No way, José.
Through the rear side window of the hard-banked Aviat Husky, I’m staring goggle-eyed down at a gnat-sized strip of straw and dirt far below. I wonder aloud over the comm: Am I looking at the wrong area? Nope, says pilot Tom Bryant.
That smear of dirt, that yardstick-length hackout of sod on the steep side of a hill, yes, that same strip with the pronounced dogleg to the right, partway up its 1,300-foot length, is indeed our landing destination.
An ominous feeling of doom drops into my stomach like a cannonball. That this disaster-in-waiting landing zone is tucked into a bend of the turbulent Snake River only adds a comic afterthought: Hell, if we blow the landing, we can always crash and drown, and then get run over by one of the superfast jet boats we just saw upriver. I mean, if you gotta go, why not go out as legend?
Firing off a few photos, I begin to wonder whether a sane person would willingly plant a perfectly good airplane onto a hillside. My conclusion: Tom Bryant is not a sane person. It does help, however, to know that he’s just finished a weeklong course on backcountry flying to handle challenges just like this one.
So here I am, helpless in the rear seat, destined to share the same fate as Tom, now silent inside his tensely focused, do-or-die approach.
He slides out of a turn over the river, lowers the Husky’s flaps and drops onto short final for Cache Creek.
That’s Cache. As in, “Cash in your chips, pardner.”
Band Of Brothers (& Sisters)
Perhaps the wackier part of the story is this: Our group of seemingly normal pilots will be doing their unlevel best to fly their assorted bush birds into a whole mixed basket of backcountry airstrips just like this one—as many as they can fit into a day—for the next four days in a row. Hold on there: Who put the loco weed in the drinking water back at the Big Creek Lodge?
Rich Sudgen, our fearless leader, has brought us into a region called...wait for it...Hells Canyon. By the way, Rich is a veteran MD who hails from Jackson Hole, Wyo. Last year, he raced a Navy T-2 Buckeye in the jet class at the Reno Air Races, as a rookie. He won the race, then promptly retired.
“My wife, Sue, is the reason,” he recounts with a laugh. “And I like to do high-risk things once. I do it, I enjoy it, I’m very careful at it. Once I’m done, that’s enough.”
A little background information: Hells Canyon National Recreation Area lies along the northwest border that Idaho shares with Oregon. The breathtakingly rugged mix of mountains and vertiginous defiles is a mecca for people inclined toward wilderness adventure. Each year, thousands come to the area for hiking and camping, horseback riding, mountain biking, hunting (for lost pilots?) and running the rapids of the Snake River—the same rapid, coursing ribbon of water that carved North America’s deepest river gorge (8,000 feet).
For eight years running, Rich has invited a few friends to gather for camping, good food, bonfire-flying bonhomie and, of course, the daily challenges of one mission impossible backcountry strip after another. The intrepid aviators come from all age groups and walks of life—surgeons, bankers, sun-ripened ranchers, airline pilots, entrepreneurs—to test their mettle against Idaho’s fabulous, rugged mountain paradise.
|It’s the human challenge of stepping out of our comfort zones and getting to know a great bunch of people that offers perhaps the greatest reward.|
Into The Wild
My part of the journey began the day before. Aviat Aircraft’s majordomo Stu Horn, manufacturer of the Husky, flew me up to Driggs-Reed Memorial Airport near Jackson Hole. There I met the group for breakfast at Warbirds Café, part of Teton Aviation Center (www.tetonaviation.com), and before long, I was climbing into the backseat of Blake Chapman’s Husky for the flight to our base camp.
Blake is cut from the same plaid-shirt cloth as those big, rawboned fellas who wrangled the west 150 years ago. His rumbling Texas-style drawl fits with a bear-paw handshake that could easily crush your wimpy hand but doesn’t—he’s not that kind of man. Blake’s quiet, self-contained confidence reminded me of the great cowboy actor Ben Johnson. He’s the kind of guy you can count on in a fight—and never ever the guy you want to be fighting.
I rather artlessly climbed into the rear seat of Blake’s tandem Husky, and an hour or so later, we were in loose formation with two other Huskys, droning our steady way through a big blue sky above the eerie black congealed lava fields of Craters of the Moon National Monument.
Our goal: a pit stop at the grass airport in little Picabo (pronounced peek-a-boo), Idaho, just southwest of the lava park. En route, one of our formation buddies had a little fun over the radio.
“I guess I know what their intensive care unit is called.”
Said the wise guy, “Picabo I.C.U.”
The local folks greeted us with a tasty barbecue lunch. One gent, a nonagenarian named Bud Purdy who had known Ernest Hemingway back in the day, lamented a six-month-old hip replacement that “didn’t work very good.” It was keeping him from flying, which he’d been doing nonstop since the year I was born—1945.
