Where I Feel Most Alive


After leaving the clear, deep waters of Hurd Pond behind me, I fly low over the trees to the east passing another beautiful body of water known as Hale Pond.  Within seconds of Hale passing by my left wing I come upon the fast moving waters of the West Branch of the Penobscot River–in a relatively calm portion that lies immediately below the rapids downstream from Abol.  My eyes dart left then right as I search out the occasional moose, bear or other earth dweller passing quickly below me.  Suddenly I clear the last of the large hardwoods along the shoreline of the dark water and I ease the stick forward ever so slightly descending towards the rippled black surface of the mighty river that is now mere feet below me.  As I do so I feel myself get a little light in the seat and over the throaty roar of the engine I can hear the muffled, surprised cry of my passenger who was not expecting this “weightless” sensation.  I smile slightly and remind myself that not everyone likes these types of maneuvers and promise to think of my passenger in the back seat and make these next three to five minutes as smooth and enjoyable as possible for her with no further surprises.

In the short time it took me to think through this last thought I’ve subconsciously eased the stick back to level the plane five feet above the surface of the water–right where I wanted to be.  Right where everything feels just right.  The Cub and I are speaking the same language this afternoon, each of us knowing exactly what the other expects having done this many times before.  Even at this speed, and strapped inside this cockpit, I can smell the trees and water quite well with the side window wide open, it’s a sweet aroma one never forgets in the warm August air and I’m enjoying this ride immensely, especially knowing what the next few minutes will entail…

First half — Coming down into the slot

The water near me is a blur and only takes on any definition if I peer further ahead of us at the scattering of ducks on it’s surface.  It may only be ninety miles per hour but the speed feels much faster given we are operating in three dimensions and so close to the surface of the river and it’s surrounding forests.  The movement of my feet and hands are really happening subconsciously; as my mind–and decision-making, are seconds (or hundreds of feet) ahead of where we are physically.

It has to be this way.  For as the water, rocks, and trees steadily pass by in a tantalizing blur the machine must be responding to my every move as if we are one…locked in a short-lived dance that may only last for minutes–but having potentially fatal results if either of us makes a misstep or loses focus.  It’s where I truly feel alive.  It’s what makes hours and hours of tedious, mind numbing work worth every minute–allowing me to escape the chains of my earthbound body and experience this.

A run down Debsconeag Falls happens at about five feet above it’s surface

I remind myself that Thoreau has navigated these waters a number of times in his travels to Mount Katahdin situated not far behind me.  Knowing I’m seeing the beautiful views he wrote about in his stories only serves to enhance the experience for me as I swiftly cover his same path only in the opposite direction.  Just knowing he passed these very same rocks and falls, these very same bends and slack-waters writing about his travels and adventures makes me smile as the plane and I maneuver around small islands and the occasional flustered duck.

One of my favorite parts of this low level run is upon us before I know it and it demands a steep right turn of nearly ninety degrees of heading change then we enter a section of cascading falls as the water attempts to drop away from us even as we seek to maintain our same five feet of height.  These falls are Debsconeag Falls to be exact, and it is our last bit of excitement before a break in the action at the relative quiet of the dead-water.

The wings are still in forty degrees of bank as a beautiful camp passes by on our left but only seconds later the wings are momentarily level when a handful of campers and their tents come into view passing down our left side as well–in a flash I can see the half dozen or so campers waving frantically in excitement as we scream past their tidy campsite only yards away.

Before you know it we have passed over all of the falls and around a few bends in the river with beautiful cliffs rising out of the still fast moving water.  Then a hard left turn shoots us out into a fairly large dead-water that is home to many birds and other wildlife including bears, moose, deer, and other assorted game.  But it’s those birds that I really have to be on the lookout for, they are very adept at getting out of the way of my green machine but nonetheless I keep a sharp lookout for the one or two not paying attention that could cause me trouble.

Intermission from the intensity — Cruising the Debsconeag Dead-water

It’s not long and then I’m leaving the wide open and mellow portion of Debsconeag Dead-water transitioning to the second fast-paced part of the West Branch, the portion that takes us down stream to Ambejejus Lake.  This portion of the river is intense and fun but only last for two to three minutes…just long enough to get the adrenaline pumping before being dumped out into Ambejejus Lake at the Boom House, where the old river drivers would stay.

Second half — Leaving the Dead-water on the last leg to Ambejejus Lake

As we exit this part of the river and fly out over the lake they call Ambejejus, I start to relax my concentration and slowly pull the stick back while adding power in order to climb up to a more cautious altitude.  We are getting closer to many lake-side camps and the town of Millinocket so I want to ensure we abide by all the pertinent laws regarding my plane and its distances to people and man made structures on the surface.  I hear my passenger in the seat behind me screaming out loud that she loved this portion of our flight and I don’t have to look back to know she is wearing a huge grin that will not be gone anytime soon.  She, like many others before her, will be sitting down to an evening meal and a beer laughing, joking and smiling with the rest of us, while reliving her aerial adventures from the preceding hours.

