Love. A Secret Mission.

Silence on Soliven Pond

The cobwebs would prove to be my nemesis.  I mean just how many spiders came out during the middle of the night and commenced to stringing webs all over my airplane?  Through my semi-OCD eyes the machine appeared as though a frat house had hit their target with toilet paper with amazing accuracy.  Well it could be worse I suppose, it could be a week’s worth and I have been known to walk face first into them when I’m daydreaming—which is often.  Either way, I’m obsessively reaching every web my arms will allow me to remove, much to the chagrin of my resident spiders.

There is not a sound on the pond this morning—nothing.  Complete silence.  No bird sounds, no man made sounds and no wind in the spruce and pine.  I love these mornings, they are made for my early morning “top secret” missions.  I wish I could just stop time, or at the very least slow it down.  The only problem with mornings like this is they tend to change very quickly.  For instance, right now I can only see the first light of day on one side of the pond…the southeast side.  The north side is still quite dark, yet mere minutes from now the sun will be creeping above the horizon and the once quiet pond will start to come alive allowing more and more noise to disturb my perfect morning.  The coming to life will bring with it sounds, some of them pleasant but many of them unwanted.  Birds will be singing their melodious calls; the breeze will pick up and make its own beautiful notes heard as it passes through the tall fir trees along the shore of the mirror-like waters.  The human sounds such as the occasional cars starting and doors slamming shut will completely change this landscape.  Mind you it’ll still be wonderful, it will be beautiful in its own way—but the best part of the day will be gone for nearly another twenty-four hours.

This morning the air is cool.  The air is cool enough to form pleasant dew on the airplane yet not cold enough to form frost, that frost is still a few weeks away.  On this still morning I can see the splendid color of a full autumn forest lining the pond on which my plane sits.  I have already started the ritual of preparing the green Super Cub for flight, a process we pilots like to call “preflight.”  Preflight consists of many actions taken by the pilot to ensure the airplane is safe and ready for flight.  There is a standardized checklist that should be followed, it has been designed and tested by the manufacturer and encompasses many things.  The more complex the aircraft, the more complex the checklists canl be.  Well my Super Cub is none too complex, she is actually quite simple and that is one of her strongest attributes.  Simplicity breeds reliability in this case, and it is extremely important that I can rely on my green airplane to do what I need it to do.

The machine I keep referring to is a 1952 Piper Super Cub that looks like the day it came off the factory floor, right down to the same color fabric and the same paint scheme.  However, under that deep Montego Green color lays many improvements to an already amazingly capable airplane.  Some of these improvements are visible to the keen observer while a few are hidden away and only “seen” when the plane does something beyond what would be expected—which it does often.  Although my airplane only seats one other person besides myself, it can fly into and out of some very small places.  It can also do this while on large tundra tires on land, with floats for the water and skis for the snow—making it a very versatile airplane.  She is the type of airplane perfect for those of us who are interested in flying in some of the most remote areas of the world, many so far flung they may be untouched by man.

While removing the cobwebs I’ve covered many other parts of the preflight, things such as checking the oil level, fuel level and ensuring there are no containments in the gas.  Because she sits on a pair of pontoons, which we pilots prefer to call “floats”, I also have to check each compartment in the floats to make sure there is no water in them.  These floats have seams and because of this they will take on some water over time.  Given the fact water weighs about eight pounds per gallon I want to get it all out, weight is the arch enemy of the type of flying I’m about to do.  Pilots that fly Super Cubs and operate them in and out of very small areas are always looking to cut weight somewhere and this is certainly one of them.  This particular morning I don’t find much water in the floats except in the third compartment on the right float, but it too doesn’t have too much in it…maybe a couple of quarts or so.  There are fourteen compartments between the two floats so I suppose having one that leaks a bit is nothing too serious and I’m told by the experts that my floats are in pretty good shape considering they were built sixty-five years ago!

I have looked the airplane over and it meets my approval.  The truth of the matter is the green Super Cub is probably looking me over to determine if I am fit to fly!  Well don’t worry ‘ol girl, this guy is primed and has been looking forward to this flight for days.  You see, this flight isn’t just another reason for me to go take pictures, go fishing, or to just go burn gas…no this morning’s flight has a distinct purpose.  This morning the Green Mistress, as my wife likes to call my plane, is allowing me to take my uncle back to a place he hasn’t been in nearly fifty years—we have a mission.

