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?

My Mind Now Sees What My Heart Saw All Along

Winthrop.  It’s an airport alright.  I can see it slipping rather quickly beneath my wing as I look it over.  Technically it’s an airstrip of dirt, gravel and grass less than a thousand feet long (960 feet—but who’s counting) with towering, plane grabbing trees on each end and a road with traffic crossing on one of those ends with drivers who pay no attention to planes on their roads.  Most would never call this an airstrip—let alone an airport.  But the locals know it is their quickest connection to the mainland, so therefore it is not only an airport—it’s their airport and they are right proud of the fact it’s a notorious dragon waiting to swallow any plane it does not approve of.  Passengers fortunate enough to fly over it to its big brother a few miles away never even notice it as it slides slowly underneath them.  If their pilot is bored enough to point it out to them they still rarely see it, and if one of them does happen to pick that short strip of dirt and gravel out of the trees…they think it’s a dirt road and we are telling stories as we pilots are wont to do.  I can assure you it is in fact an airport though; it has the windsock to prove it!  Ahhh the windsock.  Winthrop’s windsock could have stories of its own written about it since it often just points in any direction that pleases it.  Those stories will be saved for another day, today we need to land this plane and deliver the ever important U.S. Mail.  And land we surely will, but first I must paint a quick picture for you.  I must attempt to describe to you a place that seems set back to a quieter, more peaceful place in time.  This medium sized island is relatively flat and lies twelve miles off the coast of Maine, it is named Stone Island after the beautiful smooth brown stones found on its beaches.  During the summer months there are many people living on the island, but the year round residents mostly work in some way with the fishing industry and a handful work for taking care of the many tourists.  Although the island is not heavily populated, with approximately eight-hundred year round residents; at the peak of the tourist season it can easily rise to nearly 3,000 people when including its wealthy summer residents.  These wealthy additions to the island add a unique flavor and sometimes…some very interesting stories in their own right.  Well enough of my babbling, let’s land this bird shall we?

Winthrop is one of the hardest strips we operate out of on the best of days, but it can be a real bugger in the wind.  The wind you say?  Wind is relative right?  I mean, it could be minor nuisance to a mariner and at the same time a gale to those at an outdoor wedding.  But what is it that makes the wind an issue to a steely eyed, chiseled chin aviator that can fly over the highest mountains, or through the darkest of nights?  Well as pilots we all have wind stories, but when it comes down to it—wind is just something we deal with.  The wind is something that we have to work with because we cannot change it.  The wind can be the ultimate equalizer.  Never mind that it can scare the living hell out of pilots and make them want to sell shoes for a living…let’s just say it can wear you down trying to fly through it all day long and totally bust your bubble when you feel you’ve finally mastered the pilot’s domain of the sky.  For example, I cannot say “Boss, it’s rather windy today.  I’d prefer to not fly until it’s a little more forgiving.  You know, maybe say…tomorrow?”  Nope, suck it up Daedalus.  Get the mail and drop it off at the post office tout suite!  As pilots we do tend to exaggerate the winds ferocity and tenacity, certainly its ability to end a flight with visions reserved only for Hollywood.  But truthfully it’s just the wind…it’s just air…air flowing like a river of water around all the obstructions that get in its way and it can make for some really interesting flying.

But I digress—why go on and on about the wind when I cannot do a single thing about it and all I need to do is land my craft as I have been doing all summer long.  Day in, day out, multiple times a day.  Pull that throttle back!  Trim that nose up!  Slow her down…hold it off a bit longer!  Land already!  Pretty simple when viewed this way.  Mr. Pilot just do everything as you’ve learned from the books and your instructors and all will be well and good.  However, on days like this, when the winds are gusting out of the northwest it’s anything but simple.  As a matter of fact it can be downright dangerous and very intolerant of a ham-fisted pilot neglecting to listen to his plane.  My company alone has had accidents and incidents at most of our island airstrips; certainly Winthrop would be no different.  Hardly, Winthrop has had numerous incidents and is the main reason for our sky high insurance rates!  Well I can’t sit around here whining about the dangers involved, I have to try and avoid those dangers, use my skill and judgment to accomplish the task of landing this airplane.  So I do what I do best, I take a deep breath, say a quick prayer and ask for the forgiveness of any young maiden I may have wronged in the past—then I start my turn onto final approach.  Final approach, no truer words are spoken.

