Rory Bushfield: The Aviator

photography :: Mason Mashon and Blake Jorgenson
words :: Feet Banks

“The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others – the living – are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it’s In…”

– Hunter S. Thompson, Hells Angels – 1967

Rory Bushfield knows that Edge, and he has a simple method for finding it: jump off stuff. Cliffs, castles, a tanker ship in the Arctic Ocean, whatever–just get to the top, peer out into the empty space, and go. If you can’t find anything big to jump off, chuck on some skis and hit whatever you do have at speed. And if that still doesn’t work, go get yourself an airplane.

“The first time I landed my plane on a glacier was last spring,” says, Rory, 34, and known simply as ‘Bushy’ to everyone but his immediate family. “It was me and Ian Mac, we landed on the Pemberton ice cap and got stuck immediately. Within five minutes, Ian wanted to go home, and I didn’t blame him–we were totally stuck, there was no way we were getting out….”

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photos :: Jorgenson

Stuck, snowed in, out of food, or caught in a storm – these sorts of impromptu adventures are standard operating procedure for Bushfield. His @bushywayne Instagram feed is a ticker tape of deep pow, empty beaches, lost waterfalls and high-flying shenanigans, often accompanied by lengthy narrative descriptions and even lengthier hashtags. And while he is visibly uncomfortable being labelled with circle-jerk marketing terms like “lifestyle model” or “social influencer,” the fact can’t be avoided that over the past five years, Bushy has parlayed a decade-long professional freesking career into something the outdoor sports industry hasn’t really seen before. Bushy’s job is to just keep being Bushy, a high flying, hot spring soaking, surf seeking, river riding, pow smashing Internet hero that anyone can look to when they need reassurance that somewhere, someone is out there living life on their own terms and ready to, as Bushy so often types, #blowitifyougotit.

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Sarah Burke and #Blowitifyougotit

Bushy and freeskiing legend Sarah Burke had been married less than a year when she passed away, suddenly and tragically, after a crash skiing halfpipe. Sarah was an icon, respected across the entire sporting world as a fearless leader and a true embodiment of kindness, humility and generosity.  A few months after Sarah passed, Bushy was riding a chairlift with a friend and thinking about what the next step looks like when the rug is suddenly pulled out from under your life. The answer presented itself as a hashtag– #blowitifyougotit. That became Bushy’s one-phrase guidebook to discovering what matters in life.

“Even now, five years later, lots of people still don’t get it,” he says, “I get messages: is it sexual? Is it about cocaine? No! It’s about taking the opportunities you are presented with. If you can do something, you should, because tomorrow might not allow you the chance to do this thing you can do right now. Sarah inspired it. She lived that way, so did I, but she really honed it in for me. Losing Sarah was super hard. It was hard for a long time and it still is. The way she lived was beautiful – always right there and giving it everything, every time. If she had an opportunity, she took it. After Sarah, I just started saying ‘yes’ to things. What else are you gonna do? Hold back? No way, Sarah would have went for it.”

Many equate Bushy’s #blowitifyougotit attitude with recklessness and wonder if losing Sarah left him with a death wish. “No, I don’t think so,” he counters. “I understand why people wonder that, because they don’t see the calculation that goes into anything I do. That Edge that Hunter Thompson talks about, if you haven’t looked over it then it’s hard to understand, especially from a picture on the Internet, which is just one millisecond in time. For sure, I sometimes have close calls, we all do, but I’d rather go out up here in the mountains than in a hospital bed. I’ve seen that… No, I don’t have a death wish. I have a wish to see new things, new perspectives, and do new stuff as long as I can. To me that sounds more like a life wish.”

photo :: Blake Jorgenson

Bushy bought his first plane, a Cessna 172, in 2008 while living in Squamish with Sarah. He’d spent the previous year recovering from knee surgery, studying for his pilot’s license, and financing flight time by selling hot dogs outside ‘The Griz,’ a rough-and-reputed Squamish nightclub.