My uncle was employed by the Maine Forest Service many years ago, and served as a ranger and lookout in a fire tower that no longer exists.  The fire tower was on Trout Mountain on the southern border of Baxter State Park and his job in this tower was to maintain a constant watch for forest fires within sight of his location.  Throughout my childhood my uncle Bob would tell us amazing stories of what life was like for him living in the cabin at the base of the tower and working throughout the day in the tower.  He would regal me and my cousins with his stories about bears trying to force their way into his cabin, fierce lightning that would be so intense around the mountain top you could taste the ozone and feel the electricity, Air Force jets that would buzz the tower while they were training and numerous other stories that are forever etched in the mind of our youth.

But enough of my reminiscing, it was time to get my green mistress cranked up and get this mission started!  Uncle Bob had not been back to this location for many years and we always said we were going to go back up onto Trout Mountain and explore his old stomping grounds.  Well many years had passed since we first mentioned it but we were finally going to be doing the exploring we had set out to do so many years ago.  It was a perfect flying day and I wasn’t too concerned with him; he had flown with me before, just not in this airplane.  So it was a simple matter of briefing him on what to expect with the upcoming flight and the airplanes safety features just as one would be briefed while flying on Delta Airlines—but this briefing was a bit more personal and this flight would be exponentially more fun than any ride one would take with Delta.  So once we covered the use of the seatbelts, operation of the door, the location of the fire extinguisher, operation of the floatation device he was wearing, the location of the emergency beacon and survival kit, it was time to board the plane and get this plane in the air!  One note that bears mentioning so the reader will be able to “feel” the flight as we did that morning, the Green Mistress only has one door and it is on the right side of the plane, the top half of the door swings upward and while the lower half swings downward essentially opening the entire right side of the plane and allowing the full experience of a wonderful breeze on those warm summer days.

At this point the airplane is turned around on the wooden ramp pointed towards the pond with the heels of the floats being the only part of the craft that is touching the ramp—the rest of the floats are floating listlessly on the water, waiting patiently for me to fire the Super Cub up and start the flight.  I crawl into the front seat in the cockpit and slide in like I had countless times before.  Cubs are known as being notoriously hard to get in and out of, but once you master the moves required it really is nothing at all and makes you feel like you are truly part of the plane, this day is no different and I immediately feel like I’m at home.  I could just sit in the plane at this point listening to the sounds of the pond coming alive and be in a great place, starting the plane up and taking off is just icing on the cake so to speak.  I ensure the fuel lever is on the right fuel tank, push in the mixture then pump the primer a few times…once more than normal given the cooler temperatures today.  After doing this I turn the mags and the master switch on before using my left hand to run the throttle to full open then retard it back to a quarter inch or so open.  She is ready to start, all I do know is make sure no one is near the propeller and push the starter button with my right hand and the engine starts immediately—this plane runs like she was meant to fly.  My Green Mistress has been doing this routine for nearly sixty-five years and it never ceases to amaze me what a terrific airplane Piper built all those years ago.  The engine chugs along at about seven hundred revolutions per minute and I slowly advance the throttle to about nine hundred rpm forcing the plane to slowly slide into the water.  I reach over with my right hand and lower the water rudders allowing me to steer her with more authority on the water.

Had there been any wind blowing today the water rudders would be a necessity but this morning there is not a breath of wind and the pond is like a mirror.  When I say like a mirror I mean like a mirror, this water was so flat and calm that it perfectly reflected the sky and shoreline to the point each looked identical to the other.  I can only imagine someone looking at us in the plane slowly floating by; they too would see two Super Cubs and each would look spectacular against the morning color or a full blown Maine autumn backdrop.  This was an extraordinary morning because the sunrise happened to be spectacular in the many colors it radiated across the eastern sky and the colors of the leaves were at their peak fall color which stood in stark contrast with the ever lightening sky and the clean white expanding line of a single contrail cutting across the sky.  There are many hardwoods lining these shores as well as fir trees and this made for an unforgettable view around the pond with the colors making the entire setting seem truly ethereal.  I left the doors open even though it was a bit cool to do so.  I had to leave them open and take advantage of having nothing in the way of shooting a few pictures.  This was one of those days we were going to document with lots of pictures,  as I typically do anyway.  I had to taxi around the pond a bit to let the engine warm the oil so why not enjoy the “boat” ride around the pond for five minutes or so, I already felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth this morning.