The airplane is a machine.  I mean it’s hundreds, possibly thousands of moving parts working together to serve one purpose—to fly.  That in itself is absolutely amazing.  I mean who in their right mind could have envisioned man jumping into a contraption (pardon me Mr. Airplane, I use these words loosely) meant to “break the surly bonds”?  Airplanes are amazing!  My particular steed is an exceptional example, it has personality…it has style.  Our company is rather unique in that it really likes us pilots and hopes we make it back to our original point of departure.  After writing this I think I may not be entirely correct, maybe they really are just hoping their airplane comes back and it’s reusable?  Maybe they don’t even think of us pilots much?  Well I’m not entirely sure what their motive is but truth be known, they take really good care of their pilots and their planes and for that alone I’m grateful.  All of our planes have numerous modifications allowing us to do things Clyde Cessna never approved nor dreamed of.  However, as mentioned earlier, my craft has style—and that is important.  Now an engineer or an analyst would say “Style?  What are you talking about Mr. Pilot?  This plane is the leading edge of technology…able to leap tall buildings with a single bound, fly through the nastiest of weather, land precisely on the runway even in fog…and you talk of style???”  Well yes Mr. Engineer…Mr. Analyst—this plane has style and any pilot worth his salt will say he’s flying the best machine ever made, bar none, no questions asked—the sexiest, fastest, most beautiful mistress in the world, which is how any pilot worth his big fancy wrist watch views his plane.  Style may not make the plane operate better, but it sure makes the pilot think the plane is flying better, and that is half the battle.

As I roll the airplane to the left aligning myself with the short dirt strip I notice a bird circling slowly in front of me.  I’m not worried about hitting this bird, they are around us all of the time and I can see I will pass well below this one just prior to landing.  However, I do think back to other pilots mentioning things like; “Those birds will dive straight down at you like they’re on a one-way mission” or, “You remember that bird that dived down and hit old Stan?  Well he damn near died that day and would’ve if not for his quick thinking and dashing good looks.”  Quick note…aren’t all pilots dashingly good looking and have the quick responses of the greats like Bob Hoover and Chuck Yeager?  Well I know I certainly am and do so I figured this bird was no problem to me, I would be able to avoid him with ease.  As it grew closer I could see it was not a bird.  A bird is a sparrow, a pigeon, a crow or maybe even a hawk.  But this “bird” was not a bird at all, it was enormous!  This thing was as big as my plane, it had to be one of those plane killing birds known commonly as Cathartes aura…aka the turkey buzzard!  And even he was having a hard time in this gusting wind!  Good Lord, maybe I should just admit defeat, call upon all my godly piloting abilities and go home to tell the boss that “Winthrop no longer exists—it just isn’t where it normally is today boss.  Maybe I should try again later—when the winds have died down.”  I mean that would be the proper thing to do right?  I’m supposed to be the professional that constantly evaluates my surroundings and determine if my cargo or passengers can safely be delivered to their destination.  But this time I had to land.  This time I really didn’t have the option of powering up and going home.  This time I had to complete my mission.  I mean, I had the U.S. Mail in the back and isn’t their mantra “Neither rain, sleet, snow nor ice”?  So there it is written all over the bags behind me—I was landing this plane and delivering this mail.  How else could I justify wearing my leather jacket, scarf and goggles (and big watch) if I couldn’t even get this plane on the ground.  Anyone can do this stuff.  I mean when is the last time you heard of one being left up there in the air?  They always come down!

I ease the power back to idle and the engine purrs like a hundred angels on Sunday even as the noise of the engine slowly diminishes to a slow rumble and occasional pop.  I push the propeller control fully forward and the plane slows slightly as I press the flap lever forcing the flaps to lower like the sun on a warm summer day.  The plane starts to rumble and feel sluggish as planes do when you add flaps and drag, and this is exactly what I want it to do.  You see, as mentioned earlier…this strip is only 960 feet long.  I have A LOT of weight onboard; there is no headwind component to speak of because it is nearly all gusting, plane crushing crosswind.  Therefore I have to slow this plane down well below the recommended approach speed to keep from running off the other end of the runway and into those motorists who aren’t looking for airplanes on their road!  But if I slow it too much the plane will plummet into the ground leaving my bags of mail scattered about the crash site haphazardly—not really good to have on ones resume.  The plane protests my slow approach speed by rolling dramatically to the left as a gust slams into the right side of the plane, I counter with abrupt control movements to the right to ward off the impending roll…possibly a stall and subsequent spin only to find I’ve added too much control movement because the gust unexpectedly went away faster than it came on!  This fast, jerky dance between me and my airplane looks hideous when viewed by a non-pilot, but it’s the only way to even remotely stand a chance of getting the craft safely down and stopped at this airstrip.  This erratic dance continues and results in abrupt control movements all the way down final approach, leaving me not a second to account for the vulture and how he makes out in these blustery conditions.