“Sarah would go to bed and I’d study until midnight then sneak out with my dog cart,” he says. “At 1:00 a.m., I’d start cooking my onions, with a fan sending that onion smell onto the balcony where the smokers were. At 2:00a.m., I would kill it. I put all that hot dog money into flying. Those onions got me a lot flights.”

His original goal was to fly around and discover new places to ski. “I’d been in so many helis where I’d see something and want to go take a look, but you can’t, it’s too expensive,” Bushy says. “With the plane, I could really explore.”

There’s a big difference, however, between seeing new lines and skiing them. “I always dreamed of landing and skiing from the plane ever since I first started flying,” says Bushy. “They do it in Alaska, why not here?”

Hit the smoke! photo: Mashon

Digging deeper, he learened that Alaskan pilots have the luxury of landing on glaciers that have formed at relatively low elevations; around 2,000 feet. Here in the Coast Mountains, Bushy’s ideal landing spots were over a mile above sea level (5300+ feet) and covered with warmer, heavier snow. Still, blow it if you got it and push that comfort zone, right? Bushy upgrade planes to a Cessna 180 that came with a ski-kit for the landing gear (that attaches with bungee cords), and dropped in…

“Ian and I got totally stuck on that first landing. There was no way… we had to unload all our stuff and step a runway out in knee-deep snow. It took four hours, it was so soft and flat, we got so sunburnt. Then I tried to take off, bounced a bit off some fresh snow, but with no weight in the plane I made it.”

After a number of passes, touching down in an attempt to pack a better runway, approaching darkness forced Bushy to make a decision. “I was almost out of fuel and I didn’t know if we could take off fully loaded. Ian is a big dude and we both had all our ski gear. Every pound counts and, all in it was likely 400 extra pounds. I thought about leaving him and just going home, then sending a heli back for him and the stuff. We made it though. It was scary and not smooth at all, but I learned a lot.”

Glacier landings are easy, Bushy discovered. “You commit to it and it’s like landing on skis but with wings too, so it’s soft. I have done some of the softest landings ever. The take off is another story, there are a lot of variables. You can’t stop not facing downhill, but you don’t want it to slide away either. The skis can punch through and hook up, the tips are kinda low… there’s a reason people don’t do it that often– the skis really could be called ‘scares.’”

Teepee High Camp. photo :: Mashon

With a precedent set and a deep, late spring snowpack, Bushy enlisted photographer/snowboarder/co-conspirator Mason Mashon to establish a teepee high camp for extended alpine missions. “A week later, we flew everywhere and tapped a bunch of touch-and-goes looking for our camping spot. We didn’t stop though, because I was so scared to get stuck, there had been a ton of snow.”

After eventually choosing a spot with good ski lines nearby, plans were made for a heli drop of snowmobiles and supplies. The morning dawned clear, cold and beguilingly perfect.  “But, by the time we got organized, the sun had gone behind high cloud and it was flat light,” Bushy says. “With flat light and no sled tracks on the glacier, it’s hard to even know when you are close to the ground, it’s almost like IFR [Instrument Flight Rules – a set of regulations for the times when flying by visual navigation is not safe.] You just look at the gauges and keep it level.”

Essentially landing blind with no idea of the wind direction, Bushy was broadsided by a gust and hooked one ski deep in the powder.

“It felt like I was gonna fall over. I punched it back into the air, but it was close. From where I sit in the plane I can’t see the right ski, so I didn’t know if it was broken or what. But I had a GoPro on my right wing and the app on my phone so I watched the footage. I still had my ski and I could see from the video that I had landed with the wind totally wrong. So I went back and landed perpendicular to those tracks and it went perfectly. The heli showed up with Mase and the gear, we built the teepee, and then it stormed for four days. We had just enough time to sled off and gather firewood before the glacier went total whiteout.”

Very much like his trusty canine sidekick Dex, Bushy doesn’t idle very often. He sits down to take a crap and lies down to sleep, the rest of the time he’s on the move. Luckily, being snowbound in a 15-foot (5 metre) diameter teepee in a blizzard at 7,000 feet requires constant fire tending. Bushy honed his skills at chopping and stoking ‘jindle sticks’ (small pieces of kindling that burn fast and produce less smoke). The rest of the time they used the snowmobiles to pack and maintain a runway even as the snow kept falling.

