evident when I questioned him about his perfect day: “Just that, being out shooting.” He said. “No matter what the conditions are, my job is to make great images. There are no excuses. My 50 years of experience have taught me I have to find beauty, art, no matter what the conditions. No excuses. That’s my job and my challenge. I just love being out shooting because I know I have to find something. I am very confident about that. That’s very cool, you know. There are no excuses. You can’t come back and make excuses about why you couldn’t do something.”
I asked him if he had any advice for young photographers, and he said,“Photograph with enthusiasm and follow your passion. Wilderness exploration and photography have been my driving forces. I kept following my dream. You just have to follow your deepest passions and stick with it, and eventually the doors will open.”
Some of the topics explored in this book;
Dog Creek Airport was built in 1943 by the Royal Canadian Air Force as a secondary line of defence during the Second World War. During its peak there was one officer and thirty airmen on strength. When the war ended the DOT took it over and maintained the base for fifteen years as an emergency landing field until the new Williams Lake Airport was completed in 1961. Sage Birchwater; from the Blog
When they are not spraying for budworms, the Air Tractor 802 planes can quickly be transformed into their other key role with the Forest Service, as air tankers for fire suppression. “It takes about two hours to remove the spray apparatus and three or four hours to set them up for fire suppression,” says Rissanen. Sage Birchwater; from the Blog
“I was fortunate to be one of the friends along for the flight. We covered a lot of jaw-droppingly beautiful territory during the course of our flights, and I can’t wait to see the finished product.” — Jim Horn; from the Blog
“Railroading, motor vehicles, and airplanes, however primitive, were the beginning of an era that would forever change the face of this great nation. British Columbia has some of the most remote regions in the country that rely solely on aviation for their survival and that can only be reached by air. On February 23, 1909, John McCurdy lifted off the frozen lake in Baddeck, Nova Scotia in the ‘Silver Dart’ and began the first chapter of aviation in Canada. Can you imagine what the world would be like without air travel today?” — Trevor Batstone; from the Blog