Manitoba pilot-in-training is helping dogs while pursuing his high-flying dreams
Win-win as student pilot needs training hours and dog rescue needs help to get supplies to remote communities
A young man's passion for flying is sending spirits soaring at a Manitoba dog rescue that helps animals in remote communities.
On Friday, Mateo Yepes will load his rented Cessna with about 180 kilograms of dog food and make the one-hour flight from St. Andrews airport — just north of Winnipeg — to Bloodvein First Nation, more than 200 kilometres north of the city.
It all came about as he was speaking with Tracy McWhirter, a manager at the south Winnipeg restaurant where they both work. McWhirter also runs Earthdog Terrier Rescue.
Colombian-born Yepes, a lifelong dog lover who is new to Manitoba, started to volunteer with the organization at events such as dog pictures with Santa.
McWhirter told him about Earthdog's REASON Initiative — an acronym for Resources, Education and Spay or Neuter — which focuses on First Nations communities. The more he learned, the more he wanted to help.
"When I heard there were these communities that had these poor animals that, according to Tracy, they're in such bad health and they're so skinny and they need people to just lend a hand to keep these poor dogs going," he said, "I asked her if she ever needed an airplane to go up there, just to bring stuff a little bit quicker."
Earning hours for commercial training
Yepes has already earned his private pilot's licence, but as part of his commercial pilot training, he needs to rack up hours and fly over different terrain.
"It's a new destination for me, so it keeps me on my feet to try a new place to land, a new grass strip and also check out new parts of Manitoba that I haven't been to before as well," he says. "So it's also going to be fun for me to do as well. And you also get to help out dogs at the same time, so it's a win-win for sure."
Yepes says his flying instructor from Harv's Air Flight Training in St. Andrews will be coming along "just to be sure, because it's a new area and I want to make sure we're landing on the proper airstrip and stuff like that."
As a student, he gets discounted rental rates and will be splitting the costs with the rescue.
While Yepes is flying to Bloodvein First Nation, volunteers from Earthdog as well as other rescues will drive the four-hour route from Winnipeg with supplies of their own.
Flying in food, returning with strays
Yepes is landing in Bloodvein because it has an airstrip. There, he'll meet up with the road crew, which will drive another 70 kilometres up to Berens River First Nation, where they'll also drop off food, have a meeting with chief and council, and bring back as many unwanted strays as possible.
McWhirter couldn't be more pleased.
"Mateo flying supplies means we can get food into communities that aren't easily accessible by cars," she said.
"He can also get there in less time, which means if there is a dog requiring urgent care, we're able to assist in a more timely manner."
The dog rescue flights are just the latest adventure for the 27-year-old Yepes, who moved to Canada with his family at age 16.
Although he always dreamed of flying, lessons are expensive and in his early 20s he says he wasn't ready to make the sacrifices necessary to pay for them.
He thought about becoming a police officer, like other family members, but despite graduating from a two-year policing course at Toronto's Seneca College, he didn't pursue it as a career.
Saved up money from modelling, other jobs
He then lived in downtown Toronto, doing a variety of jobs, including bartending, painting and modelling. He says he was having fun "being young" and hanging out with friends, and wasn't worrying about saving money. But as he matured, the lifestyle lost its lustre.
He realized he could no longer ignore his true passion — flying.
"I decided to kind of buckle down and started working extra and instead of going out I started to save my money and starting saving as much as I could."
He started when he was 23, and continues to this day. His face graces many advertisements including Fido, RW and Co, Canada Goose and Mondetta.
He has also been featured on a number of Harlequin Romance covers.
Yepes has been in Manitoba since November. He says flying lessons are much more economical here.
He is lucky enough to have a high school friend here, Manitoba Moose player Julian Melchiori.
He says he is enjoying exploring his new city and has made a lot of friends. He'll meet even more on Friday as he heads north.
"It was pretty exciting to learn he was willing to do this," McWhirter said.
"As this is a 'pilot project,' we're unsure how many times a year we'll be able to do this, but once every couple of months would be fantastic."