What normally takes 10 to 15 seconds on final feels like eternity but I find myself doing what I am supposed to be doing and listening to those who’ve gone before me…making a respectable landing—smooth even.  As pilots we know our smoothest landings will come when no one is there to witness our aeronautical prowess.  Whenever we have observers, on the ground or in the air, we never seem to get the landings we desire but we sure do make for some interesting conversations with our abilities to bounce airplanes down the runway.  This time I not only make a presentable landing, but I also manage to stop the plane prior to the cars that are ignoring the flashing lights and speeding across the road ahead of me.  My bags of mail are nonplussed; they offer no sign of thanks for my otherworldly piloting skills and sit silently in the back waiting for me to carry them to their next destination oblivious to the skill it took to just get them here.

As I ease the plane into its grassy parking area I pull the red mixture knob fully out and wait for the engine to quit running, in turn allowing the propeller to stop its endless quest to ingest anything in its path.  As all of these parts come to a quick stop and silence ensues, the only thing I notice is the ticking of the hot engine and the oppressive heat of a warm summer’s day slowly working its way into my cockpit.  I sit there for a few moments thinking of the last 60 seconds of work it took to get me to this point knowing I was going to do this numerous times today whether the wind blew or not, whether it was raining or not, whether it was foggy or not.  No complaints here, I love this work.  Fact is, most of us pilots know it’s the most enjoyable thing we could do and we can hardly describe it as work so we pretend we are working when in fact we are playing and collecting a paycheck to do so—as minuscule as it may be.  Dear reader please don’t tell my boss these last few thoughts as I’m sure he feels we make far too much already!

On this morning I notice out of the corner of my eye a woman with three small children.  She is an attractive blonde haired woman and standing perhaps a hundred feet from my plane with a large smile on her face pushing a stroller and with two small children standing at her side.  I could tell right away they were here to see me, well more accurately the plane anyway.  I was supposed to be delivering the mail to the post office and I didn’t have any passengers heading back to the mainland that I was aware of so I wasn’t quite sure what she may need.  One thing was for sure, she was smiling happily just as her children were so I knew I was not dealing with an unhappy customer or neighbor, and for that I was thankful.

Oftentimes people will complain about the noise around airports, and given the types of planes we fly—ours are noisier than most.  Some of the noise just goes along with the type of plane we fly and its noisy propeller, but some of it is due to the performance enhancements done because of our unique flying requirements.  Anyway, the airport could have existed for seventy-five years and the unhappy neighbor that is upset with the noise may have moved in just a few short years ago—you’d think they would have not moved so near to an airport if they’re sensitive to this sort of thing.  Well as stated earlier, this woman appeared happy so as I opened the door and said “Good morning!” she immediately said “Hello” in return and moved cautiously towards the plane.  Her children were dead silent.  They stood quietly looking at the plane with awe in their eyes and smiles on their little faces but not uttering a sound.  They didn’t come too close to the plane.  It was evident they were skeptical of the scene before them—or more accurately, they were skeptical of the unshaven, wild-eyed pilot before them.  This is probably the exact scenario their mom was always warning them about, “Watch out for strangers but especially watch out for those pilots!”

It was my turn to offer a welcome and see if there was something I could do for them so I asked her if she was flying with us today.  Normally I ask this question for a couple of reasons.  First, the dispatcher typically tells me the name of the people in the party that I should be picking up, but like the typical pilot I’m usually not paying attention and I show up willing to grab whomever and fly them to wherever, whenever.  Not too professional I know, but accurate nonetheless.  There is just so much going on in my mind concerning airspeeds, winds, obstructions, breakfast, my date that evening, that I’m really prioritizing my thoughts—and apparently picking up the right passengers is not high on my priority list.  Please keep in mind I’m a work in progress, I’m just happy to have landed the plane and it’s still capable of being reused.  Another reason for asking this question is because it’s generally just a good icebreaker.  Even if they are not our customers, they will respond accordingly and conversation ensues.  The young woman slowly moves towards me with her children and tells me she is not one of our passengers today but she and her kids were nearby and they loved airplanes.