“We were nervous. By the end of the storm we were almost out of wood and the plane was kind of buried,“ he says. “Then the sun came out and it was game on. That teepee camp stayed set up until late June and we had a ton of good days. Some really nice skiing.”

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Dex, Bush & Frank head for the hills. photo :: Mashon

Skiing. For all the antics and adventures, skiing remains Bushy’s lifelong passion. He learned at age five, chasing his sister and parents around the ski resorts of Alberta. “I love ski hills,” he says. “I took them for granted as a kid, but it’s so cool that, at a young age, you can ride this moving chair to the top of a mountain then go anywhere you want and ski as fast as you want with very little regulations. The vastness of the hill, the snow, it’s endless fun for a kid, for anyone.”

By age 14, Bushy was competing at mogul events–any sport requiring a combination of speed and jumping skill suited him perfectly.  At 17, he earned a spot at the Junior World Championships in Finland. “I know my mom didn’t have the money to send me to Finland of all places,” he says, “but she couldn’t handle not sending me. Somehow she got me there, I don’t know how she did it, but she did.”

And he won – a gold medal and the chance to represent Canada on the World Cup. “I’ve never been so proud in my life. It almost makes me tear up now, I remember calling my mom from the hotel and telling her, ‘Thank you so much, I f*cking won!’”

Nice light in Burke’s Bumps, a backcountry run dedicated to Sarah. photo :: Mashon

Of course, the International Federation du Ski (FIS) runs the World Cup, and their notoriously non-progressive attitude didn’t fit well with an 18-year-old from Alberta with the spirit of a bush pilot and a penchant for gangster rap (for the past 15 years Bushy has only kept two CDs in his truck: Bone Thugs n Harmony, and a back-up Bone Thugs n Harmony).

“World Cup was not as cool as I thought it would be,” he says. “It was a serious level of competition that I didn’t see coming and I wasn’t allowed to do anything else in case I got hurt. It sucked. I wanted to hit jumps and ski pow. They weren’t into that. I left because of the rules: why am I allowed to do a backflip in the moguls but not a double back? It wasn’t for me.”

The X-Games were more his style. “I crashed at my first X-Games, my run was mostly stuff I’d only ever landed once in my life,” he laughs. “But I got sponsors right away and was able to give my parents skis for the first time, that felt good.”

One sponsorship in particular, Bushy attributes to his hometown of Balzac, Alberta. “The Oakley guy was Seb Paradis, super awesome dude. He lived in Montreal and I think he signed me just so that when people asked ‘Where’d you find this kid?’ he could laugh and say, ‘You’re not gonna believe… Ball-sack, Alberta!’ It was a real knee slapper for him, every time.”

photos :: Mashon

Many of those original sponsors continue to support Bushy, even as he winds down a professional ski career that spanned ten years, 15 ski films, a stint jumping roller-skis with Travis Pastrana’s Nitro Circus and a foray into reality television on an ABC network celebrity high-diving show called Splash.

“That show was right after Sarah passed,” Bushy says. “I was saying ‘Yes’ to anything and I thought maybe no one would notice. It was on national TV though; the commercial was me and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. I got made so much fun of, one day I came home to visit my sister and she was having a Splash-watching party with 45 people.”

You know you’re doing OK when Kareem is impressed.

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Although it’s not always apparent from Bushy’s Instagram photos, there is a downside to a life dedicated to milking the most out of each new experience. Constantly blowing it if you got it can lead to a habitual disregard for any number of societal norms and rules of conduct.

Hit the smoke! photo :: Jorgenson

Bushy will trespass on a corner of your private property in order to access a perfect river beach (on Crown land). He’ll do donuts in your parking lot, drive boats without a lifejacket, and he’ll certainly climb up whatever you’ve got if it looks like a good place to jump off of.

