I had actually never expected to fly with Air Creebec on this trip to Canada. It came about due to an unfortunate turn of events far away from Montreal, where I had recently arrived on WestJet.
See: In The East With WestJet: St John's To Montreal (by palmjet Nov 7 2012 in Trip Reports).
PLANNING IS HALF THE FUN
Much earlier this year, while planning flights in Canada, I had researched into Dash 8 operators in this part of the world. It made perfect sense. When in Rome, or should I say, Canada, flying a Dash 8 seemed to go hand in hand together, just like mounties and horses and I really wanted to check off a Dash 8 flight in Canada for my log. I continue to love flying the Dash 8 and remain a big fan of this rugged little Canadian aircraft that remains a popular type for many airlines in all parts of the world.
For months, I had been debating about a possible Dash 8 multi-stop day trip, while I was in Montreal, with either Air Creebec (www.aircreebec.ca) or Air Inuit (www.airinuit.com). Both have Dash 8 fleets and seem to fly to some pretty far flung places in Quebec.
In the summer I emailed Air Inuit Reservations, explained that I wanted to fly with them on a Dash 8 as I was a fan of the aircraft and had a few queries because I was having trouble putting a schedule together that worked, and was not likely to see me stranded somewhere indefinitely in the far north of Quebec. My first impressions of Air Inuit were disappointing - I never heard back from them, so that was my cue to give them the flick. At this point I felt like Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” where she walks past the snooty shop assistant carrying armfuls of shopping containing expensive items and mouths to the shop assistant something like “BIG mistake!” while holding up all her shopping from another store, before casually walking on. I therefore focused my efforts on Air Creebec whose schedule seemed to be better suited to what I wanted to do.
Even before I had written to Air Inuit about Dash 8 flights, my original plan was to fly a multi stop Air Creebec flight to La Grande in Quebec, where I would spend an hour or so on the ground before connecting with an Air Inuit 732 Combi for a non stop flight back to Montreal. This was my ideal plan – as I’ve never been on a 737-200 Combi before and they are now so rare. Alex (abrelosojos)was lucky enough to experience a Combi though in Canada earlier this year.
This plan came to a grinding halt when Air Creebec suddenly announced earlier this year that they were ceasing all flights to La Grande so there went my planned Air Creebec/Air Inuit combo flights in any case. Back to square 1.
Further investigations however of the Air Creebec website revealed that it would be possible to do a day trip from Montreal (YUL) up to the small community of Chisasibi on the east coast of James Bay in northern Quebec and return, with a myriad of stops on the way there and back.
Flight YN927 would leave Montreal in the morning, before stopping at Chibougamau, Nemaska, Waskaganish, Eastmain and Wemindji and arriving at Chisasibi in the early afternoon. I would then be on the ground there for an hour before making the return trip via the same stops. I did look at seeing whether I could route myself via Val d’Or on the return, but in the end settled for looking at booking Flight 928 on the way back as the route via Val d’Or had fewer stops and I wanted to maximise my Dash 8 time.
Crazy? Oh most definitely.
I also looked into whether it was possible to include the even further northern airport of Whapmagoostui but schedules did not allow for this on the date I wanted to fly.
Here’s how it looks on the map, thanks to great circle mapper
And my flights within Canada so far-
I tried a dummy booking to see what the price of a daytrip return was and let’s just say, the damage was not pretty. The airfare was outrageously high – over CAD$1500. I suspected therefore that Air Creebec did not receive any subsidy to operate these flights which is why the fares were so high because I can’t imagine loads would be high all the time. Certainly the fare was quite a contrast to the cost of my Skytrans Dash 8 flight in Australia last year (which are operated in conjunction with a State Government subsidy). Just feeling curious, I then took a look at Air Inuit again and their fares to some of the most northerly destinations were higher than it would cost me to fly back to Australia from London in Y !
Yikes and no thanks. That’s what I thought at the time. I’ll just stick to my much more reasonably priced Twin Otter flights. Or so I thought.
Then this happened:
To Twotter Or Not? Air Labrador & Air Canada (by palmjet Oct 31 2012 in Trip Reports)
So by way of consolation for missing the Twin Otter flights, while I was still in Goose Bay feeling very depressed, I returned to thinking about trying to fly with Air Creebec again even though I know my credit card was going to pleading for mercy. Let’s just say the credit card pleas went unnoticed and before I knew it, I had received an email confirmation after a seamless online booking experience for Flight 927 and 928. I was all set.
Welcome to Part 4 of my Canada series of reports.
