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A land of over 1,500 lakes, hundreds of islands, vast maple and pine forests and sheer granite cliffs carved by ancient glaciers, the region of Muskoka, about two hours’ drive north of Toronto, Ontario, has been attracting visitors from across Southern and Central Ontario for more than a century. Long a destination for palatial country retreats for Canadian captains of industry, Muskoka has also become a favorite second home for many Ontarians, with lakefront cottages passed down through generations of families, who spend long summer weekends playing and relaxing in the region.
But in recent times, the word about Muskoka has spread far beyond the province’s borders. The region’s three major lakes — Lake Muskoka, Lake Rosseau, and Lake Joseph — are now dotted with multimillion-dollar homes belonging not only to the super wealthy from Canada, but also those from south of the border, including many Hollywood celebrities and sports stars. Google “The Muskokas,” and a couple of news headlines give a good impression of how the region is changing. Muskoka becoming Hamptons of the North as cottage prices top $25 million says a Bloomberg News story, while a piece in the New York Times is simply titled, Muskoka: The Malibu of the North.
“The population grows by four or five times easily here in the summertime,” Jay McMackin, chief pilot/operations manager of Heli Muskoka, told Vertical. Sitting in his office at the company’s hangar at a very quiet Muskoka Airport on an unseasonably wet and cold midweek day at the end of June, he reflected on the drastic change the airport alone goes through during peak summer weekends.
“A lot of the Americans come up in their jets, so that southern ramp is chocked with private jets in the summertime. It’s quite impressive.”
As a playground for the wealthy and super wealthy, it’s not hard to see why Heli Muskoka’s owners chose the area as the location for their small helicopter company, along with a switch in operational focus from agricultural spraying to utility and tourism work, completed under the watchful guidance of McMackin.
A Utility Background
The company had previously been based in North Bay, about 150 kilometers further north, but moved south in 2014 soon after McMackin joined the company. A 22-year industry veteran, McMackin grew up in Muskoka before heading north to Sudbury the day after graduating high school to start work on his helicopter license. While he was always destined for aviation, he had originally planned to become an airline pilot, but a co-op course during high school with the Ministry of Natural Resources changed his career path.
“I jumped in a LongRanger with them one day to go to a forest fire in Algonquin Park,” he said. “We went in and dropped a crew off at a site on an island, and the helicopter was doing its thing with the skids on a log. That was the first experience I’d had with a helicopter, and it had me hooked right there.”
After completing his training at Heli-North, McMackin stayed with the operator to learn a variety of utility operations on the job in Northern Ontario. His career then took him to Western Canada, back to Northern Ontario, and south to the Greater Toronto Area, building up his experience and gaining his instructor rating along the way. And when the opportunity came to help York Regional Police establish an air support program, he found the challenge too enticing to resist. He served as the pilot for the program — on a contract held by Silverline Helicopters — for three years, before deciding to join the police force as a constable. After three years on the ground, he returned to the air support unit as a tactical flight officer. All the while, he kept up his flying with the occasional freelance job, which also ensured he maintained currency on his ratings.
One such job was as the training pilot for Aerial Growth Management (AGM) Helicopters in North Bay — a helicopter spray company established in 2012. AGM’s owners were fixed- and rotary-wing pilots who knew each other from the decades they had spent living in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.
Sadly, one partner passed away shortly after AGM began operations, with his wife, Jennifer Roth, and brother-in-law, Mark McDonald, taking his place alongside the other partners in the business.
When AGM was looking for a chief pilot in 2014, their positive experience working with McMackin as a training pilot meant his name jumped to the top of their list. McMackin hadn’t considered leaving the police, but when the owners said they would move the company close to McMackin’s home in Muskoka, he felt it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. The first year, he worked part time while still with the police to get the operation set up at Muskoka Airport.
“To try and leave flying altogether just wasn’t going to be an option for me; it’s just too much in my blood,” he said. “After that first year of part time, I decided that it was going to be OK to leave the police. You get pretty attached in that environment — you’re safe and secure in the police, you’ve got a good job, you don’t have to worry. And then you come back into aviation and it’s a bit more of an unknown — but that’s still where your passion is, so I had to follow that.”
McMackin said the move has been more than worthwhile.
“These people are phenomenal to work for. I just let them know what my interest is and what I want to go after, and I run it like it’s my own, like it’s my money in it, because it’s my future. If I can make it succeed, I get to stay here!”
The Move to Muskoka
McMackin’s arrival heralded a slew of changes, with the move to Muskoka, a rebranding and restructuring as Heli Muskoka, and a change in operations.