Soon enough it was time to close the door and prepare for the upcoming takeoff, I’m sure Uncle Bob was happy to not have the cold air blowing back into his face by the slowly turning propeller.  If he was cold, as I’m sure he had to be, he never said a word and was quietly taking in the beauty of the morning the same as me.  Door secure, carburetor heat pushed in, flaps set at two notches, mixture rich, mags on both and water rudders up.  The plane pays no attention to my handling of her, she glides effortlessly across the mirror like surface as though she has a mind of her own—or does she?  I make a final check to ensure our takeoff area is clear of any boats or obstructions knowing there are neither but checking anyway as I’d done hundreds, possibly thousands of times.  I pull the stick back with my right hand while easing the throttle forward to full power with my left, no sense doing it too quickly as there is plenty of room and I like to take it easy on the engine when I can.  Soon the roar of the engine breaks the silence of the still morning.  With no headsets in the plane it is fairly loud in our ears yet I don’t tend to hear it.  Other than my hearing constantly on the lookout for an “odd” sound it really just sounds like a takeoff and I’m fully engrossed in my duties.

My sweet airplane is an amazing performer and with this cool October morning air she responds immediately to every touch and every horsepower the engine is giving us.  She is up on the step in no time and I find the “sweet spot” without even thinking about it, it has become second nature.  At this point the airplane is accelerating quickly, she is like a speedboat up on the plane with very little of the floats touching the water.  In only a couple of seconds on the plane she is ready to fly so I ease the stick over to one side to roll onto one float greatly decreasing the water’s drag even more, this allows the plane to accelerate a few more miles per hour and fly off the water with ease.  She climbs away from the water like kite on a taught string on a windy day, there is no hesitation and we are hundreds of feet into the air in no time at all and I have already lowered the flap lever which stows the wing flaps—allowing us to accelerate and climb to our cruising altitude for our short seven or eight minute flight to Twin Ponds.

I ease the throttle back to maintain twenty-three hundred rpm as we level off at our cruising altitude.  Our “cruising altitude” is a laugh.  If I was flying for American Airlines I’d be saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are currently at our cruising altitude of thirty-five thousand feet.  Please feel free to move about the cabin while the fasten seat belt sign is turned off.  Otherwise, sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.”  I have to chuckle, in this case I could turn my head around and yell, yes I would have to yell over the noise, to my uncle saying; “Stay seated, we have reached our cruising altitude of five hundred feet and will be descending for landing at Twin Ponds International in five minutes!”  What a far cry from being in the sterile aluminum tube of a Boeing as compared to our three hundred degree view we have around us as we jet through the air at ninety miles an hour enjoying the scenery from a mere five hundred feet above the lakes and forests!

I don’t bother telling my uncle anything, nor does he expect me to.  We are each lost in our thoughts as we stare at the beauty around us.  To our right is a sun fully up but still giving off a trace of color to the early morning sky.  Below that rising sun to our right are patches of ground fog that appear as beautiful white wisps’ of cotton from up here and will burn off within the hour.  While the view out to the left is just as stunning, it is quite different.  It is a bit darker and we have vast forests for many miles made up mostly of softwoods such as spruce and pine with a sprinkling of hardwoods to add the brilliant color one would expect in the peak of fall.  These forests on our left are only broken by the numerous bodies of clear blue water, some only a few acres in size to the larger lakes that encompass hundreds and hundreds of acres.  Soon after taking off I spotted Trout Mountain ahead of us and it is a simple matter of pointing the airplane in that direction to navigate to it.  With such a short flight it is already time to prepare for landing and there is no need to descend because both of the ponds that make up Twin Ponds are only slightly below my present altitude given that they are part way up the mountain.

I circle the pond one time looking down on it to see if there are any obstructions around the shoreline (I know there are no man made ones here anymore but it’s always good to take note of the largest pine trees on the approach end of the pond).  I also need to be on the lookout for anything floating in the water that could damage the floats along with any rocks that are very near the surface for the same reason.  There is nobody on the pond and it is very deep and clear, so although these checks are cursory, they are part of the checklist and I do not skip them.  As I’m doing this I glance back at my uncle, we still have not spoken, and see him staring intently at the top of Trout Mountain to our right where his fire tower once stood.  I can only guess at the thoughts running through his head as he views a place he hadn’t seen this closely in nearly fifty years, I’m sure the memories are flooding back and I can’t help but feel the emotion myself.  It’s for this reason I love doing these sort of flights, I love going back to places I remember from long ago.  Whether it’s good memories, or even some bad ones, it’s always therapeutic for me to reminisce and I’ve found I can get a similar feeling by allowing others to do the same when I’m with them.

