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Jesse Starkson actualized his aviation dreams in 2019 by acquiring a one-airplane "flightseeing'' business that operated out of Duluth's Sky Harbor Airport and Seaplane Base.

He was a licensed mortician and a pilot in training at the time, enthralled with owning a floatplane and managing local air tours for fun-seekers who visited Park Point.

Three years later, Starkson and business partner John Caturia have deepened their investment in commercial flying by exiting Sky Harbor and banking on another shared passion: fishing.

At last year's Minnesota fishing opener on Lake of the Woods, they arrived in their de Havilland Beaver to slay some walleyes. They also met with resort owners, guides and summer cabin-dwellers who said they were yearning for on-demand floatplane service to the Northwest Angle. At the time, ground transportation to the Angle was all but shut down by COVID-19 travel restrictions at the Canadian border crossing. Could Starkson and Caturia add flight service to augment the long-haul passenger boat service started by Greg Hennum of Sportsman's Lodge?

The conversations sparked a trial that was met with strong demand. Now, people are booking round-trip flights to the Northwest Angle from Baudette or Warroad for $350. The 12-minute hop is an alternative to a long boat ride or to driving for more than an hour through Canadian Customs to fish the Northwest Angle. The same service was available to ice fishermen this past winter by virtue of ice runways.

"I sure do hope they can keep it going,'' said Forrest Huset, who has spent a lifetime of summers on Oak Island and now operates a guide service called Angling Addicts.

As a boy in the late 1990s, Huset said cabin owners and resorters grew accustomed to routine floatplane service, but it dried up. Like Starkson and Caturia, Huset thinks there's enough appreciation for the flights to outlast the two-year transportation dilemma caused by COVID-19.

"In 15 minutes you can be on your dock,'' Huset said. "I have people who still plan on using it.''

Starkson, who also runs a funeral home business in Hastings with his wife, Katie, said the enthusiastic response prompted him and Caturia to expand. For 2022, Lake Country Air has added two full-time pilots and has attracted interest from investors who could help them expand their overall capacity.

Already the company has replaced its 1950s-era de Havilland Beaver bush plane with a larger, more modern floatplane, a Quest Kodiak 100 with wheels and floats that can take seven passengers plus gear. In addition, Lake Country acquired a wheeled Cessna Grand Caravan EX that can carry nine guests at a time from the Twin Cities and elsewhere to airports in Baudette and Warroad.

"We love it up there,'' Starkson said. "We have our own little unique niche.''

To be clear, Lake Country Air isn't providing scheduled flights from the south shore of Lake of the Woods to Angle Inlet or Oak Island or Flag Island. Flights, including sightseeing tours, are on demand regardless of destination with a home base at Fleming Field in South St. Paul. The Brainerd Lakes Area is another natural area of interest for the company. But for now, Starkson said, Lake Country Air's bread and butter will be to fly people to Lake of the Woods and shuttle them to and from resorts and cabins in the Angle if they're not staying at one of the many resorts on the lake's south shore.

The company opened this year's seaplane season Monday by hauling a construction crew from South St. Paul to a resort in the Angle. If you depart Fleming Field at 6 a.m., you can be on Oak Island or the Northwest Angle's mainland by 7:30. Have breakfast at 8 and go fishing by 9. That's one of the comfort-and-speed sales pitches you'll hear from Starkson or Caturia, who both love to fish and hunt.

Caturia's day job is at American Airlines, where he works as a Boeing 737 captain. He said he and Starkson want Lake Country Air to grow, but they're not under any self-imposed timeline. If they were to add an airplane to their fleet in the next year or two, it would likely be in collaboration with someone who wants shared ownership or full ownership in equipment that Lake Country Air would deploy and maintain.

Their longest-tenured pilot is Luke Thielen, who grew up in Inver Grove Heights and got hooked on flying in his youth when he'd go on 20- or 30-day hunting trips with his father in the Alaskan bush. During weather delays, he'd listen to stories told by the floatplane pilots.

Thielen, a certified flight instructor, said he met Starkson while giving him flying lessons. They discovered a shared interest in the outdoors and Starkson lured him into working for his fledgling company.

Thielen said the job has opened his eyes to Lake of the Woods and he enjoys giving history lessons to customers as they fly over the water. "People are surprised they can get this type of flying experience without traveling to Canada or Alaska,'' he said.