Well, this is my script to a tee!  Please allow me to indulge you a bit and explain where I came into flying.  I have been around airplanes since my first memories and they have grasped my deepest, most heartfelt desires for nearly my entire life.  I have never wanted to be anything but a pilot.  Ever.  Oh sure there were the typical fireman, policeman, astronaut thoughts for short periods of time, but I never entertained them and always returned to flying.  I owe this to some fantastic mentors over the years and their love of aviation was passed on to a young mind ripe for knowledge and with a thirst for aviation like none other.  I have never wavered in my love for flying, and the fulfillment that it brings to me, so I found years ago I really enjoyed getting children involved with aviation to open their minds and pique their curiosity.  I suppose it was an innate desire to pass my excitement along and as time has progressed; my joy of opening the eyes of children to my world of aviation has grown significantly.  It has now grown far beyond what I envisioned.  This passion to pay forward what was done for me is probably as strong as my desire to fly if not stronger.  I realized at some point that I wasn’t just giving back as I had originally intended, but I was “gaining” so much more from it than I ever was really giving back!  Now I’m sure those of you reading this have heard this sort of mantra before about gaining more from the student than the student is gaining from the teacher—but until you actually feel it, until you actually see the results of it, you cannot realize the power of this emotion because it is truly a force to not be taken lightly.

Here I am face to face with three small children that love airplanes.  Well, forget about the ever important U.S. Mail for a bit, the post office won’t mind me taking a few moments because it’s time to put on my community relations hat and entertain these kids!  I had to give these kids a tour of the plane as I like to do whenever possible and time permits.  So I walked over to the woman and introduced myself, she told me her name was Karen and her children’s names were Zach, Evan and Katelyn—aged six, five and three respectively.  I looked down at these children whose faces were filled with wide-eyed anticipation and awe and asked them if they’d like to look at the airplane.  Having asked this question countless times to hordes of kids, I’ve always been amazed at how shy the loudest kids can get when faced with the option of looking at the airplane up close.  Well, these little ones were no different and they remained very quiet and a bit hesitant as they slowly inched towards the plane.  These young children were extremely well behaved and ever so slowly loosened up to the point where they would touch the plane but that seemed to be the limit of their comfort zone and they had no visible interest in getting any closer.  Even my gentle coaxing could not persuade them to get closer, or heaven forbid, climb into the cockpit.  Now what caught my attention was Mother Karen.  She was noticeably excited about the kids getting “the full experience” since the unknowing and overly trusting pilot was opening the plane up completely for them.  She was getting more and more animated and devious in her attempts to get them into the pilot and copilot seats for pictures—but the kids were having no part of it!  So after a few minutes of trying to entice them into the plane she finally gave up and the true reason behind their being at the airfield to watch planes became apparent—Karen was the one with the interest and wanted desperately to get into the plane!

Well…I didn’t see that coming!  She was so quiet during the last five minutes or so with regards to her fascination with the plane that I did not pick up on the true reason for their visit, and she now continued to amaze me with her interest in the plane and aviation!  Karen wasted no time climbing into the pilot’s seat, even stating “Well I suppose if you kids are not going to get in then I must not waste this opportunity!”  Did I see a slight spring in her step not there previously?  Did I not notice her arm quickly moving her kids aside so she could climb into the cockpit?  Well, I may or may not have noticed such things but what was readily apparent was her smile inside that airplane…she was totally beaming inside that cockpit.  You’d think she just conquered the Atlantic and was Charles Lindberg landing in France!  She had questions, she had ideas, and she had the wild-eyed look I had when I first sat in an airplane thirty years earlier.  Her children just stood there next to me probably with the same look I had on my face, astonishment and bewilderment.  Was mom going to start this baby up and leave us all behind?

Karen had to be in her mid 30s, and I’d found out during her short visit she had never even touched a small airplane like this but had wanted to fly since childhood.  Here she was sitting in the pilot’s seat with the controls in her hands (not making airplane sounds as I would have been doing) and with a look on her face like she was in heaven!  Why hadn’t she done this somewhere in her past?  Why would she give up something she apparently had such a strong desire to do for over fifteen years?  Well the answers are long and varied whenever you ask someone like this that particular question, some have valid reasons while many others have excuses disguised as valid reasons.  Thankfully Karen’s children started to see the fun she was having and their uneasiness started to wane and curiosity blossomed as they cautiously started touching the plane and even climbing up into the cockpit to see just what it was that so captivated their mother.

Of course Karen would have to climb back out of the plane to allow her now eager children access and I could see the disappointment on her face.  She did disembark, although grudgingly.  Evan was the first to climb on up the landing gear and slide on into the cockpit but Zach, not to be outdone by his younger brother, was hot on his heels forcing Evan further over into the copilot’s seat.  Now watching these two climb into the plane was a treat on many levels but what I noticed right away was how quickly they changed from the quiet, timid boys I’d been observing to the rambunctious but respectful young boys most would expect to see.  They obviously had gotten over any fear of the plane or pilot and jumped right into the role of “Pilot” and “Copilot”.  But hold on for one second.