I pull on the carburetor heat and then the throttle comes back to idle as my ears welcome the considerate decrease in the engine noise making it into them, the engine is purring as smoothly as I could hope for—right now my airplane may sound like a kitten but she roars like a lion when she needs to.  I reach down with my left hand to pull on two notches of flaps and subconsciously nudge the stick forward with my right hand in anticipation of the nose of the plane trying to rise up with the addition of the lift from the flaps.  I have the plane in a gentle left bank and I’m watching my landing area closely and also watching the very tall pine trees that jut up in front of my final approach course to the water.  This pond is actually quite small and I need to get the plane down on the water and stopped as soon as possible because there is little room for error.  Except for one area on the western side of the pond the shoreline is like most of the lakes and ponds in Maine—rocky, so it’s best to get the plane stopped well short of the far shore.  This demands that I get my Green Mistress slowed down, very slow, and get it down below the big pine trees while threading my way around them to the shoreline where I’m free to descend.  Once over the shoreline it will involve a fairly rapid drop the hundred and fifty feet or so to get near the surface and land, the water is like glass so it will take a bit of finesse and attention to not fly into the surface or stall above it.

What is this “fly into the surface or stall above it” that I speak of?  That sounds rather dramatic doesn’t it?  Well its’ not really, it’s all too common under these glassy water conditions.  You see, most people would think that flat, glassy looking water would be the easiest to land and take off from but they would be wrong on both accounts.  Although it is fairly easy to take off from, having some waves is actually beneficial allowing the plane to get off the water quite a bit faster than attempting to takeoff with the suction of the glassy water (suction due to the surface tension of the water).  As far as the landing is concerned, the water’s surface appears to act as a mirror which makes it the most dangerous type of landing one can make in a seaplane on anything other than an emergency basis.  A pilot cannot accurately judge the distance above the surface of the water and must rely on a special technique to land or risk accidently misjudging the planes height above the water and flying it into the surface, or attempting to “land” while still thirty feet in the air and having the plane drop those thirty feet plunging into the water.  Neither one a good idea and would destroy the airplane.  The technique used is nothing too demanding in itself, but being able to shake off any sensation of visually trying to flare the plane onto the water like one normally would, rather than relying on a glassy water landing technique, is pure folly and sure to result in a crash or at least damage to the plane.

So on this day I anticipated the glassy water and am going to land a bit closer to the western shoreline than normal, this would help me to judge my height above the surface better because I would not be getting to fully utilize the normal glassy water landing technique today.  Why not you ask?  Well, a normal glassy water landing takes up much more distance than a normal landing would and this pond is quite short, far too short for the normal technique.  Therefore I would be “adjusting” the technique a bit and using some tricks passed on from those old, bold pilots that had gone before me.

Even though the pond is short it’s even more narrow so flying along one shoreline isn’t a problem but I must land with a slight curve to the right because the pond’s left, or western, shoreline bends about forty-five degrees to the right as you continue down its length.  All of this doesn’t really pose much of a problem as long as I get the airplane slowed to just above the stall speed and get it as close as I dare to the trees before dropping down to the water’s surface.  I pull on the third and final notch of flaps and now I can feel the considerable drag caused by them hanging into the wind going over my wings.  These flaps are necessary in helping me fly at the slowest possible speed to land in this very small pond.  I glance at the airspeed out of habit and it reads fifty-five miles an hour which is right where I want it for now, I will slow a bit more after threading my way around these next couple of really tall pine trees.  As I ease the plane around the last of the big pine trees I instinctively pull the throttle back to idle allowing the plane to slow even further.

The truth is the airspeed indicator could read twenty-five miles an hour, or even ninety-five miles an hour and it wouldn’t make any difference—I’d just note that it was inaccurate and disregard it.  In this type of flying it’s best to use all of your senses and not be glancing down into the cockpit too much, otherwise those pine trees could prove to be pretty solid for the pilot that does not pay attention.  I’m going to take a second to fill the reader in on what I mean by using your senses and their importance vice only paying attention to the instruments in the plane.  I’m sure the reader has heard the term “flying by the seat of your pants”.  Well that comes from actually flying the plane utilizing one of your senses, in this case your butt sliding from side to side in the seat of the plane.  Other senses that come in handy are hearing, seeing and sometimes even smelling.  Hearing works very well, it lets the pilot know if he’s fast, slow, speeding up, slowing down, powering up, powering down, etc.  Seeing obviously is a sense any pilot should use to excess and there are a number of nuances that a pilot has to pay attention to when it comes to sight, seeing at night uses different parts of the eyes that have limitations for example.  Smelling helps?  Well, it does if something is burning!