Behaviour like this, while causing no real or lasting harm, still pisses a lot of people off. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, for example, aren’t entirely convinced Bushy handles his firearms as safely as they’d like him to. And not everyone’s neighbour is stoked on late night cacophonies of high-powered fireworks, two-stroke engines, and general free-spirited merriment, regardless of how infrequently it occurs.

It’s not that Bushy doesn’t care, or doesn’t feel genuinely bad when he inconveniences or wrongs someone–the opposite is actually the case. “I just think people make too big of a deal out of small things,” he says. “You have to be careful if you’re always fighting these tiny battles. Nine times out of ten, it’s just a distraction that’s keeping you from something much more important.”

And when the snow melts, Bush shreds water. photo :: Mashon

The renegade, living-on-the-edge attitude that plays so well on Bushy’s Instagram feed is not meant to be a giant middle finger to the world, nor is it a way to boast. It’s just a guy and his dog having fun discovering exactly what they’re capable of.

“That Edge…everyone balances on their own lines,” Bushy says. “For me, feeling that vulnerability out at the very edge, even peeking over… it gives me a sense of being I’ve never felt from anything else. If no one ever left their comfort zone we’d still be living in caves, scared and shivering. ”

And according to his older sister, Bushy’s always been this way and he comes by it honestly. “He goes against the conventional grain–he always has. One of the main things our parents focused on was teaching us not to be scared,” says Eleanor Bushfield, who also calls Squamish home. “As kids, we visited some family friends in Indonesia and Dad would teach us to swim in gigantic waves. That was the trip Rory got caught trying to jump off the roof of our friend’s house into the pool. He was five.”

But he won the show, beating original Baywatch babe Nicole Eggert with a triple backflip in the grand finale. And those Splash paycheques eventually helped realize another lifelong dream – in 2016, Bushy bought a seven-acre patch of rainforest paradise in the Squamish Valley with no driveway, no plumbing, no electricity and no permanent structures. For a dude who loves chainsaws, oversized bonfires and hacking trails through the bush with an excavator, it was already the perfect home.

“I used to worry, but I don’t anymore,” Eleanor continues. “He needs to feel alive and he’s incredibly capable and honest. Of course, the lesser-known side of Rory is he’s a real sap.–very emotional and trusting and can’t see the bad in the world. He cries at dog food commercials.”

“Mostly my own,” Bushy admits, laughing. [See Sidebar: Dex Knows.]

“You have to be careful if you’re always fighting these tiny battles. Nine times out of ten, it’s just a distraction that’s keeping you from something much more important.”

After months of chasing him around trying to nail down this story (we spent most interview sessions exploring logging roads, hitting the river, there was very little sitting still), I join Rory and Stacey, a wilderness horseback guide who has ridden shotgun on two-years worth of Bushy-fuelled adventures, for dinner in Squamish with Jan Phelan, Sarah Burke’s mom.

Over hit-and-miss Thai, Bushy excitedly updates Jan and I on the progress at his Squamish Valley land, demonstrates how his injured foot (dirt biking) is healing up nicely, and relives the best moments of a modelling gig he and Stacey just returned from, starring as “the couple” in a promo video for a high-end BC helicopter company. The gig included plenty of airtime and a chance to learn from some incredible aviators.

“I’m still a young pilot. I just got my one thousandth hour,” Bushy explains. “So it’s incredible to get to fly with these experienced pilots, to just watch and learn and soak it in. I think in the beginning, a lot of the guys at the airport thought I was some spoiled rich kid ‘cause I paid for all my flights with my hot dog cash. I’m sure they all thought I was an idiot when I started wing walking and stuff, but now it’s ten years later and I’m still out at the airport flying as much as I can. I think I won them over.”

“He always wins them over,” Stacey says. “Because he makes everyone feel like they are the most important person in the world. Kids idolize him because he rarely has a filter with them. Adults too, he just gets right in there with you, appreciating every moment. And letting you know how much he appreciates it.”