AIR CREEBEC – THE NORTHERN CONNECTOR
No it’s not a typo - the airline is not called “Air Quebec”. Little seems to have been written about this Val d’Or based airline on this forum and I haven’t read any other Air Creebec trip reports in the past. From the airline’s website:
“Air Creebec Inc.'s beginnings date back to 1979. Following ratification of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, the Cree Regional Authority was faced with a unique opportunity to extend its activities to the field of transportation. The Cree Nation was a promising market and needed an air carrier whose main objective would be to meet its expectations. In the spring of 1979, the Grand Chief of the Cree Nation of Quebec and Austin Airways held their first of several meetings, which eventually led to the creation of an airline belonging to the Cree and called "Air Creebec Inc.". At the beginning of the new airline's operations in 1982, 51% was Cree-owned and 49% was owned by Austin Airways.
In 1988, the Cree bought out their partner's share of the business and has wholly owned Air Creebec ever since. This was the largest commercial transaction ever completed by Canada's aboriginals. Increasing from 30 employees in 1986 to 165 in 2000, Air Creebec is earning a reputation as a serious, reliable airline.
Air Creebec is also carving out an enviable name for itself in the field of charter flights, where it is respected for its ability to quickly and efficiently react, not only for routine services but also for emergencies, such as forest fires and floods. Our airline offers a VIP charter program for businesses, whereby a certain type of aircraft may be selected for a long-term contract.”
While I was in Montreal, and on its 30th anniversary, Air Creebec opened a brand new $10m hangar and terminal at YUL.
The once-fledgling airline now carries 60,000 passengers a year, about evenly divided between charters for companies like Goldcorp Inc. and Hydro-Québec, and scheduled flights.
Things certainly seem rosy for Air Creebec at present.
AIR CREEBEC ROUTES
The airline operates a number of routes radiating from Montreal in Quebec (which as Brilondon correctly reminded me, is NOT the capital of Quebec) and Timmins in Ontario. This is the map displayed on the airline’s website. Notice the error when compared to the earlier map of my flight?
AIR CREEBEC FLEET
Currently Air Creebec operate two aircraft types – the Dash 8 – 100 (for all Quebec and some Ontario flights) and the EMB110 Banderante (for some flights in Ontario). This is music to my ears as there’s no chance of an aircraft substitution for the flight I am booked on.
I love the Dash 8 – I always have done, ever since my first flight on one twenty years ago in 1992 in Brisbane. I discovered the joys of flying to remote communities with Skytrans in March 2011 and again with Wideroe in Northern Norway in May of the same year. What better way to continue my Dash 8 love affair than by flying with Air Creebec on a multi stop to Chisasibi. But before that, I still had plenty to explore in Montreal.
The weekend before I was scheduled to fly, I spent much of it on foot, exploring my new surroundings. I was really enjoying Montreal so far. Montreal is unlike anywhere I’ve been before – it’s not Europe, but parts of it don’t feel North American either, hearing French being spoken but then turning a corner, and hearing everyone speak English, or another language, before switching back to French again. Montrealers seemed pretty comfortable in many languages – at least that was my experience. The old part of Montreal had a distinct European feel to it, but at the same time, it was also uniquely “Montreal”. So many comparisons get made with France and of course, Quebec, Montreal and France share a long and complex connection, but Montreal I felt, was truly unique – not French, not North American. The day before my Dash 8 flight, I walked up to the Chalet du Mont Royal on top of Mont Royal which provided a super view over the city and St Lawrence River in the background.
The Jacques Cartier Bridge over the St Lawrence in the distance
I had also spent quite a bit of time walking around Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) and the Vieux Port both during the day and later one evening, headed out for some low light photography.
Lots of public art in the city
Heading for Old Montreal on foot. I could have taken the Metro but walking was much more interesting.
I end up spending quite a bit of time in the Old Port area - now renovated with lots of places to eat, as well as small shops and museums.
Later, I get some dusk views of the Old Port and St Lawrence River - the fading light was very beautiful and the pink sky was gorgeous.
The Montreal Clocktower (Tour de l'Horloge) in the Old Port, also called the Sailor’s Memorial Clock, which was completed in 1919.
Like Paris, Montreal has its own city “plage” on the banks of the river during the summer months.
Slowly the light is fading and the lights of Montreal start appearing
The Bonsecours Market lit up at night - it’s a really beautiful autumn evening.
On the way back to the hotel for an early night, I then head via the Basilica Notre-Dame again - with the Place d’Armes and statue of Paul de Chomedey, sieur de Maisonneuve, founder of Montreal.
DASH 8 DEPARTURE DAY ARRIVES
Yet another early start, as my flight was due to depart from YUL at 7:50am. I am in a taxi this morning – not feeling motivated to catch the Airport Shuttle Bus and in just over 15 minutes after speeding through the dark streets and roads, I am at YUL and heading inside to find the Air Creebec check in counters.