I can’t help but smile knowing I’ve introduced another fortunate soul to the experience of flying a floatplane amongst the beauty of Maine.  This is what it’s all about–sharing my most precious memories with those that enjoy it also, they make the joy of my experience magnify tenfold!


Early Morning Mission

Early Morning Mission on Smith Pond
The calm, glassy, water of Smith Pond

The engine is just lugging along at a leisurely 600 rpm, not slow enough to really hear the individual cylinders turning over but slow enough to sound more like a low rumble rather than the typical smooth purr.  Fact is, it’s the only sound on the pond this morning–shamefully I’m the only one making noise this early.  I hate to disturb all the pond’s residents before the sun is up this peaceful morning but the plane is really very quiet right now while I taxi across the water, far more quiet than any boat would be.  However, in a few minutes, once the engine has warmed the oil sufficiently, she will be considerably louder during the takeoff.  Even then she’ll still only be making a fraction of the noise many planes make, and only for a minute or so at that–long enough for me to takeoff and head north.  My Super Cub will make noise hardly long enough to be a nuisance to any of my neighbors.  No, not a nuisance at all, more like the sound will serve as a reminder to all those listening that some fortunate soul is rising up into the grayness of this still morning sky and embarking on an adventure.

An adventure, what is that really?  Well, should one look it up in a dictionary they may read words like “an exciting journey” or maybe something along the lines of “a dangerous activity,” things of that sort.  But what is an adventure really?  I suppose it depends on who you ask.  An adventure to you may prove to be mundane to me, and an exciting, dangerous adventure to me might seem like child’s play to some.  So this morning for instance, I could be just taking off and flying north to Spencer Cove for fuel and a visit with my friend Jim–a trip barely taking five minutes.  Or my morning flight might be the first leg of a multi-leg trip across the country covering thousands of miles and dozens of hours.

See that is the beauty of it, an adventure is really whatever we want it to be and those around us do not determine if it is an adventure or not–we do.  Try to imagine this…these neighbors of mine living around this pond, still in their long-johns and nightgowns, waking up this splendid morning in their cozy little cabins along the shoreline.  Picture them shuffling their feet out to the kitchen and pouring their hot cup of coffee, finally sitting down at the kitchen table and staring out the window thinking of  how peaceful it is here on “their” pond.  Then you can almost see them smiling as they look out the window at the beautiful, calm water and reflecting on how lucky they are to live here and enjoy this serenity.  All of a sudden, out of the quietness of the early morning they hear my plane’s engine as it struggles to carry me and my passenger over their cottage and north to destinations unknown.  They will look up and wonder, “Where is that green airplane going this early in the morning?  What could they possibly be doing this time of day and what kind of sites will they see from up there?”  Then before they know it my plane will pass over them and disappear to the north, leaving them to hear the quiet slowly creep back in as things return to normal.  Those folks don’t know if I’m setting out on a great adventure or just sight-seeing around the pond for 15 minutes, but because they are human and we are yearning for adventure–they will more likely believe I’m setting out on a dangerous journey to parts unknown.

I’m actually just enjoying the cool morning air coming in the open door and the sight of the mirrored surface of the water reflecting the soft light and clouds.  The surface tension of the water is only marred by the small wake of my floats as they pass effortlessly through the water–it’s surface otherwise lies flat like glass and undisturbed.  I’m the first of the day to mess with natures beauty, but certainly not the last.  There will be countless boats, canoes and other craft plying these waters throughout the day but right now I have the place to myself.

I can see from the temperature gauge in front of me that the oil is now warm enough for my full power takeoff and I have completed all of my essential checks before taking flight–which admittedly there are not that many considering I’m flying a simple Super Cub!  I swing around to ensure my passenger is as ready to go as I am and I can see her hair blowing well behind her in the early morning light as she stares at the spruce lined shore.  I ask if she’s ready to takeoff and see the sun rise from a vantage point reserved for only a few adventurous souls, she smiles the most beautiful smile and nods her approval–no words are needed.  I advance the throttle and the plane is on the step and in the air in mere seconds, then my green machine pulls us both easily into the ever lightening sky.  I can’t help but notice as we pass over the shoreline, one of my neighbors is sitting out on his deck watching us fly over his cabin and I roll the plane slightly so he can see me wave from the cockpit.  Is he thinking those same thoughts we discussed earlier?  Or is he annoyed we are making noise this morning and disturbing his tranquil view?  His wave back is my answer, he certainly didn’t seem to mind the short period of broken silence.