(She’s right. He treats kids as equals and includes them. My own eight-year-old son considers Bushy a superhero for letting him chop down a tree on the property and then ignite the burn pile. I asked what his favourite thing about Bushy is and he replied, “He lights big fires. And I like Dex.”)

Stace, Bush and Dex on a leash (very rare).

Dex has to stay in the car after dinner while we go help Jan mount a large, flat screen TV (pulled from Bushy’s storage unit) in her living room. We share memories and laughs while Bushy quadruple reinforces the TV mount, reassuring Jan of its stability. It’s a touching moment full of love, and I start to realize that for all the calculated stunts and high-risk payoffs, Rory Bushfield’s ultimate Edge is not out there on the end of an airplane wing or the top of a cliff. It’s inside his soul, a spiritual cornice shaped by loss and pain that he’s found a way to peer over, dance along, and ultimately drop off of in order to be the best person he can and chase a life worth living.

Walking back to Machete, Bushy’s larger than life truck, Stacey sums it up. “He has a huge heart,” she says. “It’s way bigger than his brain.”

Dex Knows Best

Anyone who knows Bushy, knows Dex. As a sidekick, Dex is unmatched—her canine intuition and loyalty have been integral to Bushy’s daily routine since 2011. Dex also has over 2,250 followers on her @yungdexthegreat Instagram account and her own brand of high-end kibble and suppliments called Dex Knows Best Dog Food.

“Sarah found Dex under a car on the reserve,” Bushy explains. “We had been talking about getting a dog but I didn’t think we would have time because we were both travelling so much. She waited until I was concussed, brought Dex home, and to convince me she told me Dex was a male and a Labrador, my childhood dog.”

Dex is neither, but after one look, Bushy was won over. “She was so young we should have been feeding her from a bottle,” he says. “She had mange and ear infections, but Sarah nursed her and looked after her. Right away I knew Dex was a character.”

That was in the spring of 2011 and Sarah passed away in January 2012. “I think back, and she couldn’t have got me anything better than Dex,” Bushy says. “Dex kept me grounded after we lost Sarah. Dex was integral to me back then, and she still is. She has a sixth sense and has saved me a number of times. She will start barking, losing her mind and really making a fuss and I know that means be careful, slow down, reassess what’s happening. Its crazy, but Dex just knows.”

The plan for Dex Knows Dog Food was hatched so Dex could eat healthier, but also as way for her to contribute to the Sarah Burke Foundation, a scholarship to help young athletes succeed. “Dex needs good dog food,” Bushy explains. “And it’s been a search, her whole life, to find something she likes that is good for her and doesn’t give her a rash or something. And the other part is for Dex to make some income to put into Sarah’s foundation and to give to the SPCA. Dex wants to do awesome things for the people who have been good to her.”

After two years of sourcing and researching, Dex Knows Dog Food is aiming to ship their first bags of healthy, high protein kibble next spring. Dex’s system involves determining how much food your dog needs and shipping that directly to your home each month.

“Our buddy Blair is helping with the business end of things and we finally found a manufacturer in Abbotsford who is gonna make us reasonably priced food with the ingredients Dex wants—a fish blend and a chicken blend with lots of veggies and fruit. Grain-free, not filled with corn and crap.”

Dex is ready to go, but Bushy and Blair say their goal for the first shipment is spring 2018. Dex thinks that sounds about right.

#blowitifyougotit photos :: Mashon

I published this story in Mountain Life in the fall of 2017. Spending that previous summer working on this story with Bushy (and Stace) was an integral part of my healing after what had been a pretty rough patch after losing my best friend Chili to cancer late in 2016. That “seize the day” attitude, and the random adventures that came with it really helped me rediscover the fun and the simple joys of life after losing my number one co-conspirator. In some ways, Bush, Stace, Dex and #blowitifyougotit saved my life.

Bush’s favourite kind of pie is pumpkin.

Copyright 2020 Feet Banks

Pie Quarterly operates on the unceded territory of the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw
(Squamish peoples, villages, and community) and respects and honours their History, Culture and Rights.

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