No OLCI is available for Air Creebec flights.
FIDS this morning – yes, my flight is due to operate. Great to see the Air Creebec logo appearing proudly against all of the more well known airline brands. The FIDS says the flight is only going as far as Waskaganish but it’s actually going further north.
I head in the direction of the Air Creebec check in counters – this handy sign spotted just inside the landside part of the terminal.
The inside of YUL isn’t especially attractive –functional, if not a little cramped in parts, it feels a little dated and perhaps in need of a bit of a facelift. However, everything seems to work OK and I am soon at the Air Creebec desk handing over my passport. Two very friendly agents process me and as it’s open seating on the flight, there is no seat allocated. “You can sit wherever you like” and “If you get close to the gate, you can get out to the aircraft first when the boarding calls is made!” says one.
With no luggage to check in, I am directed to the security/gate area and wished a good flight. First impressions are excellent and the experience is pain free.
Being a Monday morning, there are lots of serious, but tired looking business flyers so the queue for security looks moderately insane. I have my boarding pass checked as I join the queue, which thankfully actually moves quickly. My boarding pass is then checked again as I go through the machines –what’s with the multiple checking going on here? I am not on an international or even a cross border US flight. However, the security agent I engaged with was friendly and chirpy for a Monday morning.
At this point, I recall Marc (MSS658) experiencing something similar flying through YUL earlier this year with all the multiple checking of boarding passes.
After collecting my stuff, and entering the airside area, I decide to take a small walk to see what’s to be seen here. Firstly I pass another very long queue – for Starbucks, and then another even longer queue – for Tim Hortons. Clearly Canadian travellers are in dire need of caffeine at this time of the morning. I am with them but there is no way I am joining a long line for coffee. Instead I head for the newsagency which is selling cold drinks and snacks and opt for some juice instead. Coffee will have to wait.
Thankfully it’s a dry morning here in Montreal today and I am able to get a few pictures of the ramp action.
An Air Canada A321 getting ready to head West.
A gaggle of Dash 8s – am I in heaven?
Two of the baby Dash 8s are now in the new Air Canada Express colours.
Hmmm - looks familiar
Also looks familiar...
I also see an Air Canada Express Dash 8 – 400 at the very same gate from where Marc flew out of earlier this year. This one’s for you!
I then stumble across not one but two Air Creebec baby Dash 8s. Not knowing which one will be mine, I take pictures of both of them in various angles – so cute! To spice things up a bit, they are both in different liveries – the older and current colours are side by side, although they seem to use both logos/liveries interchangeably.
I really like both versions.
Our departure gate is downstairs (Gate 8) so I eventually make my way down there. For some reason our flight is showing as terminating in Waskaganish (same as the FIDS earlier) - which is one of the stops on my journey today. I assume the flight has not be re-routed and check with the ground crew to make sure all is well.
The flight next to ours is making its first stop in Val d’Or and it will also go on to Chisasibi, albeit via a slightly different routing to YN927. It boards first – and it looks like a full load on that Dash 8 for its first flight of the day.
A short delay is announced to our flight as the crew had not arrived – we’re not expecting to be delayed beyond 15 minutes though so no need to worry. Finally, at 5 minutes past our STD, we are invited to board. The same gate agents I spoke to at check in are now here to dispatch everyone and I get another friendly “have a good flight” and a smile before heading out to the ramp. Thumbs up for the Air Creebec ground experience here in Montreal. Passengers are permitted to walk out to the aircraft and I am in the first batch of people heading out so I get a chance to capture the scene.
Today I will be flying on C-GAIS, which made its first flight in 1989 when it was delivered to Air Atlantic who eventually had a fleet of some 22 Dash 8s – making it a veteran commuter aircraft. The aircraft has spent its entire life in Canada, and was acquired by Air Creebec in 2006.
I enter the cabin, and am greeted with a low muttered “bonjour” by a less than business friendly young female flight attendant and thankfully, I have a pretty good choice of seats being one of the first on. The cabin of “GAIS” looks clean and fresh and I plonk myself down in 4A.
Leg room is good as it’s the emergency exit. I end up moving my camera bag when the door is closed.
Seems like our flight attendant would rather be somewhere else – first impressions are pretty average. She doesn’t look overly impressed as other passengers gradually trundle aboard and perhaps the early start does not agree with her?
The view from my window while boarding is in progress.