First I should give the reader a quick explanation of what I mean by a “stall” in an airplane.  When a pilot is talking about the plane stalling he is referring to exceeding the critical angle of attack, or in layman’s terms, slowing down too much and the wings no longer want to continue flying—they won’t provide enough lift to keep the plane in the air.  Now this sounds bad, and it can be if caught unaware, but we need to fly the plane as slowly and as safely possible while not stalling the plane.  A smart pilot can feel it in the control stick, and in the seat of his pants, when she’s getting ready to stall and reacts accordingly.  Airplanes can get a bit finicky when you get them down to their stall speed but there is no need to fear the stall, a pilot just needs to be intimately familiar with the stall and how his plane will feel when approaching it and exceeding it in varying conditions.  Today I’m in my element and know if I were to feel that slight mushiness, which would be followed quickly by some rumbling in the stick, all I have to do is ease off some of the back pressure on the stick and she should be flying once again.  If I truly need to ensure she continues flying after coming to the edge of a stall I could also add power and my airplane will be flying solidly…once again…instantly.  Like I said, she’s an animal—a thoroughbred.  However, like any thoroughbred, she’s a handful when not treated correctly so I’m doing my best to ensure she gets the attention the Green Mistress deserves.

As the plane slows I see the last of the trees, the ones forming the southern shoreline, fly by underneath me and I ease the stick forward slowly.  If I do it too quickly I gain airspeed, we already discussed that this is not a good idea.  So I have to do it at a slow and steady pace to attempt to not speed up, but also not stall, all while setting myself up for a smooth touchdown on the glassy water.  This seems to come together nicely this morning and the plane settles nicely onto the smooth mountain pond’s waters with barely a sound or rumble and she skims along merrily for a couple hundred yards before coming off the step and fully settling into the water at a snail’s pace.  We did well this morning, the plane and I.  She allowed me to land in just over half the length of the pond, I used about sixteen hundred feet of the twenty-four hundred or so available.  I push in the carburetor heat, lower the water rudders and open the door on the right side of the plane.  The breeze comes in now and it’s refreshing although a bit cool on the skin.  I ease off my seatbelt and peer back at my uncle.  He is just staring at me with a slight grin on his face, as if he knows he is getting so very close to past memories—memories long etched into his mind, memories of good times, of hard work, of growing up alone on a mountain in Maine.  Memories that are now several decades old yet seemingly like yesterday in his still vivid memory.

He hasn’t given me much for feedback over the last ten minutes or so we’ve been in the air.  Most times I hear all sorts of feedback from the back seat.  Sometimes it’s “This is fantastic; I can’t believe how small everything looks!”  Other times it’s “This is like a roller coaster only more fun, can you roll the plane upside down?”  Every once in awhile, and I mean every once in a great while, I hear “I think I’m not feeling so well” and for those very rare occasions I land and let the person’s stomach settle a bit before continuing.  But today is different.  Today I hear nothing.  Nada.  Not a word.  Zilch.  How is he doing?  Is he enjoying the flight?  Is he airsick?  Does he all of a sudden not want to be here reliving his old memories?  I can’t imagine what must be going through his mind so I have to ask, “So what do you think?”  You know…the trepid question one asks when they really don’t know if they want to hear the answer!  Well I shouldn’t have worried, he looked at me and said, “This is exactly like I remembered it” and “I can’t believe we just landed in here, it was so much work just climbing to this point with all the gear we used to carry.”  I relax a bit and smile knowing he is happy and this trip is so far going as planned, which is about all we can hope for in life.  You know my dear reader, there are no guarantees in life and we play the cards we are dealt.  I was dealt a very good hand, therefore I am enjoying spreading the wealth—it comes back to me tenfold.

