Where I Feel Most Alive

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

Author: Shawn R Michaud

I've flown airplanes since I was a teenager and retired from the United States Navy after over 24 years of service. Now I fly commercially in addition to flying my Super Cub for fun.

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