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.

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!