Flying the “Dan Special”

I first meet Dan Reynolds, owner and operator of Reynolds Outfitting, at Dawson’s Eldorado Hotel. In town for a wildlife management meeting, he looks the consummate hunter in his camouflage cap and parka.

Like many outdoorsy people I know in the Yukon, it’s hard to guess his age: he’s tall, fit and fair-haired, and his thick moustache doesn’t hide his boyish good looks.

It doesn’t hide his smile, either, which he flashes often while talking about his family, work and passion for flying tiny planes around the Yukon.

These parts of Reynolds’ life often overlap. His outfitting concession from northwest of Dawson to the Alaska border, has been in the family since 1967, when his father Stan bought it from Danny Nolan, former owner of the Yukon Game Fame.

His exposure to aviation also started with his dad, who bought a Piper J-3 Cub in 1969 for the business.

“I loved the concept of flying,” Reynolds recalls.

“But my stomach would get upset whenever I rode in the back of my dad’s plane. I didn’t get over that queasiness until I started flying myself.”

That happened at age 17, when he took lessons with Air North in a Cessna 172. Reynolds did his first solo flight after just eight hours of instruction, and started flying for his dad once he had his private rating.

Every pilot has a story about their first close call, and Reynolds soon had his.

“I was in a Super Cub on wheels trying to get to a bush camp when a nasty storm came up,” he recalls. He didn’t know the bad weather routes, and when the storm became a whiteout, he lost reference to the ground.

When he tried to turn the plane around, there was a jolt.

The engine went quiet. But he was still moving.

“I could hear this soft, swishing sound. When the plane came to a stop I was pretty disoriented.

“I kicked out one of the side windows and discovered I was upside down and had managed to toboggan down a snowy hill.”

Reynolds landed in country he knew well. He hiked the ten miles to the family’s hunting camp and hunkered down until the weather cleared and his dad could come looking for him.

Since then the pilot has logged 10,000 hours in light and ultralight aircraft, and has gotten used to the treacherous winds and weather systems of the Ogilvie Mountains.

He’s also mastered ridge landings and memorized how to get in and out of short bush airstrips.

His flying abilities have certainly come in handy for the outfitting business, which he bought from his dad in the 1990s. It’s illegal in the Yukon to fly hunters, their gear and wildlife parts in helicopters, so Reynolds Outfitting’s specialized fixed-wing flying is the next best thing.

He used to take about 25 hunters a year, but scaled that back to 16 since 2003. He has no business card or website, and is already booking into 2013.

Without planes, Reynolds notes, it would be both difficult to manage the 6,000-square-mile concession, and to accommodate the new breed of hunter, who wants faster, shorter hunts.

“I used to average about three weeks per hunt, but now ten days is a long one.”

His numerous Yukon Outfitters Association trophies don’t hurt either. Reynolds has won the oldest average age award for Dall sheep in seven of the last 10 years, and has won for the largest moose the past two years.

He credits his success in large part to his holistic management approach to his outfitting concession.

“I do all my own game surveys in my ultralights, and in the winter I trap wolverines and wolves to balance things out,” he explains.

Since he uses quick kill traps, he has to check the traps every seven days, even when the mercury drops to minus 40. With his single-seat Chinook WT11 Reynolds can do fly-overs to look at the traps, landing only when he’s caught something.

“I always leave the plane idling when I land, though, to make sure I can get back up again!”

People often assume that Reynolds’ one-person plane is worse in Dawson’s wintry weather than larger types.

Surprisingly, the ultralight on skis is safer and cheaper than many other aircraft.

“It can handle waist-deep snow, can land shorter, and with the mods I’ve made, it’s a lot warmer than my Super Cub,” he says.

These “mods” – or modifications – have come to be known by others in the Yukon flying community as “the Dan Special.”

In his heated hangar on his ranch near Dawson, Reynolds turns write-offs into backwoods workhorses with long-range wing tanks that can fly for six hours when full, and handle gross weights of up to 1,150 pounds.

To date he’s logged 3,500 hours in his ultralights, mostly on winter flights in the Ogilvie Mountains.

Even with his many skills and successes, another “s” word keeps popping up in conversation: sustainability.

Dan is committed to finding long-term balance on the land and in his life. He loves living on the ranch with its tranquility and proximity to the back country.

He also enjoys sharing his passion with co-pilot Anna, his three-year old daughter, who with her pink headset looks like she’ll be ready to take over the family business any day now.

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