'Very good at everything': Nunavut residents remember pilot Natalie Gillis

Natalie Gillis, a pilot who flew many times in Nunavut, is remembered for her passion for the outdoors and ambitious, joyful nature.  (Natalie Gillis/Facebook  - image credit)
Natalie Gillis, a pilot who flew many times in Nunavut, is remembered for her passion for the outdoors and ambitious, joyful nature. (Natalie Gillis/Facebook - image credit)

Natalie Gillis is described by people who knew her as ambitious, joyful, talented and humble.

The 34-year-old died June 17 when her plane, a twin-engine Pier PA-31, crashed approximately three kilometres southwest of the Albany International Airport in New York.

She was working for Kasi Aviation, an airline in Montreal that specializes in aerial surveys and mapping services.

A pilot, photographer, and outdoor guide, Gillis filled her life with experiences that took her from the Arctic to the Antarctic, touching many people's lives along the way.

For a little over two years, she worked for Kenn Borek Air.

"There was nothing ever difficult about working with Nat," said Addison Gilpin-Payne, also a Kenn Borek pilot.

"In my opinion, there's people who work hard at their job to be good and then there's people who just have it. I think she was just naturally gifted at that."

Gilpin-Payne said he first met Gillis in 2022, and flew by her side many times, especially between Iqaluit and Kimmirut, and between Qikiqtarjuaq and Pangnirtung.

"I had never flown the 'Pang Pass' between Pangnirtung and Qikiqtarjuaq. Here I am, now, flying with somebody who's done it on foot [...] many times. It was like, cool, almost like having my own personal tour guide on board with me."

Natalie Gillis (left) and Addison Gilpin-Payne in Kimmirut in March 2023.
Natalie Gillis (left) and Addison Gilpin-Payne in Kimmirut in March 2023.

Natalie Gillis, left, and Addison Gilpin-Payne in Kimmirut, Nunavut, in March 2023. (Submitted by Addison Gilpin-Payne )

A love of nature 

It was her passion for the outdoors that brought Gillis to Nunavut many times throughout her 20s.

According to her LinkedIn profile, she has guided hiking, sea kayaking and whitewater canoeing expeditions in Greenland and in the High Arctic, including Ellesmere Island, Axel Heiberg Island, Bylot Island and Ellesmere Island.

"It was always a lot of fun to work with Natalie. I learned very fast that she was […] very good at everything," said Micheil Cameron Hill, a friend and former colleague of Gillis when she worked for outdoor company Black Feather.

Cameron Hill has many fond memories of working with Gillis during expeditions through Auyuittuq and Quttinirpaaq National Parks.

"She had a very calm energy most of the time, kind of understated and low-key. If you weren't paying attention, you didn't quite notice that her backpack was the size of a small refrigerator when she would hike," Cameron Hill said.

"At rest breaks, the rest of us would flop down and struggle out of our packs and she would just lean on her poles and just seem fine with it."

Natalie Gillis during a hiking trip with Black Feather in Natalie Gillis in Quttinirpaaq national park during the summer of 2014.
Natalie Gillis during a hiking trip with Black Feather in Natalie Gillis in Quttinirpaaq national park during the summer of 2014.

Natalie Gillis during a hiking trip with Black Feather in Quttinirpaaq National Park in Nunavut during the summer of 2014. (Submitted by Micheil Cameron Hill)

Conor Goddard, an Iqaluit resident who worked for Black Feather, also remembers Gillis's unwavering perseverance .

"A giant pack on her back and a pack on her chest exemplifies the person Nat was," Goddard said. "And I think that she approached a lot of things that way.

"She was absolutely inspiring in everything that she approached, she did," he added.

'An extraordinary photographer'

Beyond flying and being outside, Gillis was also a lover of words and photography. Her many trips inspired numerous photos and a collection of poetry titled This is Where Atlantis Sank.

"She was an extraordinary photographer," said Clare Kines, a photographer who lives in Arctic Bay, Nunavut.

He describes Gillis as patient and poised, curious, and generous with her time.

Natalie Gillis was a pilot, photographer and outdoor guide in Nunavut.
Natalie Gillis was a pilot, photographer and outdoor guide in Nunavut.

Natalie Gillis was a pilot, photographer and outdoor guide in Nunavut. (Submitted by Micheil Cameron Hill)

"She was amazing," Kines said.

Gillis was also made a member of the Royal Society of Canada in 2022 and was a contributor to Canadian Geographic magazine, which selected one of her photos of a polar bear for the cover of its January/February 2023 edition.

"She touched so many people," Kines said. "She's one of those people who should have had more time."