Road closures result in charters to Northwest Angle, other remote areas

Jesse Starkson realized his aviation dreams in 2019 when he acquired a one-plane “flying” business that operated out of Duluth’s Sky Harbor airport and seaplane base.

He was a licensed funeral director and pilot-in-training at the time, with a passion for owning a seaplane and running local air tours for fun seekers visiting Park Point.

Three years later, Starkson and his business partner John Caturia deepened their investment in commercial aviation by leaving Sky Harbor and focusing on another shared passion: fishing.

When the Minnesota fishery opened last year on Lake of the Woods, they arrived in their de Havilland Beaver to kill some walleye. They also met with resort owners, guides and summer cottage dwellers who said they longed for on-demand seaplane service to the Northwest Corner. At the time, ground transportation to the Angle was all but halted by COVID-19 travel restrictions at the Canadian border crossing. Could Starkson and Caturia add flight service to augment the long-haul passenger boat service pioneered by Greg Hennum of Sportsman’s Lodge?

The conversations sparked a lawsuit that met with high demand. Now people are booking round-trip flights to the Northwest Angle from Baudette or Warroad for $350. The 12-minute jump is an alternative to a long boat ride or driving over an hour through Canadian customs to fish the Northwest Angle. The same service was offered to ice fishermen last winter thanks to the ice tracks.

“I really hope they can keep going,” said Forrest Huset, who spent a lifetime of summers on Oak Island and now operates a guide service called Angling Addicts.

As a boy in the late 1990s, Huset said cabin owners and vacationers got used to routine seaplane service, but it dried up. Like Starkson and Caturia, Huset thinks the flights are valued enough to survive the two-year transportation dilemma caused by COVID-19.

“In 15 minutes you can be on your dock,” Huset said. “I have people who are still considering using it.”

Starkson, who also runs an undertaker’s business in Hastings with his wife, Katie, said the enthusiastic response prompted him and Caturia to expand. For 2022, Lake Country Air has added two full-time pilots and has attracted interest from investors who could help them increase their overall capacity.

Already, the company has replaced its 1950s de Havilland Beaver bush plane with a larger, more modern seaplane, a Quest Kodiak 100 with wheels and floats that can carry seven passengers plus gear. Additionally, Lake Country has acquired a wheeled Cessna Grand Caravan EX that can transport nine guests at a time from the Twin Cities and elsewhere to Baudette and Warroad airports.

“We love it there,” Starkson said. “We have our own unique little niche.”

To be clear, Lake Country Air does not have scheduled flights from the south shore of Lake of the Woods to Angle Inlet or Oak Island or Flag Island. Flights, including tours, are on demand regardless of destination with a home base at Fleming Field in South St. Paul. The Brainerd Lakes region is another natural area of ​​interest to the company. But for now, Starkson said, Lake Country Air’s bread and butter will be ferrying people to Lake of the Woods and ferrying them to and from Angle resorts and cabins if they don’t. not stay at one of the lake’s many resorts. South Shore.

The company opened this year’s seaplane season on Monday by ferrying a construction crew from South St. Paul to a resort town in the Angle. If you leave Fleming Field at 6 a.m., you can be on Oak Island or the Northwest Corner Mainland by 7:30 a.m. Have breakfast at 8am and go fishing at 9am. It’s one of the comfort and speed selling points you’ll hear from Starkson or Caturia, both of which enjoy fishing and hunting.

Caturia’s day job is at American Airlines, where he works as a Boeing 737 captain. He said he and Starkson want Lake Country Air to grow, but they’re not tied to any self-imposed schedule. If they were to add an aircraft to their fleet within the next year or two, it would likely be in conjunction with someone who wants shared ownership or full ownership of the equipment that Lake Country Air would deploy and maintain.

Their longest-serving pilot is Luke Thielen, who grew up in Inver Grove Heights and became addicted to flying in his youth when he went on 20- or 30-day hunting trips with his father in the Alaskan bush. During weather delays, he listened to stories told by seaplane pilots.

Thielen, a certified flight instructor, said he met Starkson while giving him flying lessons. They discovered a common interest in the outdoors, and Starkson brought him to work for his fledgling company.

Thielen said the job opened his eyes to Lake of the Woods and he enjoyed giving history lessons to customers as they hovered over the water. “People are surprised that they can have this kind of flying experience without going to Canada or Alaska,” he said.

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