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?

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.