Had we overlooked someone?  How about the little curly-blonde haired, big blue eyed Katelyn that was sitting in the stroller staring at me?  This young girl was not looking at the plane at all.  As a matter of fact I couldn’t help but notice she had been staring at me the whole time.  I’m not talking about looking at me most of the time; she had been watching me every single time I’d looked at her.  I was beginning to become a bit self conscious.  What was it about me that made this little girl stare at me so intently?  Did I look so amusing that she felt pity for me?  Did I have grease or oil smeared across my forehead?  Thankfully I didn’t have to wait for an answer, at this point Karen has slipped back into “mom mode” and took that cute little girl out of the stroller and put her in the back seat of the Cessna.  Throughout this I was staring intently back at Katelyn and noticed the entire time, and during every bit of maneuvering required to get her into the back seat, she was still watching me.  I was starting to wonder if she was part owl and her head would rotate nearly 360 degrees in order to keep a watchful eye on me.  Should this happen I was fully prepared to turn-tail and run!  But something interesting happened when she was sitting there in the back seat of my airplane; viewed through the window the expression on her tiny face was changing.  I saw her face change from one of intentness to one of happiness and joy.  This little girl starting smiling at me with the innocence of youth and accentuated with the cutest little dimples—and it was melting my heart.  And as it turns out, it was contagious…I couldn’t help but smile back.  Of course I probably was doing so with some awkward adult look on my face, or maybe even with that grease or oil on my forehead for good measure, but I was grinning ear to ear nonetheless!

In my short four decades of life I have found that I am slowly becoming more and more attuned to the important things in life and the simplicity of it.  How is that you say?  Hmmm…for instance, what difference does it make if a three year old girl stares at you with pure happiness in her eyes, isn’t that just a fleeting moment that holds no significant consequence?  Well my friend, it makes all the difference in the world.  You see, just fifteen or twenty minutes ago I was fully engaged with figuring out how to land the plane in a pretty hefty crosswind in the smallest airstrip my company fly’s into.  That sort of thought takes most of my consciousness, but now just moments later, that is all history and I’m fully enthralled in how to make this day the best possible day for four people—specifically three of them.  These kids don’t know anything except for what is happening here and now.  What more attentive audience can you get?  I learned from those who gave me their undivided love and attention when I was young that when you have the attention of a child—their full attention—you have a point in their life that is worth your complete focus and purpose.  I intended to make the most of this short time we would spend together.

So with this in mind, I made the best of the next five minutes and enjoyed every single second.  I made sure those three children (especially that little blue-eyed cutie with curly blonde hair) had memories that would last a lifetime.  You’d think, “Why would five minutes in a small airplane make such an impression on children?”  Simple, they were happy and they were completely and totally immersed in something they had dreamed of yet knew very little about—flying! Not necessarily flying in a plane…but flying still!  They were essentially living a dream but for the first time and they were doing it with me.  How could I be so lucky?

As I drove that old dilapidated Ford van back to the airplane from the post office on Stone Island I could not help but think of my early years around airplanes and aviation, the joy it brought me.  Truth be known, those memories still bring me much joy to this day.  All I did today was give that same opportunity to three young children.  The opportunity to dream.  The opportunity to believe that flight is not only possible but mystical and wondrous at the same time.

I walked towards the airplane with a strong feeling that what I was doing was what I was meant to do all my life.  At no other time had I felt this strongly that I had finally found what it was that I was supposed to do.  With this new found direction I felt very relaxed—totally at peace with my life and the direction before me.  As my hands and eyes swept through the start sequence and the engine came to life I couldn’t help but imagine what my life would be without flying.  I mean what would I do with all the aching in my soul to find what ails me?  To put it succinctly, I would be a lost soul without flying.  There would be a hole in my inner being that could never be fulfilled with anything but flying.

So, I just learned all this about myself in less than an hour?  Impossible!  This life altering moment just came out of nowhere and now I know what it is I have to do in life?  No not impossible.  Not impossible at all.   See these things are completely possible when your eyes are opened by the innocence of a child and your mind finally sees what your heart has seen all along…your most vulnerable wishes, desires and secrets.  I will never in my lifetime forget the smile of that little girl and the wonder in her eyes.  She made me a better person than I would ever know and I didn’t question it for a second—I just continued to spread the word.  You know, that flying is…

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.

Memories Are All We Really Have

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I could tell this was going to end badly, I was losing my grip.  I couldn’t believe it but it was happening no matter what I did to try and stop it.  The slippery, powerful brook trout slid quickly through my fingers and fell three feet back into the deep, calm, dark waters of the pond.  I wanted to just jump in after the trout and never be seen again rather than have to explain what just happened to the ecstatic man who caught the beautiful fish.  I still could not believe it just happened; and even more importantly, I could not believe I had to tell Jeff I just lost the first fish he had caught in nearly thirty years–and she was a beauty at that, the biggest one we’d landed this evening.

