Darkness Falls

Snowy Katahdin
Katahdin glowing in the setting sun

Darkness comes early here in Maine in late October; and it comes much earlier when the sky is nearly covered in dark, “wintry” looking clouds blocking the little bit of light given off by the setting sun.  My long-time friend, Jeff, joined me on this late afternoon excursion, an early evening mission to take some photos of the pride of Maine–Baxter State Park and more specifically, Mount Katahdin.  I had recently taken some pictures of the mountain for a friend and she was quite happy with the photos, very happy actually.  Well those photos were pretty good but they were taken during the day and without this new snow cover on the mountain, so I figured the semi-darkness and early season snowfall would make the photos even more alluring.  Of course time was running out, with every passing minute the light was fading fast.  Normally this would not be much of an issue but this evening I was flying the Green Machine, a 1952 Piper Super Cub on floats, and landing a floatplane on the water after dark is not something I really wanted to do today (or ever) so Jeff and I were in a bit of a hurry to get the plane ready and get airborne.

Despite our best efforts we did not get off the water and into the cold October air until quite a bit later than we had originally intended.  So be it.  This sortie was still a “Go” and I knew I could abort in the air and make best speed back to my home base at Smith Pond if it looked like we could not complete the flight.  Did I tell you that this whole mission was conceived in seconds as a last minute hail Mary flight to see if we could even get these pictures before dark?  Originally we had no intention of flying this evening, but when I realized the opportunity that was going to be presented, given the lighting and new snow, I just had to give it my best shot.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve screwed something up, broken something, or gotten into some trouble when I do things at the last minute with minimal planning–but what’s the fun in being predictable?  Impetuous was going to be the word of the day.

For those of you that have flown before, even on a commercial flight, you may have noticed it can be raining, dark and gloomy while you’re boarding the plane and taking off, but when the plane finally claws it’s way up through the murky cloud cover and breaks out on top, it is bright and sunny as if it was an entirely different world.  In fact, it looks so completely different than it did just minutes prior, you’d think it was a whole new day or location!  Today was no different and climbing up out of the icy darkness of the few holes left in the sky, the warm sunset to the west beckons me to climb higher and higher.  It’s call is like a siren calling an ancient mariner towards the dangerous rocks, only this evening it is calling me as if I’m the ancient mariner, and the dangerous rocks are the mountain in front of me jutting out of the wispy clouds.  The draw is subtle yet strong, and I have to be back on the water before darkness…

It was quite cool outside this evening while preparing the plane, it would be called cold my many.  Regardless, whatever one would call the temperature, it was certainly colder a mile high in the crisp fall air flying northward towards the mountain called Katahdin.  Mount Katahdin is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail and a great way to end that nearly 2,200 mile trek.  The mountain stands out prominently in northern Maine with it’s rocky slopes climbing well above the treeline and its enormous cirque named the Great Basin, carved by glaciers during the last ice age, leaving hikers standing speechless and awe of the magnificent vistas.  The views from the air are no less captivating and my copilot in the backseat was pretty quiet–he too was probably as spellbound with the scene before us as I was.

Katahdin cloudy, winter sunset
It’s dark in those clouds–and they’re full of rocks

No time to sit back and fully enjoy the view this evening though, we knew time was a commodity that was running out and we had to act fast if we wanted to be successful and get home safely.  As beautiful as the clouds were from above, they were ominous and dark from underneath–certainly treacherous for my little Cub while climbing and descending through them.  The sun appeared to be dropping faster and faster so we took the pictures we could quickly and rushed back down into a rapidly closing hole in the clouds back into the mountains.  Although the hole in the clouds looked fairly large for the plane to safely traverse from above, it looked smaller and more menacing as we grew closer.  I could not help but notice the hole was changing too, the winds, which were invisible except for their movement of the clouds around the rocky ledges of the mountain, were constantly changing the shape of the hole and making it a moving target for my passenger and I.  These holes are called “sucker holes” for a reason and rest assured this was weighing on my mind as we descended into the darkness below.

I never actually entered the clouds, I managed to stay in a tight turn inside of the rapidly changing hole and I was continually conscious of the safest direction to fly if we should inadvertently enter the clouds–East, away from the rocky slopes of the mountains.  Once safely below the clouds I began to realize just how dark it had become in the short time we were above the clouds, and although we managed to safely keep ourselves from hitting anything in the rock strewn clouds, we high-tailed it the short distance back to our home base to an equally dangerous glassy water landing in the semi-darkness.  It was important to keep our guard up during this critical phase of our flight, it is far too easy at times to relax after a stressful flight and have a mishap on landing or during the approach.  Alas, this was not the case this October day, and a beautiful evening landing on some glassy water was what greeted Jeff and I.

We had cheated the flying gods again, and while doing so gained some beautiful photos–mission accomplished.