I slowly taxi the airplane over to the western shore, not in any rush, but taking in the smells of the forest, the pond and the fresh air while my eyes are dazzled with the beauty of spruce trees along the shore.  As my gaze wanders further up the gentle slope, to where it gradually gets steeper and steeper, I can see the hardwoods start and their beauty is even more amazing given the peak autumn colors.  In this pond, which is one of two that are connected, we are about a third of the way up Trout Mountain and the remainder of the mountain climbs up the western shore that I’m looking at.  Coming off this mountain there is a small brook that runs out of the forest and into the pond.  Where the brook runs in there is a small beach that is more mud than sand but it is a perfect place to bring this airplane ashore without having to deal with all the trees and rocks that are common among Maine ponds and lakes shorelines.

The motor smoothly chugs along at a leisurely six hundred rpm and I aim for the beach at a slight angle so the right float will contact the mud first.  There is no wind so this is very easy and the stillness just adds to the beauty of the moment.  As I close the shoreline I raise the water rudders with my right hand and pull the red mixture knob out with my left hand.  After a couple of seconds the engine quits bringing the long borer prop to a standstill like a soldier standing at attention but bent over as if in a strong wind.  Now it is very quiet, with only the sounds of the birds and the very low sound of the water being parted by the floats at a snail’s pace.  The right float gently runs up on the muddy shore holding us in position as I grab the “widow makers” (the bars in front of the windshield) and hoist myself up and out of the seat sliding myself backwards onto the doors frame and finally swinging my legs out of the plane and on to the float struts.  This sometimes can be a hectic time with the wind blowing and the plane sailing towards the dock, all while the pilot tries to extricate himself out of the plane in record time then jumping onto the dock and stopping the plane from doing something bad and unwanted.  But today is different, today is easy.  So much so, it allows me to take in every second of these movements and my surroundings giving me a true appreciation for what my uncle and I are able to do today.

My uncle knows the drill, he realizes if I need any help I will let him know, otherwise he just releases his seatbelt and waits patiently as I step off the floats and sink the three or so inches into the untouched mud.  The stillness is magnified by the sudden silence of an engine no longer running.  An engine only making the ticking sounds so familiar to those who’ve listened to an air-cooled engine as it slowly cools off.  It’s a comforting familiar sound that is refreshing at a bustling airport or a mountain lake far from civilization, the location matters not.  On this morning we are basking in the sunlight of a quickly rising sun and although the chilly air can still be felt, it is rapidly warming and we may even be able to remove our light jackets before long.  I push the plane back into the water and off the beach slowly pivoting it around in order to lift the tail and place the heels of the floats well up on the beach in order to keep the plane from floating away while we investigate the woods.  As my uncle climbs down from the plane and steps on the float I can’t help but notice he has a smile on his face; he almost looks thirty years younger and ready to pack a load of groceries the rest of the way up the mountain to the Forest Service cabin.

He mentions to me that the water level is quite low compared to what he remembers and I have to agree, this muddy beach is usually much smaller and the pond must be down a foot or more.  The stream that slowly trickles into the pond from the mountainside is really nothing more than a trickle this time of year, I’m sure in the spring it is much more inspiring.  We take in the beauty of the pond itself and the shoreline; it truly is a pretty view.  Well, we know we have ‘work’ to do so we brush aside the hemlock branches lining the shore and step into another world.

If the scene overlooking the pond was beautiful, this view looking into the fir studded woods is breathtaking.  The forest floor is blanketed with a thick coating of pine needles and the trees are spaced far enough apart to allow a very good view of the surrounding forest while also being thick enough to block out most of the light coming in from the rising sun.  I glance down at the sandy bed of the brook next to me and something catches my eye, there is an animal print in the fine gravel a few inches from the water.  I look closer and point it out to my uncle, we both agree it is a good size cat track but we are unsure of whether or not it is a bobcat or a lynx.  Either way it’s a good size track and fairly fresh, it’s nice to see there is game in this area.

There is a barely recognizable trail that runs along the shore back to where some canoes are stored.  In years past there would be many more people out fishing and it was not uncommon to see a couple of canoes on ponds such as this.  These days this pond may not see a fisherman for a month or more.  Although it is a shame more people are not getting out and enjoying some of the best fishing in the state, the fish are happy for it and they are as plentiful as ever!

We turn away from the old trail and head off in the direction towards my Uncle Bob’s old Forest Service cabin.  The small brook will roughly lead us in that direction but we know we will not actually climb the remainder of the mountain on this trip, we are only looking to scout out the area around the path and the shoreline—we are looking for anything out of the ordinary, things that may show some of the old items my uncle would have used in this area fifty years ago.