But I digress, let me start this story at the beginning where all good stories must start…

 

Jeff is a close friend and we are usually attached at the hip doing Lord knows what throughout most of the year.  There are, however, a few things I enjoy that Jeff is typically not really interested in doing, and I would usually do those things alone or with another witting accomplice, then Jeff and I would catch up upon my return and pick up where we left off–causing trouble.  Things like fishing, hunting or hiking come to mind as things he no longer really took part in.  Jeff had done these sorts of things when he was younger but had grown away from them as the years had passed.  Well this particular evening I had talked him into going fishing with me, this is significant because he hadn’t been fishing in something like thirty years.  While I’m at it I should come clean here–I wholeheartedly wanted his company during some evening fishing, but I’d be lying if I said it never crossed my mind that with him coming along on my fishing excursion we can get twice as many fish…and since he doesn’t like to eat them I get to keep his fish too!  So as you can see, not only did I enjoy his quick wit and sarcasm throughout the evening–it was a tactically astute business decision also (for me anyway!).  Honestly, I was stoked to finally get him out here doing something he used to do years ago with his dad but had lost interest in doing somewhere along the road called life.  Now here we were, in my secret hot-spot, about to hopefully catch some really big brook trout.

We had landed in the small pond about three hours before sunset on a warm and still July evening, the kind of summer evening no one ever wants to see end and makes you happy to be alive.  The fish were just starting to bite a bit more enthusiastically and with no wind Jeff and I were fishing from the floats of my seaplane–affectionately known as the Green Machine.  Now a Piper Super Cub is known as “the go-to” bush plane performance-wise, able to get you into some normally inaccessible places that are far too small for most other planes.  However, one thing a Super Cub is not known for is its roominess, and standing out on those round-top EDO floats was a prime example of cramped quarters with space being a premium for either one of us.  Given the narrow floats we were moving about on while fishing, and the fact they were not flat on top but rounded, we had to be very careful of our movements in order to not perform an embarrassing–yet entertaining, unplanned excursion into the water.  I might add this is something most seaplane pilots do at least once during their flying career but I was determined to be the statistical outlier.

The evening was coming along nicely with Jeff and I conversing about this-and-that when he hooked into a gorgeous looking brook trout that appeared to be sixteen or seventeen inches long and quite fat…I was super happy for him given how long it had been since he had last been fishing.  Unfortunately I had forgotten to put the net used to land the fish in the plane this evening–a big faux pas since it was quite difficult to get any trout we caught out of the water and into our hands before they spit the hook and got away.  The all important fish net was safely stowed right where I had left it…in the back of my truck where it would do us no good tonight.  With my absentmindedness I knew it was up to me to hold on to this beauty and not let it slip through my fingers.  This task was a lot easier said than done due to this type of fish being quite slippery with a light coat of slime covering their bodies to keep ham-fisted fisherman like myself from getting a good grip on them.  This spirited fellow was no different and fought with all he had from the minute I got him out of the water and removed the hook.  I told Jeff to retrieve the cooler from the backseat of the plane so we could put him in the ice filled container keeping him fresh longer.  She was definitely the largest fish we’d caught so far this evening, nothing record setting but a very nice native Maine brook trout nonetheless.  I was perched precariously on the airplanes floats in about ninety feet of water with the very strong, active and slippery trout ever so slowly getting closer and closer to slipping out of my hands and back into the ponds mirrored surface.

Now dear reader, keep in mind we are both quite excited with his catch and we are attempting to not fall in the pond while moving about on the round tops of my narrow floats.  The fish was already giving me the dickens using every bit of its muscle and slipperiness to escape my grasp; which was tenuous at best because I was now trying to slide one hand into position to slip my fingers in the fish’s gills and get a much better grip.  During this time I was telling Jeff to hurry because I felt I was losing my grip–while internally I was thinking I wasn’t sure if I could hold on to him much longer.  Jeff climbed into the cockpit to retrieve the cooler laughing, telling me “Don’t let him get away I almost have the cooler!” I think he thought I was teasing him about possibly losing the fish back into the water.  I wish I was.

