October 3, 2022

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Just Do Travel

Entrepreneur and bush pilot Eddie O’Donnell sought adventure wherever he could find it

3 min read

Edward Joseph O’Donnell: Traveller. Bush pilot. Teacher. Businessman. Born Aug. 8, 1928, in Iroquois Falls, Ont.; died Jan. 14, 2022, in London, Ont.; of natural causes; aged 93.

Eddie Joseph O’Donnell.Courtesy of family

Eddie Joseph O’Donnell was a legend in northern Ontario – one of its most charismatic, influential and industrious pioneers. He was a man of physical and mental endurance, outstanding natural and learned talents and remarkable accomplishments. He also possessed an overpowering hubris and egotism which sadly manifested in the dissolution of his family and his business.

Growing up in Iroquois Falls, Eddie sought adventure wherever he could find it. He became “famous” early in life after he climbed the tallest water tower in town. This got him into trouble with his father but it had already been well established that trouble was Eddie’s middle name. He also dreamt of being a pilot as a kid and many black-and-white photographs show him running around with flying goggles.

In 1951, he began travelling the world as a merchant marine. Not only did he shovel coal into the furnaces and scrub decks but he also organized the workers and was blacklisted in the United Kingdom in 1953 for trying to build a fighting seamen’s union. Openly espousing communist views, he would ultimately pass the importance of fighting for the underdog down to his children. One of his ships brought him to British Guyana where he met and fell in love with a beautiful young woman, Elaine Spencer. In a short time, they were on their way to London, England, where they married, lived for three years, and had their first child, John.

With his wife and son in tow, Eddie returned to Canada in 1956. In rapid succession, Lynn, Patrick and Merrill were born. Eddie pursued teachers’ college at McMaster University in Hamilton and upon completion started teaching primary school and French throughout Ontario. Bigger than life in front of the classroom, he enjoyed teaching and had a natural talent for it.

In 1962 his father bequeathed him and Elaine 120 acres that he staked overlooking the spectacular Perry Lake, an hour east of Timmins in northern Ontario. Within a short time, Eddie and Elaine and their growing family turned it into a first-rate hunting and fishing lodge serving Canadian and international clients. In the mid-1960s he got his pilot’s licence, a long-standing childhood dream. Although running the Lodge was more than a full-time job, Eddie was driven to push even harder. In the early 1970s, he tramped with a machete through the Brazilian Amazon to establish a unique adventure to sell back home. In the 1980s, he purchased and moved two flat-bottomed tugs from Lake Abitibi to the Black River in Matheson, Ont., to create a tourist attraction. And in addition to flying clients to outposts for moose hunting and fishing, he started a flying service just outside of Timmins.

Eddie’s insatiable appetite to work meant something had to give. After more than a decade of hard work and isolation at Perry Lake, Elaine had enough and boarded a train bound for Toronto with her three youngest in tow. Over the years that followed the children would all return to Perry Lake to work with their father. But Eddie’s strict “my way or the highway” philosophy made it difficult to work together.

In the 1990s, Eddie lost Perry Lake Lodge. It was something he never quite got over. “I should have been wiser,” he once said ruefully. With the passage of time and growth of his experience, he had become more reflective, more thoughtful, more sensitive, no longer the driven man his family had known.

Eddie “drank life to the lees” right to the end. He was a man, to paraphrase Tennyson (Eddie’s favourite poet), who ceaselessly strove, sought, found and refused to yield.

His children learned invaluable lessons from him. He will always remain a heroic figure.

Merrill O’Donnell is Eddie’s youngest son.

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