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Kootenay golf not so isolated anymore: new plane service opens British Columbia wonderland

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,

NELSON, British Columbia - The Beech King Air cuts down between mountains - out the left side windows the hulking range looks close enough to reach out and touch (in reality, these mountains are safely far away). Before the novice small plane passenger can process this, however, the eight-seat twin-engine aircraft is turning into descent.

It swoops low over a motel situated right off the front end of the runway, its wheels seemingly inches from rooftop (another optical illusion, you're sure).

Once you're debarking after one of the smoothest landings you ever experienced, the pilot casually mentions, "That landing's about a seven (out of 10) on the difficulty scale."

You just smile. The pilot, Mark to you ever since he loaded your golf bag on the plane himself, has a way of relaxing passengers even as he throws in seven-point difficulty landing revelations after a baby-soft touchdown. Maybe it's the fact you are able to watch this cockpit crew at work the entire flight.

Northern Hawk Aviation flights are intimate gatherings of quick friends. There's no securely triple-bolted door between the cockpit and the passenger seats, no gruff flight attendant ready to stare you down if you ask for an extra bag of peanuts. There's just a wide opening through which you can watch the co-pilot whip out a map (an actually refreshing rather than disturbing development).

Really, how many times do you know your pilot and co-pilot on a first-name basis?

Going on Northern Hawk, there's a good chance you will. This is just one of the perks of taking this little airline with big dreams. With reasonable regular flights from Vancouver to Trail, Northern Hawk is the perfect airline to take for that unique Kootenay golf vacation.

The Kootenays is a breathtaking mountain region in the southeastern corner of British Columbia unspoiled by cooker-cutter, strip-mall developments. It offers an eclectic mix of unique courses filled with the types of towering trees, mountain views and lake glimpses that most tried-and-true golf destination visitors (Scottsdale, Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach) will never see. All this for greens fees that make you feel like you flew back into 1950.

The challenge is getting here, however. The Kootenays is a seven- to eight-hour drive from Vancouver, a three-hour trek from Spokane, Wash. And on the Vancouver route these are not major highways, at least not the multilane monsters that U.S. and Canadian city drivers are used to.

That's where Northern Hawk Aviation comes in. It turns that eight-hour trying drive into an 80-minute flight. Suddenly, the 20-plus scenic courses of the Kootenays aren't so remote.

"Everyone in the B.C. golf community knows the type of great golf that's available in the Kootenays," said Michael Galasso, tournament coordinator of the British Columbia PGA. "It's always just been a matter of getting here. It took so long that it discouraged a lot of golfers who might otherwise visit."

Northern Hawk's new service is transforming some of that thinking. Air Canada has flown into the Kootenay region's Castlegar airport for some time, but with virtually no competition it charged fares that made regular air travel all but a pipe dream for ordinary folks. Northern Hawk changed that by charging less than $100 one-way on many routes, prompting Air Canada to lower its own rates in response.

"Not many airlines of our size would start a price war with Air Canada," said John Reed, the regional marketing rep for Northern Hawk. "It's a gutsy little company."

One that's drawing the support of the community. The region was so excited that Northern Hawk was bringing in four golf writers on a media tour (only one from outside Canada) that two local radio stations met the plane at the airport to interview the writers about the trip.

Mark Kluge, the president and chief pilot of Northern Hawk (just Mark to those who fly with him), believes in the idea of promoting service to the Kootenays to golfers. The area is renowned as a winter sports haven, but to many outsiders the spring and summer golf seasons remain unknown.

Kluge is as low key a CEO as you'd ever come across in two lifetimes. If you don't know that he's the president of the company, he's not about to tell you. He lugs many of the bags to and from the plane himself. Kluge looks about 24, flies like he's a 54-year-old veteran of the skies and keeps most of his thoughts to himself.

Even Reed admits he doesn't really know how old his boss is.

Yet, there's little mystery about the perks of taking a Northern Hawk flight to get to this still largely undiscovered golf destination. By flying out of the executive jet terminals of Vancouver airport, you avoid most of the hassles of conventional air travel. There are no long lines to check in your bags, no tedious security screening checkpoints to go through. You essentially show up, show your ID and hop on the plane.

It gives you an idea of why so many high-powered company heads and celebrities insist on traveling in their own planes. The Beech King Air of Northern Hawk isn't your plane, but you can pretend like it is on this golf vacation.

The Northern Hawk flight I took into the Kootenays was actually smoother than the Air Canada flight I returned on. It's a completely different experience from most flights you'll ever take, but it's one more memory to make a Kootenay golf trip stick out.

If every golf trip is really about the stories you take home, flying in on an eight-seat plane gives you a head start before your first swing.

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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