It happened in a flash?  No, it really was happening in slow motion for me…almost as if it was Karma showing me I was helpless to stop the trout from making his escape.  What seemed like a minute actually was probably more like seven or eight seconds.  When the inevitable happened the trout wasted no time swimming quickly out of reach at near light speed.  Jeff didn’t even hear me mutter some colorful, sailor lingo as I nearly fell off the floats trying to reach into the water for the fish.  When he turned around and saw me standing there fish-less, his expression said everything…”I can’t believe you really dropped my fish back into the pond (he was holding the cooler of course–he upheld his end of the bargain).  “You did it because it was the biggest one of the evening and you didn’t want everyone to know I came along thirty years later and beat out the pilot/guide with my first fish!”  Well, he may not have said this verbally…but that is exactly what I read on his face!  I wanted to slide off the floats into the dark, cool waters and never be seen again.  There was nothing I could do to convince him that I really didn’t do it on purpose.  I felt horrible but since we always use sarcasm in most everything we do that is exactly what we both reverted to with him telling me I did it on purpose and me going along with it and saying it wasn’t big enough to be a keeper anyway so I let it go!

Jeff had his line back in the water in record time, he was determined to show me he could do it again and would land his own fish this next time, taking me out of the equation.  Over the next few minutes I ended up catching a large brookie myself and this only fed fuel to his sarcasm and desire to catch another bigger one since mine was in the cooler!  As we sat there fishing and ribbing each other about the “one that got away” I could see something floating in the water about fifty feet or so in front of the plane, and every so often it would move for a second or so but otherwise it remained still for a minute or more.  The water in these ponds in central and northern Maine is very clean and rarely do we see anything foreign floating on their surface so this really had me eyeing it suspiciously.  Within seconds it dawned on me, could this be Jeff’s fish?  Could we have stunned it enough so that it didn’t fully recover and was floating belly-up on the surface?

I immediately stood up and looked from a slightly higher vantage point, there was no doubt…it was a trout wounded on the surface and we had to get to it immediately lest it get away a second time!  I pointed to the fish and told Jeff I could see his trout so we’d better get our butts in gear and go get it.  Once again we were clamoring over the narrow floats trying to get our lines pulled in and not fall over each other while stowing the rods.  I told him to grab the paddle located under the plane on the float rigging and start paddling us towards the fish, which he did quite passionately.  There was a problem however, as he paddled the plane it turned continually towards the left and no amount of paddling on either side of the right float (the float we were both on) could overcome the hydrodynamics of the floats and make us go straight towards the fish.  At this point I had an epiphany, I climbed partially into the cockpit and put both of my hands on the rudder pedals situated on the floor near the pilots seat.  As Jeff was paddling I was moving the rudders right and left with my hands, while laying nearly prone with most of my body hanging outside the cockpit!  Surprisingly we were not only moving towards the trout but we were able to steer easily in the fish’s direction as he attempted to get away!

Now you must picture this–if only someone had been there to video us two buffoons clamoring around the plane chasing down a wounded trout on the surface in this most unorthodox manner.  Until you do it or see it done this way you’ll never truly appreciate just how ridiculous it looked!  With my expert rudder work and Jeff’s handiness with the paddle we were able to bring the trout right up against the side of the float and he reached down and pulled it from the water before it made a second successful get away!  Neither one of us could believe the good fortune we had in getting this fish back but Jeff’s first words after getting the trout safely in the cooler was, “So now you let me recover my fish since yours is slightly larger!”  Not being one to get in the way of a good story I agreed wholeheartedly and we both laughed at the insanity of the nights events.

We ended up both getting our limit of trout on this particular evening and they were all very nice sized fish.  Seeing the excitement in Jeff’s eyes each time he caught another fish really topped off the night for me and we both remarked that his success was probably due to his dad looking down on him from above. His father, Wayne, recently passed and the last fishing he really did was with his dad so the significance of the night’s great fishing was not lost on either of us.  I feel pretty confident that Jeff’s father was looking down on us and smiling knowing it may have taken thirty years but we were doing the same thing he and his son had done three decades ago.

Of course we had fun that evening making memories that would follow us to our graves.  I am sure however, that neither one of us expected that evening to bring some wonderful old memories to the surface–memories now forever entwined with each other within the fabric of each of our lives.

Memories

Late September iPhone 1015

At this altitude taking pictures is fairly easy but on still has to be careful

The window is open and the warm wind whips through the cockpit carrying with it the pleasant scent of the damp evening air accompanied by the spruce trees lining the lakes shoreline…it’s as close to heaven as I can get while earthbound.

I’m concentrating on holding the camera steady with my right hand and framing my subject perfectly in the viewfinder while holding the stick with my left hand–it’s more art than science really.  I once told a dear friend I could use an extra set of hands and eyes during this part of the flight–she would have not only made the process much easier and safer, she would have felt what I felt, seen what I saw, and be moved like I was moved.