“My background isn’t in spray, and knowing the area of Muskoka, it’s very tourism-based, so I was hoping to go after more of the tourism side of things,” he said.
The owners agreed that it was important for the company to diversify.
“The spray work is really intensive, personnel-wise and equipment-wise, and it’s really stringent condition-wise. So, it’s a difficult gig,” Roth said. “There’s just a lot to it, and it’s such a short intense season, so you have to branch out, you can’t put all your eggs in that one basket.”
She said there seemed to be a gap in the market in Muskoka, and the perfect person to exploit it in McMackin.
“Jay’s from that area, he knows it very, very well, and there didn’t seem to be anybody else really strongly focusing towards the cottage-support industry. The partners thought maybe we could break into that little niche.”
After initially renting hangar and office space at Muskoka airport, the company moved into a purpose-built 4,800-square-foot hangar with office space on a mezzanine overlooking the hangar floor in 2015.
The company’s fleet includes one AS350 AStar, one Bell 206L-4 LongRanger, and one Robinson R44. McMackin’s role is all-encompassing, from washing the hangar floor, to advertising the business, scheduling maintenance (completed by Skyline Helicopter Technologies in Sudbury), and working as the company’s only full-time pilot. Two contract pilots join him during busier periods, such as during the summer.
While some of the work completed by Heli Muskoka is familiar to most utility operators (firefighting represented about 60 to 70 percent of its flying last year), the company has also developed some interesting niches that are fairly unique to its environment. Among these are the transport of “cottagers” from downtown Toronto directly to their property in Muskoka — and back — each weekend, and aerial construction for the multimillion-dollar homes and boathouses cropping up in the region. And with a wet spring resulting in a lack of firefighting work so far in 2017, the growth in these other markets — largely through word of mouth — is proving crucial.
“With Jay’s background in the area, he knows some of the contractors, and word gets around there’s a helicopter that can bring things right to them and put them right on site,” said McDonald. “It’s a market that I think the builders in the Muskoka area didn’t have access to previously. . . . Once they’ve used this service, they can see that it’s certainly a good option.”
McMackin said he can move about 10,000 pounds of construction material an hour with the AStar, reducing the number of man-hours spent on site, and making the cost if not less overall, at least comparable. Moving expensive material for high-end homes is not without its stresses, but McMackin’s origins in long line work in Northern Ontario mean he is well qualified for such precision work.
“I did a pre-fab log cottage last week, where all the walls came in sections that were already built,” he said. “They were standing them up vertically as I was coming in, so each time as I came back with another load, I had less and less space to work with as the walls were going up.
“I actually quite like it. I stress about it beforehand and the scenarios are playing through your mind, and then after the job is done it’s, ‘That was pretty cool, actually.’ ”
Focusing on Cottage Support
The number of shuttle runs to Toronto is also growing, saving weary commuters not only a good deal of time, but also the stress of navigating through the clogged arteries of the highways leading in and out of the city on summer weekends.
“There are people out there that will spend the money to just charter a helicopter and fly them directly to the cottage on, say, Friday afternoon, and return them on Sunday evening or Monday,” said McDonald. “That’s one of the things that we’d like to develop more so that we can use it as a transportation taxi service almost.”
As well as these custom charter operations, Heli Muskoka caters to the more general tourism market, offering sightseeing flights from the airport or resorts out over the region, or over nearby Algonquin Provincial Park.
“A lot of people want to fly around and see the Muskokas, the cottages and the lakes and stuff like that,” said McMackin. “Normally I’ll set it up that way, and tour around the lakes. And if they want to go off into where there’s nobody around, you can go out towards the east here and it’s all open rock outcrops, and there’s a chance of seeing some wildlife. And depending on the time that they book, we’re about 20 minutes to Algonquin Park. Most of the time we see animals in the park — it’s not too hard to find a moose. In the wintertime we’ve found wolf packs — you can see them running across the open marshes.”
Fall is also a popular time for helicopter tours, with visitors wanting to take in the beautiful fall colors.
In terms of future development, McMackin said he hoped to secure some exploration work as that market rebounds, and hasn’t ruled out the possibility of offering training.
For now, the company’s streamlined structure has allowed it the maximum flexibility as it negotiates the challenges of being a new company in an industry that’s enduring a general downturn.
“The industry is kind of low at the moment, and there’s not a lot you can do about that, so I guess the big challenge is just trying to find innovative ways to get around the stuff that we can control,” said Roth. “Jay’s got a good imagination and he’s exploring different aspects of cottage support. We’re still very much a young company trying to just find our way through.”