I glance back at my magic carpet, the Green Machine, sitting quietly on the beach awaiting our return, standing still I turn slowly and see my uncle expertly make his way slightly up the hill in front of him.  I can’t help but feel an intense happiness rush through me, it feels as though it’s a drug quickly traveling through my veins all over my body—an indescribable feeling.  Life is good and I’m a fortunate person…how can anything I’m seeing and feeling here contradict that?

Shadows

Jerry Pond Camps in north-central Maine

From time to time a gentle breeze could be felt brushing against my face as I walked quietly away from the plane floating serenely on the calm water.  The air was warm and relatively still other than the occasional light wind—this only accentuated the quietness of the surrounding forest.  When the breeze did make its way down from the blue, late summer sky, I was able to hear its passage through the tall pines and spruce that lined the shoreline; it sounded soothing, a rhythm only Mother Nature could produce.  Although the intense sensations I’d been accustomed to just minutes earlier; the sights, sounds and smells of powered flight were very recent in my mind—they were slowly fading, being replaced instead by the calmness of the sporting camps and the stillness of the surrounding forest.

It still felt as though I was an uninvited guest, trespassing at a location reserved only for family or close friends, the shadows and stillness only making the feeling that much stronger.  Of course I wasn’t really.  A granddaughter of the master carpenter that built these cabins decades ago had given me permission to tie my seaplane to the boat dock and explore the property.  The builder’s handiness with wood and woodworking tools was becoming more and more apparent as I walked quietly towards the sturdy, rugged cabins.  His granddaughter—Rae, very generously allowed me the opportunity to explore the cabins and her family’s land along the shore of Jerry Pond in the woods of northern Maine.  My intent was to not only look over the property and get a feel of its character, I would also hopefully be snapping a few photos which would then be shared with Rae—several hundred miles away in an environment much different than the one I was standing in.  You gotta understand, this young lady hadn’t been to this remote location for quite some time and really wanted to “see” the camps she and her siblings grew up in, the beautiful location they all remembered so fondly.  Rae had thousands of memories of her childhood, growing up at her grandparents sporting camps, but she was really yearning to see them in their present state for nostalgia reasons of course…but also purely out of curiosity, wondering what had changed and what had remained the same.  Knowing she wouldn’t be able to visit them anytime soon, Rae enlisted my help to see them again; anything she could do to help ease the longing she felt when thinking of her grandfather and their mutual love of these cabins and the surrounding woods.

What appeared to be the main lodge was directly ahead of me and everything looked in good repair and well taken care of.  There currently was no one at these camps, Rae had told me her dad was in the area hunting black bear the previous day but would be leaving after the days hunt.  On this particular day there was no one within sight, nor was there any sounds associated with man—no chainsaws, no motors, no voices…nothing but that breeze caressing the branches high above me, the sounds of fluttering sparrows and the ever present low chirp and buzz of crickets and grasshoppers.  These were sounds that could easily be lost to the subconscious by calling them “background noise,” but I prefer to hear every bit of the background noise I can and made it a point to try and identify each sound individually as my ears captured them.

As I softly crept up to the front entrance of the main cabin I noticed a small book hanging from a string near the door.  It was obviously a visitor’s log of sorts and I immediately felt a desire to open it, read and it, and make my own entry in it.  It was as though the log was drawing me to it, so strange but true.  I could only imagine the secrets held within the binding of this small, hardcover book.  Now with this recent discovery and feeling like a modern day Indiana Jones, I moved across the small porch to grasp the logbook hanging in the warm mid-day sun, the deck’s boards creaking slightly.  As I reached out and touched the metal clip holding the small book I immediately felt a static shock—hearing the snap emanating from my finger tips.  Suddenly I felt different and the relative quietness of my surroundings slowly started fading away and subtlety being replaced with the sounds of children laughing and playing innocently as children often do.  Even more strangely, I could smell the morning’s breakfast wafting through open windows, almost tasting the savory bacon that seemed to be melting on my tongue.  This was all very strange and unexpected but it did not feel alarming like I would have expected it to.  Instead, these sensations seem very natural and very, very real.  Behind me I could hear a canoe being slid into the cool waters, perhaps by an enthusiastic guide and his “sport” heading out for some late morning fishing at a secret “honeyhole” hidden somewhere on Jerry Pond.  These sounds were slowly being replaced by a far away A.M. radio playing a very familiar song from my own childhood in the mid 70s, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy!” came belting out of the tiny speaker and the easily recognizable voice of John Denver was added to the “background noise.”