I can feel the vibration of my plane through the control stick and the throttle reverberate through every nerve ending in my hand as we fly northward towards the darkening mountains.  The plane is very nearly flying itself one hundred feet above the deep water as we cruise along at ninety miles per hour.  My hand is there on the controls only as a safety of sorts…my craft could fly itself like this for long periods of time without my intervention given the calm evening conditions, but I want to ensure we stay under control even should a stray gust of wind or other anomaly surprise us.

My eyes are drawn back to the left as I look out the open window at the only sunlight I’d seen all day.  This sunlight actually was the first anyone around this area had seen in a few days, a few days of grey, murky skies and heavily diffused sunlight.  But this sunlight I was seeing now was so welcome, so warm, so beautiful, and it would only last for a few more minutes.  This sunlight was slowly fading as the sun slipped more and more behind the mountainous horizon making its way to more exotic places than mine–creating a beautiful sunrise to offset my gorgeous sunset no doubt, in far away lands more foreign than where I sat.

I glance ahead to ensure all is well and we are not going to fly into any hillside or other obstruction, then back to the view finder for some last second adjustments before taking my hand off the stick and gently pushing the shutter button–forever capturing another memory.  After a quick check to make sure the picture is adequate, I roll the plane hard to the right and get back on course to my home base before night sets in.  Fate does not shine upon those who tempt it and I know without doubt landing a floatplane after dark is tempting fate.

Another successful flight, another memory locked away in my mind that will be with me until my last breath.  This life is exactly what I’ve been searching for and thankfully found…it keeps me sane, happy and whole.  Without these things in my life I would not be complete.  I suppose this life I found and built has a foundation based on being happy and content.  All things being equal, I suppose my life is in a state of symbiosis.  My friend would be proud.

Childhood Dreams

Ready for Start
Seconds Before Firing the Green Cub Up.

Summer 1982, Fourth Debsconeag Lake—Indian Camp.

I had just turned twelve years old and was staying at some sporting camps in the woods of northern Maine with my Grandfather and a close friend of his named Randy.  The owner of the camps had asked Randy to watch over them for awhile so he could take care of some personal business, business that would take two to three weeks.  Randy had asked my Grandfather if he’d like to spend a couple of weeks in the camps with him and that he should bring me along—this was the custom, I’d been tagging along with these two in this same airplane since my earliest childhood memories.  Well needless to say we had an enjoyable stay in those camps that summer.  Having spent time in a camp President Theodore Roosevelt had stayed in and another fascinating cabin called the Indian Camp, it was more than I ever could have asked for and it was truly a great experience for my young soul.  I could write a good, long chapter in a book based on my twelve year old memories that summer of ’82, but one stands out and has never been told—until now.

I had left the camp one rainy day to go wander in the woods around the area leaving Randy and Gramp in the cabin.  This day however, I didn’t go very far like I typically did, this day I headed across the property and the passed the other camps to where the plane lay tied up to the dock.  To me Randy’s airplane was mystical.  Sure I knew it was a Piper Super Cub, but at twelve years of age I really didn’t know much.  I stood and looked at it for quite some time floating gently on the surface of the rain-splattered lake.   I’m sure it was quite a few minutes before I worked up the courage to climb up into the pilot’s seat.  I vividly remember sitting there looking out over the instrument panel and dreaming this plane was mine…that one day I would have a plane just like this of my own.  I remember the feel of the cold metal of the control stick; I remember the sweet smell of the mixing of metal, wood, fabric, oil and fuel.  These are the same smells I still associate with old airplanes.  I needed to cut this journey of mine short though.  You see, I didn’t ask for permission to climb into that plane.  Although I’m sure Randy wouldn’t have minded, I still knew enough to know I was supposed to ask and what I was doing was wrong.  So with this in mind, I was sitting there no more than five minutes, probably much less, when I hurriedly jumped back down onto the dock…looked back at the green Super Cub and walked away.  I had a feeling in that seat.  A feeling I couldn’t put words to if I wanted to, but it left an impression on me that has NEVER left.

I fondly think of this memory from time to time but mostly when I’m on some pond in the woods, right as I settle down into the seat and peer over that very same panel, and out that very same windscreen.  I knew I would have a Super Cub one day…I just never dreamed it would be the exact one from my childhood.  Now when I push that starter button I can hear my Grandfather and Randy’s voices in that cockpit as clearly as I did those thirty-five years ago.  I’m sure they are looking down on me and smiling.  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they even knew back in 1982 that I’d climbed into that seat.  One thing is for sure though, I know that I owe them both so much…and I’m still trying to repay them.