By CARY ORDWAY
Along with mountains, abundant forests and plenty of rainfall each year, the Pacific Northwest has something else you don’t see just anywhere in the country – floatplanes. Sure you find them here and there across the country but there is no question that Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the coastal waters of British Columbia are a native habitat for these unique flying machines.
Alaska, too, has a lot of them and up there they can be the only transportation in and out of very remote areas. Here in the Pacific Northwest they’re used not only to access the most remote destinations, but also to quickly transport Northwest vacationers and outdoorsmen to some of the prettiest locations on the planet. Business people also find the convenience unbeatable when they can travel downtown Seattle to downtown Victoria in just 45 minutes.
The best known floatplane operator in the Northwest – and the largest operation in the U.S. – is Kenmore Air, a legendary company built from scratch by Bob Monroe when he and two friends started with one floatplane back in 1946. Today, the Seattle-based company is still owned and operated by the Monroe family, but has grown to a fleet of more than 25 airplanes servicing destinations in the San Juan Islands, the Olympic Peninsula and Coastal British Columbia. Today, the company has 250 employees, including 52 pilots.
A typical trip on a Kenmore floatplane is part sightseeing adventure, part Disneyland thrill ride. Sightseeing is superb from the generally low altitudes flown by the company’s Beaver floatplanes, which often cruise as low as 1,000 feet – just high enough to get a great view of the spectacular coastlines and the colorful cities and towns dotting the islands of Puget Sound and British Columbia. The thrills come from the exciting takeoffs and landings so expertly demonstrated by Kenmore’s experienced and personable pilots.
We’ve flown mainly on the single-engine Beavers, usually with fewer than six passengers. This sturdy plane, with its powerful engine, is the workhorse of the Kenmore fleet and if you’re lucky, you’ll get the opportunity to sit next to the pilot up front. Your pilot will offer you some spongy ear plugs and you’ll want to use them – when that giant engine revs up for take-off the decibel level definitely gets up there. But with plugs, the engine sound just blends into the background as you enjoy the sights or read one of the magazines on board. The airline also flies turbo-props to certain destinations and generally those planes are a bit faster and carry more passengers.
If you’re a white-knuckle flier, it may come as some comfort to realize that the nearest landing strip is usually as close as the water below you. Unlike land-based aircraft that must quickly find an open stretch of ground to land on, an emergency in a floatplane means you’ll just glide down to the water and land right where you are. Most of our flights have been smooth as silk although, just like any airplane, a floatplane can encounter turbulence. Our experience has been that the Kenmore pilots do everything they can to make your trip enjoyable and we always are confident that Kenmore is hiring the best, most experienced floatplane pilots.
In the past, one of our favorite trips on Kenmore Air has been the trip to Big Bay, about a hundred miles north of Vancouver along British Columbia’s inside passage. The object of these trips was to fly in and fish for salmon while staying at a comfortable lodge. We always came back with plenty of salmon and catching them was made that much easier by the guides who took us out on the water, showed us the best spots, and even baited our hooks. The only thing we had to do was pull them out of the water and then eat ourselves silly back at the lodge dining room.
These sport-fishing vacations are still an important part of Kenmore’s business, but over the years the airline has added many other vacation trips closer to home that are less expensive. In fact, the airline is working hard to counter its previous image of being an airline only for the well-to-do. Partnering with various resorts, Kenmore offers passengers discounts and incentives at the various lodgings located in the San Juan Islands, Victoria, and other parts of British Columbia. Most of these trips take less than an hour and take passengers right to the resorts’ docks. When you look at what it takes to drive to the San Juans or one of the other island resorts – which usually requires several hours either in line or on a ferry – the fly-in option becomes quite appealing. Yes, it will cost more, but if you’re interested in spending a lot more time at your destination and less time getting there, this is a great option.
We’ve flown Kenmore several times from Seattle’s Lake Union dock to Victoria, B.C. and have found it to be the fastest and most scenic way to get there. Parking is easy to find at Lake Union and then you’re delivered to an Inner Harbour dock that is footsteps away from some of the best hotels in Victoria. Customs is a breeze compared to other forms of arrival – no lines and a customs agent is usually waiting for you on arrival.
Kenmore Air operates both as a regularly scheduled airline and as a charter so, if you’re going to Victoria for example, you can choose from several scheduled trips each day. On the other hand, you can also charter a flight to take you to a remote fishing lodge or a destination that is not on the regular schedule.
In recent years Kenmore has come up with even more incentives to try one of their trips. For example, the company promotes what they call a “floatplane picnic.” Northwest Floatplane Picnics will arrange to take your group to a remote picnic beach that is only accessible by floatplane or boat. They’ll find a place with flat ground, some shade, some sun and a great view and they’ll spread out a blanket, folding tables and a gourmet feast prepared just for you.
Another popular floatplane adventure is to fly to Friday Harbor and board the M.V. Sea Lion for a 3.5-hour whale-watching excursion. The odds are great that you’ll see whales and you’re also certain to see other Northwest wildlife such as sea lions, seals, bald eagles, otters, and porpoise.
If you just want to experience a floatplane, Kenmore offers an inexpensive 20-minute scenic flight over Seattle that will give you a taste of the floatplane experience and a birds-eye view of the city.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Kenmore Air is based in Seattle and has two terminals including one at Lake Union and one on Lake Washington at Kenmore. The airline serves the San Juan Islands, points in Coastal British Columbia and the Olympic Peninsula.
WHAT: Kenmore Air is the nation’s largest floatplane operator with 25 aircraft, 52 pilots and 250 employees. The airline offers fast transportation to some of the most beautiful parts of the Pacific Northwest, including major hotels in Victoria and other parts of B.C.
WHEN: Flights on Kenmore are especially scenic in the summer and early fall when there is apt to be more sun, but flights will be easier to book and potentially lower in cost during the off-season.
WHY: Flying Kenmore is more than just getting from Point A to Point B – it’s an experience. It’s an especially good way to go if you like to sightsee and/or want to save time getting to your destination.