But how could I feel all these things, how could I taste and hear these things when I was the only human within twenty miles?  The sensations were very strong and I could swear I “saw” Rae’s grandfather working in his shop, hunched over a pressing camp project, and humming along quietly to the radio.  As I quickly spun around however, on the front porch of that cabin I could see once again that it was just me, the crickets and a few song birds here on this warm August day.  Even with this obvious realization that I could not possibly be seeing things from over forty years ago, I still knew I was not totally alone.  Although an unusual event such as this would normally be disconcerting to a more rational person, this was not the case today and I felt safe and incredibly happy as these emotions washed over me.  It was almost as if I was being put at ease by an unseen but totally friendly force, one that was present but not seen.

I replaced the ink pen into the pages of the logbook and released the book to once again hang in the soft breeze until touched by the next set of hands to come along somewhere down the line.  As I turned to walk away I never had the slightest inkling that I was being guided off the porch and down its few stairs by a gentle soul no longer walking this world’s pathways.  And of course there was no way to know I had signed the book with my name—but dating it 9/25/76.  That would be impossible given I would have only been six years old…

Thank you Rae, this was a wonderful day.

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!

 

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…

Luc’s Ride

Jerry Pond with Luc

Taxiing to take off from Jerry Pond on a cold autumn evening (Photo by Tony Cesare)

The temperature is not extremely cold this first day of November, at least not like it will be in the coming months, but after our bodies acclimated to the nice Maine summers thirty-eight degrees Fahrenheit seems quite cool and with the sun setting it’s not going to get any warmer.

Float plane operations are pretty much done or winding down by this time of year but I have been trying to accomplish as much flying as possible all season and I’m just now catching up on all my prior commitments.  With this setting sun I’m running out of daylight, and as mentioned earlier, it’s pretty cold this evening but I promised the young fella sitting behind me that he’d get a ride in my floatplane–and today he will, although it will be a relatively quick flight.

Although young for formal lessons, my passenger Luc was not too young to learn to fly and did an excellent job as student/passenger previously in my Super Cub when it was on wheels, and I wanted him to experience water flying–the pinnacle of flying in my opinion.  There is something special about the combination of water and flight that just cannot be described, it has to be experienced.  It brings out a sense of adventure and freedom that is even more powerful than other types of flight which already highlight these feelings to a great extent–water flying just magnifies it significantly.

This evening, as the plane floats slowly away from the shore atop the mirror-like surface, I can look back and see his parents standing on the shoreline with two of their younger children watching us expectantly, and probably a bit nervously wondering why we aren’t done and safely home yet!  I can’t blame them really, it would take some serious thought on my part to let my young son or daughter fly with anyone other than myself.  I say ‘myself’ not because I’m anything special…I just know how I fly and for me to let them go with a pilot of unknown talent probably would not happen.  In this case I’m not an unknown, Luc’s parents are my cousins and they know I’ve been flying for over thirty years and will do everything I possibly can to make this a safe and enjoyable flight.  Nonetheless, any apprehension felt by any parents at this point would be well deserved.

My airplane is capable of taking off in extremely short distances and I would normally taxi to the other end of the pond but not all the way down to the other end as I’m doing now.  However, due to my precious cargo sitting two feet behind me I play it safe and use every foot available in this small pond on the edge of town and given the slow speed at which we are taxiing it takes a bit of time.  Luc and I are not really concerned with how long it takes other than I have to be back home before the approaching darkness, but I’m confident that as slowly as the time passes the shoreline anxiety is growing.

I feel at home in this cockpit, like I’ve been wearing it for decades.  I grew up in this very same airplane as a child and can’t help think of the irony of looking back over my shoulder and seeing this young, eager face peering out the window with anticipation just as I was doing over nearly forty years ago.  Same plane, same area, same circumstances–just a new young soul intertwined in the history of my green Super Cub.  The ability to do this gives me such a warm feeling inside and I have to remind myself that I’m not doing this totally for altruistic reasons.  Truth be known, I get more out of this than anyone can possibly know…it’s humbling really.

 

*Luc enjoyed his sunset ride and we both agreed his orientation flights in the Cub will not be complete until he fly’s with me on skis–so you haven’t heard the last of Luc!