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Back in 2006 I went on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota with my cousin and a few friends. The Boundary Waters are a vast, quiet wilderness full of nothing. And everything. After a week in its clutches, I was pretty smitten.

My reluctant journey back to civilization started when the outfitter’s van hauled us back to their store in Ely. I knew that Ely was known as the “Gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness” for paddlers, but I didn’t know much else about the place. So as soon as we packed up the car and had some dinner, we headed south to Minneapolis.

What I didn’t know was that Ely was also the gateway to the BWCAW for some U.S. Forest Service seaplanes. Located on the shores of Shagawa Lake, the Superior National Forest seaplane base is the only U.S. Forest Service seaplane base in the U.S. With three de Havilland Beavers there, I certainly would have checked it out had I known it existed.

The good news is that in 2010, Dave Quam, one of the founders of the Seaplane Pilots Association, took Executive Director Jim McManus up to Ely, shot a video, and posted it on YouTube. So I just got to see what I missed.

Dave and Jim got a tour of the base from Forest Service pilot Dean Lee, then sat down with Dean and another pilot, Wayne Erickson, to chat about what they do.

As you’ll see in the video, it’s a pretty unique operation. They have about a dozen different missions, ranging from wildfire detection and air attack (using a unique scoop for a Beaver floatplane) to wildlife telemetry, fish stocking, medivac, search and rescue, and “body hauling.”

Dean also recounts the history of the base, which was opened in 1938. When Jim asks him how a pilot goes about getting a job with the Forest Service flying out of Ely, Dean replies, “You have to wait for somebody to die or retire.”

There aren’t many flying jobs like this one. But if you love wilderness as much as airplanes, and you can somehow get your foot in the door, you can’t beat it.

We’ll be exploring other wilderness and wildlife service jobs (and how to get them) in the future. In the meantime, enjoy this interesting video!

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