As the plane climbs through 1,000 feet the suns first rays are striking the plane leaving us with a typically beautiful sunrise as the rays play off the surrounding mountains, lakes and ponds.  This is my passengers first time in a floatplane and I’ve been telling her it is the best type of flying there is, that she really must try it–so I can’t help but turn around to see her expression.  In the warm reddish light cast by the rising sun I see a beautiful smile that started as soon as she climbed aboard the plane 20 minutes ago and has only widened as we have continued climbing higher.  I needn’t ask how she’s liking it thus far, her moist eyes and beaming smile says it all.  I think she likes this flying thing.  I turn around and set a course that I’d been dreaming of forever, I set a course for our adventure…

A Landing Worthy of Attention

Super Cub in the Grass at Millinocket
End of Season Landing in the Grass at Millinocket
End of Season Landing in the Grass II
Landed in the Grass Along Side Runway 29

It was a gray, overcast day with not a breath of wind.  I’d been flying around the lakes and forests surrounding my hometown of Millinocket for well over two hours exploring as many lakes and ponds as possible in my green floatplane in an attempt to enjoy every second of my final flight of the season in my magic carpet.  True I was getting low on fuel, but the sight tubes were still indicating I had more than an hour of fuel left in the wings, and with a thirty minute reserve I could still cover some country if I wanted to.  However, I had to land soon due more to time constraints on activities after the flight than to any fuel issues.  So there I was trying to prolong the final flight and not wanting it to end–while also trying to land and move on to the laundry list of chores awaiting me afterwards when earthbound.  Well enough procrastinating old man, land the plane and get to work on the drudgery of your chores.

I was only a few miles south of the airport and gently guided the Super Cub in a general direction that would take me to the middle of the airfield, allowing me to look over my intended landing area and determine if it was safe for landing.  As I drew closer to the airfield I could make out my landing zone in the grass off the side of runway two-nine.  The area was marked off simply with two orange cones at the threshold, or beginning, of the ‘runway’ which were barely visible from my vantage point–abeam and one thousand feet above them.  My friends and I had walked over this area previously to ensure there were no hidden rocks or holes in the grass that would damage my floats on touchdown.  For those of you that have been paying attention, I’ve been talking about my airplane that lands on water, hence the term floatplane.  But now we talk of touching down…in the grass?  Landing on the land in a floatplane only equipped to land on the water because it has no wheels?  You heard right, this is how it’s done here at the end of the float flying season…land the plane in the grass just like you would land it on the water on a flat calm day.  It may seem strange to some, it certainly does to most of us pilots that land seaplanes in the water, but it can be done safely if one pays attention and lands as smoothly as possibly.

As I pull on the carburetor heat and slowly retard the throttle to idle, the engine noise diminishes to a very quiet purring sound and the plane slowly loses speed.  Now I pull on two notches of flaps, slowing the plane further allowing me to descend more steeply.  I tighten my lap belt and ensure my water rudders are up to keep from damaging them should I forget them and they contact the ground during the landing.  As a pilot accustomed to landing on a lake or pond in the middle of nowhere, I can’t help but notice the oddness of my two friends, spectators mind you, standing very near the cones where I will be landing.  They thankfully offered to help me secure the plane back in the hangar after my landing in the grass.  I know Jeff and Tony are there to help me with the plane after I land, but I cannot shake the thought they are also there to see how well I pull this off–how well I land this Cub with an audience.  They’ve both done this same thing just as have I, but we all know it’s not a “normal” procedure and something could always go wrong.  Being good friends for so many years we certainly look out for one another, and I know they have my back in anything I do, but it’s just human nature to “critique” one’s peers, even if only in your head.  So I now feel just a bit more pressure to make this landing a good one.

It’s the perfect day for this really, no wind and no sun in the face like we often get on runway two-nine later in the day.  On the flip-side, having said this I can’t blame a lousy landing on anything other than my own inept piloting…so I focus on making this landing count.  It isn’t every day you get to land a seaplane in the grass so I’m pretty alert and I know I will be committed after she touches down–at that point you’re just along for the ride!

I’m lined up on final approach now with full flaps and the proper pitch attitude to land flat, not on the bows of the floats but also not on the tails of them either.  I notice that the plane is very subtlety slowing too much though…almost imperceptibly, but she is slowing and I need to stop it quickly or risk descending too soon and touching down short of the cones delineating my landing area that is free of rocks and other hazards.  So I increase power ever so slightly, doing so only by sound and feel rather than by looking at an instrument in the cockpit–there’s not time for that.  I try to not increase my speed too much, but just enough to put me on a trajectory to land where I’m supposed to.

Just as I think I’m going to touch down slightly before the cones I feel the keels of the floats as they drag through the grass and dirt, so I close the throttle and pull the stick full back out of habit for water landings.  The deceleration is very noticeable yet nothing like an arrested landing; just the feeling one would get if they pushed the brake pedal in their car to stop quickly, but carefully enough to not lock the breaks up.  Before I realize it I’m stopped and I reach forward with my throttle hand and pull out the mixture knob to shut down the motor while reaching up with my stick hand and shutting off the magnetos and master switch–the last item removing all electrical power from the plane.

I sit there for a few moments in the sudden stillness and silence.  I just let my mind relax and take in the enormity of what I’d done.  Not just this landing–but the entire summer float flying season.  All the lakes, rivers and ponds I landed on.  All the wildlife I flew over and fish I’d caught.  All the people waving as I passed by them from the lowest river to the highest mountain.  It was a safe and successful flying season and now it was all over and slowly sinking in that I was done until next year.  For many reasons I felt an emptiness building in me that wouldn’t be filled for many months to come.  Some of those reasons would never be filled…but that is another story for another day.