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COLUMN: Plane crash claims fearless adventurer (12 photos)

Natalie Gillis, 34, was a pilot, explorer, wilderness guide, author, academic, Canadian Geographical Society fellow and an exceptional photographer who lived life to the fullest

They say you should live your life every day like it’s your last.

Natalie Gillis did just that. She was the most adventurous soul I have ever known, and an inspiration to many.

Gillis died in a tragic plane crash on June 17, “doing what she loved,” according to her brother.

She was just 34.

Gillis was piloting a twin-engine Piper Navajo aircraft when it went down shortly after takeoff from Albany International Airport in the state of New York. She was the only one on board.

The cause of the crash has not yet been determined.

Gillis had just completed aerial survey work in North Carolina, and stopped in Albany for refuelling, and to spend the night before heading to Montreal.

She leaves behind many friends and family the world over.

Her short life was admirable. Gillis was a pilot, Arctic and Antarctic explorer, wilderness guide, author, academic, and an exceptional photographer.

She lived in Calgary, grew up in Toronto, and spent many summers in Parry Sound as a kid, loving the outdoors.

Gillis acquired her pilot licence in her early 20s.

One of her notable achievements was being elected as a Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) fellow in 2022, and taking part in their projects.

Gillis was also a contributor to Canadian Geographic magazine, with her wildlife photography gracing its esteemed cover.

"We are deeply saddened by the passing of Royal Canadian Geographical Society fellow and Canadian Geographic contributor Natalie Gillis," the organization said.

"Natalie was elected a fellow of the RCGS in 2022, and not long after, her photo of a polar bear appeared on the cover of Can Geo’s January/February issue ... Natalie took part in many other RCGS/Can Geo projects such as Giving Tuesday and the Polar Plunge," they added.

My wife and I met her in the summer of 2018 when we joined an expedition to Canada’s Northwest Passage in the high Arctic, where we travelled on a Russian icebreaker.

Gillis would help run the inflatable Zodiac boats on day trips off the ship, ferrying passengers around pack ice and massive icebergs in search of seals, whales and especially polar bears, which we found many of on small rocky islands and on the floating sea ice.

During that time, her specialty was kayak guiding.

She would also often be on the portable radios with her colleagues keeping an eye out for bears as we explored the shorelines on our day trips on foot.

Gillis was a professional wilderness guide with more than 1,000 days living, sleeping and caring for clients in remote places of the world.

Just one day after my wife and I departed the vessel docked at the small Inuit village of Kuugaarjuk, Nunavut, Gillis was on board when the ship, the Akademik Ioffe, a Russian icebreaker and former Cold War spy ship, famously ran aground and found itself crippled and unable to continue leaving the bay where the small port was situated.

The story was reported around the world. It was just another day in her life of adventures.

Her enthusiasm, adventurous spirit and respect for nature was evident.

“She had a deep love and curiosity for the wild and natural places, which led her to seek out the breathtaking moments that so many of us miss in the busyness of our day-to-day lives,” reads her obituary.

Her many friends, family and followers lived vicariously through her social-media posts, and you were never quite sure what she was going to accomplish next.

This spring, not long before her passing, she was attempting to cycle across Canada, and had just conquered western Canada, in that leg of the journey.

She had also recently obtained her commercial pilot's licence, the highest level an airplane aviator can achieve.

“Natalie shared her passion through her camera lens and her storytelling. Her generosity was vast, taking many of us along on her countless adventures as she explored the world — observing narwhals breach from the floe edge in Nunavut, trekking through the valleys of Baffin Island, encountering penguins and icebergs while sea kayaking in Antarctica, and experiencing the world from the bird’s-eye view of her favourite plane, the Twin Otter.”

Her brother, Matthew, in an email conversation last week, said Natalie visited nearly every community in Canada’s three northern territories — the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Nunavut.

Her flying took her to many places in the north, and for many different reasons.

She delivered food in the Northwest Territories, and took part in research in Pond Inlet, an Inuit community in the Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut.

“Never thwarted by limitations that would stymie most, she always followed through on her dreams," continued her obituary.

“Natalie was epic. She was loved. She lived life to the fullest. We’ve never been so grateful for the odyssey she left behind, giving us access to her unique perspective of the world through her meticulous record keeping of her photos and poetry.”

Gillis released her first book of poetry in 2021, titled This Is Where Atlantis Sank.

“In her 34 years, she did not waste a second. This Is Where Atlantis Sank – June 17th, 2024, 8:15 a.m, 42.724997° N 073.790118° W.”

The co-ordinates mark the crash site in Albany.

Natalie is survived by her mother, Mary; brother, Matthew; her beloved 11-year-old rescue dog Stikine; and many cousins, aunts, uncles and friends, some of whom also live in Barrie.

And I’m sure I’m not the only one who, when brainstorming my own next adventure, will be using the W.W.N.D. strategy of expedition planning: What Would Natalie Do?

She will forever continue to inspire us to live each day to the fullest.

Thank you, Nat.

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Kevin Lamb

About the Author: Kevin Lamb

Kevin Lamb picked up a camera in 2000 and by 2005 was freelancing for the Barrie Examiner newspaper until its closure in 2017. He is an award-winning photojournalist, with his work having been seen in many news outlets across Canada and internationally
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