Remembering Tom Lamb
By Norm Richards
He's the great doctor of the north; Tom Lamb was so honoured at the University of Manitoba in 1969 for his legendary life and given an honourary Doctor of Laws degree. He grew up at Moose Lake, his father a trader and pioneer settler. Tom became Canada's greatest bush pilot and champion developer of the north. He literally invented everything he did.
"I had to, if you wanted to survive," he would say.
Lamb was first at most things. He got fish to market by plane when tractor trains were slow. He had his heart torn out losing teams of horses after falling through thin lake ice. He created habitat for growth and harvest of wild muskrat in the 1930s when no one else did. He helped feed and clothe the people around him when other northern communities wondered how government would do it.
Lamb and his wife Jennie would raise three daughters and six sons to live as fully as possible. Tom had them work hard and never look back. Lamb formed a great northern airline shaped out of a single engine Stinson Reliant aircraft he bought in 1931. Before his boys could consider any other career, they were already doing a full day's work with dad. Don't tell anyone, but they were flying planes before they qualified at flying school.
His sons and daughters had remarkable careers of their own. They served northern needs with honour and saved lives flying many to safety. Carol and Jock kept store at Moose Lake. Cal and Phyllis (Skippy) Lamb Gibson ran Cal's Cabs in The Pas. Cal took over a small garage from Frank Bickle. He turned it into a successful Chrysler dealership named Twin Motors. Tom's sons Greg, twins Don and Dennis, Jack, Doug and Connie all flew under the Lamb Airways banner. Each, expert in some area of the Lamb operations; Greg managed the Thompson base, Jack became company president, Connie, a proficient Cat and dragline operator, developed his skills working on the ranch before he was old enough to fly. He built many northern roads and remote runways. Doug spent much of his time flying in the high north. Dennis flew helicopter. Don had Tom's 7 Bar L prize Hereford cattle ranch near Moose Lake running smoothly. He flew even when eye-sight restrictions limited him. Each of the boys could do one another's jobs if called upon. Tom insisted.
I met Tom Lamb for the first time at Moose Lake. Resident Mary Bercier came to visit my grandmother. I'm eleven. I feel older. School is boring. I beg to travel to Moose Lake. I'm warned the trip's long and dangerous. Mom finally relents. The next thing you know I'm hustled into a dark blue Bombardier, ( we called it a Bombadeer ). It's an early cabin sized snowmobile used for freight and minimum passenger travel in the north. It cuts a swath through bush and out across barren lakes enroute to Moose Lake on winter roads.
We arrive after many hours sitting sideways like grunts going to war. It's dark when we arrive. There are no lights. I see only an outline of the house. Someone holds a flashlight as I step out of the snow machine. I recognize Mary's eldest son Ted. They speak Cree. I don't. I say words in English. Reaction is delayed as if unheard. I'm a stranger among caring faces. I wake next morning with a headlock on my little red stuffed bear. He's familiar while nothing else is. We become the subject during breakfast. I count six kids of all ages. I'm teased for loving my teddy bear. While I'm here, each day is marked with new experience.
The Bercier home sits high above the lakeshore. The house looks official by day. Batiste Bercier is Game Guardian. Two other buildings stand nearby. The terrain is bleak except the ice rink down on the lake.
I ask to visit next door. We enter. I see a white man whose complexion seems carved out of the Canadian Shield. He speaks Cree to a younger woman. Mary's middle son Melvin is with me. He asks her something I can't understand. While he's responded to, the man greets me in Cree. He switches to English and back to Cree again. He asks me who my dad is. We exchange a few words before I'm whisked out the door seeking the next adventure. Here I've met Tom Lamb for the first time. Later, I see him often in The Pas. Going to the post office brings people together. Dad exchanges jokes with Tom. I Love hearing my dad laugh so loud together with this colourful man.
My week at Moose Lake is marked with keen memory. I'm fitted with oversized skates and several wool socks. In my own element, I hit the big lake ice rink as if in charge. I meet many kids and get reacquainted with the Bercier brothers and their sister Ma Fille. When we were in the store Melvin asked Carol ( Lamb ) McAree if her kids can join us. He introduces me to Greg McAree and his sister Bunny. I'm fascinated with these fair skinned white kids speaking Cree. It's unique and I know it.
One night, lit by only a flashlight, we walk through the woods to Lucian's Store at Moose Lake Village. We watch cartoons and a western movie while sitting on homemade benches rolled out for the occasion in the middle of the store. The projector clacks away over my right shoulder while I sit in awe of my surroundings. We hustle down a snow covered forest trail afterward by light of the moon and nothing else. Someone flicks the flashlight on. We find our way home in 20-below weather but warm as toast, delighted with being alive in the moment.
In spring 1966, under the tutelage of Ron Davie, Tom's chief mechanic, I'm hired to assist where I can on the Grace Lake float and ski base near my home. School's not working out for me but I have plenty of hope for my future. I become a Lamb employee. After three days cleaning parts and trying to be useful, I'm assigned to help pilot Jim King move mining equipment. We fly north from Grace Lake in a Lamb workhorse, the single engine Otter aircraft equipped with skis for taking off and landing on snow and ice. Jim was a senior NCO in Air Cadets when I joined years earlier. Now he's flying for Tom. I'm impressed. This trip is a full story by itself but I'm convinced it would never have taken place unless Tom endorsed it. By now, Tom is semi-retired and the boys run everything. They have a fleet of nearly 20 aircraft and growing. Tom has a fight on his hands. Moose Lake is being flooded to make way for the Grand Rapids Dam. He's losing everything he worked for. He has a failing heart in this period when transplants are not common. He can no longer fly. I'm glad to have met Tom and lived during part of his era. Tom died at Christmas 1969, while on vacation with his wife Jennie in Hawaii. Jack and two sisters flew out to bring their mom home.
Tom's ashes were scattered by his youngest son Connie over his beloved Moose Lake and cattle ranch now covered over by dam backwaters. There was the biggest memorial service ever seen at The Pas for Tom Lamb. People came from everywhere to be with his family and celebrate the life they knew.
Tom believed in taking risk and would have stood behind his sons when they made a bid to improve north-to-south air service linked with east-west travel. But by 1981, with record high interest rates and extreme costs to operate, Lambair hit an obstacle they could not overcome. The bank holding their operating loan refused to support them further and the company went into receivership. Their assets were liquidated and the Lamb dynasty ended.
I wonder what folks think when they see the bronze statue of Tom Lamb in the airports and in the Leo Mole Sculpture Garden in Assiniboine Park. I can tell you that the Lamb family has continued to live their lives in dignity and respect. Jack wrote a book about his life in the north with many colourful photos to remember the times. Each of the brothers went on to work for others and continue to watch their children grow up to be happy healthy contributors to society.
This story was previously published in North Roots Magazine.