We end up departing 20 minutes late, and the aircraft is about 90% full for the first (and longest) sector up to Chibougamau. A short safety demonstration is carried out as we taxi out but I can hardly understand the flight attendant’s words – in either English or French. Good thing I am familiar with the baby Dash 8 and its emergency exits! Our cockpit crew consists of a fairly senior looking captain and a young lady as our first officer. Sadly there are no welcome messages from the cockpit crew, and in fact, no messages or flight information for the entire flight which I find very disappointing. As WideBodyRoga says – it’s a small thing and it costs nothing. We’re not all jaded flyers and a lot of people like to know about where we’re going and hearing from the cockpit crew is a good thing. Thumbs down for Air Creebec on this.
During pushback, I get a glimpse of an Air Canada Airbus with “Jetz” titles
We pass a couple of Air Inuit aircraft getting ready for their flights north – both are in their newest colours, which are very eye catching.
Sector 1: Montreal Trudeau (YUL) - Chibougamau Chapais Airport (YMT)
The first sector is to be the longest of the day’s flying, scheduled for 1 hour 25 mins. Take off is always fun on the Dash 8 – we have a short wait behind an Air Canada EM190 before quite a powerful take off into the morning Montreal sky.
YUL’s main terminal area is off to our left
The climb out is over the sprawl of the city.
Not long after departure, and while still climbing, we pass by what I assume is Mirabel Airport. Doesn’t look like much action is taking place down there.
The weather in Montreal seems sunny enough and there are some nice views of the landscape below where pockets of green are now turning orange and red with the change of season. We soon leave the urban sprawl of Montreal behind.
The further north we head, the more cloudy it gets though.
Once we’re cruising, our flight attendant starts some action in the galley and heads down the aisle with some food boxes. Seems like Air Creebec is providing breakfast. This is what everyone gets.
It turns out to be a cold chorizo like omlette, with a bagel and cream cheese, plus orange juice and some fruit. Coffee is also offered separately. The omelette is tasteless and disgusting but the coffee was actually quite drinkable and the bagel was edible.
I use the time between peering out of the window to flick through Air Creebec’s substantial inflight magazine “Destinations” which contains a few interesting articles. The look and feel is more like a community newsletter which is great, because you really get an insight into the communities that the airline serves and is such a vital part of.
There is also a big article about the opening of Air Creebec’s new Montreal “terminal” for its charter flights. Accompanying this is another copy of EnRoute. Air Creebec codeshares with Air Canada on its flights to Chibougamau.
Safety card is well used - in Cree, English and French
Time seems to fly by and soon I feel the aircraft starting to pitch down. A garbled announcement is made about our impending arrival at Chibougamau.
We land just after 9:30am, about 15 minutes later than the STA.
Instructions from our flight attendant for passengers continuing on are not clear but as I see everyone getting off, I decide to just follow them. Thankfully there is a much more friendly member of the Air Creebec ground crew who proactively speaks to me after I responded to her “bonjour” with a “Bonjour/Hello” as I wander toward the small terminal building.
She explains to me that it is a very short stop; that I am invited to stretch my legs and use the facilities and she will call us all in about 10 minutes or so for reboarding. Merci!
The weather here is overcast rainy, and a little chilly. Thankfully the walk to the terminal is short. The terminal building itself is tiny but well provisioned. A handful of people look like they are continuing on, but there are quite a few who are leaving us here too.
I loiter for a short time and find this interesting notice on one of the walls. Operating an illegal air taxi service? How do you do this with aircraft – it’s not like you could conceal from the world that you are operating flights? I guess it must be a problem though otherwise why the need for the notice?
Sure enough, we’re soon being called back to the aircraft for the next sector to Nemaska.
Re-boarding the aircraft.
In the meantime, a RR Dart powered aircraft arrives and parks near us – but head on so I don’t get a good view of who owns it. I am able to see enough of it to rule it out of being a HS748 – it looks more like an Executive Grumman Gulfstream aircraft? I later do some research and wonder whether it could have been the sole aircraft operated by Propair – a charter and medivac operation based in Quebec. A nice little surprise – especially as the whine of the Darts is like music to my ears, and takes me back to my first flight ever on a F27 back in 1986.
The nose section of the Dash 8 while boarding
The aircraft is now only approximately half full by the time the front door is pulled up and closed. The seat next to me remains free.
Sector 2: Chibougamau Chapais (YMT) – Nemaska (YNS)
My guidebook tells me that Chibougamau means "Crossed by a river" in the Cree language and the area has long been part of the Cree traditional hunting grounds. It was in the early 17th century that French explorers and traders came to the Lake Chibougamau area. No permanent European settlements were established at that time and it was not until the late 19th Century did the area attract the interest of miners. When gold was discovered in 1903, there were periods of intense exploration.
The airport of Chibougamau is located about half way to the settlement of Chapais, hence the dual naming. Chapais was first settled in 1929, when a prospector discovered deposits of copper, silver and gold in the area, and was incorporated as a city in 1955. It was named for Thomas Chapais.
Random factoid I discover later is that a crater on Mars is named after Chapais!
The leg to Nemaska is scheduled to be almost 45 minutes long but it turns out to be no more than 30 minutes in the air. As part of the pre-departure disclosures from our flight attendant, I pick up a faint murmur that we would be flying at 14,000 ft.
There’s no other traffic around and we make a fast exit. Good bye Chibougamau – see you this evening.
Some water down below
For this sector, there is a beverage service. I opt for a diet coke. It is robotically handed to me.
The views are still stunning, although the patches of lower cloud is making things tricky for photos. I am still sitting here grinning from ear to ear – this is my favourite type of flying. We soon climb above the clouds completely.
We manage to pick up some time enroute and arrive into Nemaska a little after 1025am, which is only 5 minutes later than our STA. This is a special landing for me – the first time I have landed on a gravel runway.
The gear is now down
Diving for the runway
The landing is smooth though – and it did not feel different to any other landing on a concrete/asphalt runway. Very cool though. How many people get to land on a gravel runway on a scheduled airline route these days?
I am then surprised to see another Dash 8 on the ground with a blue tail. This is no ordinary Dash 8 though – it’s operated by Hydro Quebec. I believe the airport at Nemaska is actually also owned by Hydro Quebec. I later note that it’s C-GJNL - a -300 model.
Unfortunately the weather has deteriorated further and before I get a good look at the other Dash, it pulls off stand and heads for departure. Bugger.
The terminal here in Nemaska is smaller than at Chibougamau and passengers continuing on are not permitted to leave the aircraft. 4 passengers leave us here and 1 new one joins us. The load is still fairly light. We end up being just under 10 minutes on the ground which reminds me of the quick turns on my Skytrans Dash 8 in Australia.
In the Cree language, I read that Nemaska means “Where the fish abound” and currently has a population of just under 750 people. I also later read that it was officially known as “Nemiscau” by the Quebec Government until 2010 until the name was changed to “Nemaska”.
The region has its own website which provides an interesting array of tourist information about the area and what to do:www.nemaska.com. Sadly I am not stopping here today but will be continuing on to the next airport at Waskaganish.
Sector 3: Nemaska (YNS) – Waskaganish (YKQ) (ᐐᔅᑳᐦᐄᑲᓂᔥ)
We make a fast departure from Nemaska where it is starting to rain for the short 30 minute hop over to Waskaganish, which lies at the mouth of the Rupert River, on the south east shore of James Bay.
There’s the terminal and ramp area down below where we were sitting a few moments ago.
Unfortunately it’s cloudy the whole way, with a few bumps just for good measure along the way.
There’s a snack service on this short sector.
When we get closer to our destination, there are a few views down below. Pretty sparsely populated now.
A smooth landing later and quick taxi to the gravel ramp, I am joyed by the sight of another Air Creebec Dash 8 on the ground ahead of us. This is YN921 which had left Montreal before us and had routed via Val d’Or. I love it – a mini Air Creebec hub at Waskaganish! There are no other aircraft on the ground and we are all given the opportunity to deboard here to stretch our legs.
It’s still spitting with rain as most passengers shuffle quickly into the modern looking terminal.
The terminal itself is bright and spacious and I have a chance to take a couple of pictures. Nobody pays me any attention although I observe that the further away from Montreal we get, the greater the concentration of Cree people who are travelling (compared to us non Crees). Everyone looks very relaxed and people are just waiting patiently or chatting to family and friends.
Air Creebec check in area: they are the sole commercial operator into Waskaganish.
Waskaganish means “Little House” in Cree, and as a settlement, is bigger than Nemaska, with nearly 2000 people. My guide book tells me that it was once called Fort Rupert, and is one of the three original Hudson’s Bay Company posts on James Bay.
Passengers on YN921 are called out first. I watch their aircraft depart.
For us, a short time later, the ground staff start walking out toward the aircraft and a couple of passengers I recognise begin to follow them to my Dash 8. There are only 7 passengers now for the next leg up to Eastmain. Assuming the call for boarding has been made, I simply follow the crowd. An elderly French speaking gentlemen asks me a question just as people are starting to head outside toward the aircraft, but I have no idea what he is saying. I suspect he isn’t clear about the instructions any more than I am – it was all very informal.
Another view of the terminal building while walking back to our aircraft in the rain
Next stop - Eastmain