I flashed back to Blake’s earlier no-nonsense take on this kind of flying: “There’s quite a few one-way strips out here,” he’d drawled, “where there’s no gettin’ out of it if you screw up on your approach.” This would be one of those strips.
But Tom carried the day by deftly planting the nimble Husky near the bottom of the hill at Cache Creek. No river landing for us (yay!). We taxied over a nob of hill where the strip doglegged. It was so steep, Tom did a partial chin-up on the cockpit’s overhead tube to see beyond the nose. Dust and dried grass fly up all around us.
A couple strips ago, we’d touched down at the rim of this very canyon, on a strip called Memaloose, built by the Forest Service in 1931. The material to build the Hat Creek Rim Lookout there was packed in by horse. That’s the kind of country this is.
The word “memaloose” comes from the Chinook Indians. It means death, or mysteriously dead. No comment.
After a short walk from the airplanes, we looked out over the edge of the high plateau. A precipitous drop of 5,000 feet greeted our effort. We marveled at the majesty of Hells Canyon, and noted again the scarring from summer-long forest fires that had left the air hazy and blotched the sandy-colored peaks with carbon-black smears from horizon to horizon.
Big Creek Lodge (www.bigcreekidaho.com) nestles in the tree-covered high country at the trailhead of Frank Church Wilderness in central Idaho. Other than a scattering of nearby homes, it’s Remoteville. There are a few cabins, a great fire pit and lots of green grass. Hiking trails abound. Mid-visit, the group even climbed (on foot) up to a pristine, rock-bowled glacial fishing lake, after a surprise snowfall grounded us for a day.
But what makes Big Creek ideal for a gathering like this is its long, lovely grass airstrip, 3,550 feet by 110 feet. The strip has a decent down angle running from south to north, with a substantial dip at the northern end.
That’s why the M.O. is to land from the lower, south end, wind allowing, but to take off to the north to benefit from that big diperoo.
As Blake downwinded behind the eastern ridge that runs along the strip, I briefly spied something white and rectangular at the runway’s north end. When we rounded out our descent over the threshold, the white thing resolved—into the mangled wreckage of a twin-engine airplane.
Hmm. Not the most encouraging sight to inaugurate a flying trip in the backcountry. Later, we found out the aircraft’s pilot had performed a rather heroic last-minute maneuver by intentionally groundlooping the twin. He’d run long on his rollout, but the tail-first crash prevented more serious injury from a header over the drop-off at runway’s end.
Throughout the days of our visit, salvage crews worked to dismantle the hapless bird. The sight was a daily reminder: Think ahead and plan wisely, Grasshopper.
|Each year, Rich Sudgen organizes a backcountry camping trip into some of Idaho’s most challenging airstrips.|
To be fair, most of the strips the group flies into don’t boggle the imagination like hill-hugging, adrenaline-pumping Cache Creek. There’s a wide diversity of locations and complexities, and that’s a big part of the fun. Choosing which region from the half dozen or so that Rich has assembled offers every flier a broad range of challenges—from easier to, well, Cache Creek–like—upon which to sharpen their piloting swords.
Back in the airplane, Tom and I watch as Greg Anderson and pal Jay Johnston firewall their Husky’s engine, then suddenly drop out of sight over the dogleg’s hillock. The plane’s right wing reappears through the dust—at a precarious 30-degree angle—and drops out of sight again.
“Oh man!” We say almost in unison, anxious to see the Husky reappear, which it does a few seconds later. Whew.
And now it’s our turn.
All In A Day’s Play
Each morning, the congenial group of lodgers and tent campers rises for a hot and hearty breakfast at Big Creek Lodge before picking the day’s itinerary.
This year, Rich’s group has grown to “somewhat ungainly” proportions: 42 people stuffed into 25 airplanes, ranging from Stinsons to Cessnas (models 182, 177, 185, 206 and 210) to Huskys (nearly half of the squad) to a gorgeous radial-engine de Havilland Beaver owned by orthopedic surgeon Larry “Tubes” Teuber.
Not to be overlooked are the cool Katmais, led by Todd Peterson. He developed the breed of highly modified Cessna 182s, complete with engine-cowl canards, beefier gear, big tires and extended wings, precisely for this kind of postage-stamp landing country.
Once the coffee or black tea and food have done their wake-up magic, the sectionals come out in the cozy log cabin dining room and Rich Sugden leads the briefing.
“The most important thing,” Rich counsels, “is to be safe. It’s possible to go down in these woods and take forever to get out. So we want to stay together, keep our eyes open and keep talking to each other.”
Pilots sign up for the area they want to visit. Then it’s time for more focused briefings. Then, pilots, man your planes.
After seeing Greg’s dramatic departure, Tom decides to start our takeoff from the top of that dogleg’s little hill. Good thought, Sir Thomas. We bump across the uneven dirt, then at the edge of the steep downslope, he guns it. Ahead and below, the river waits, but in just a few seconds, gravity and Bernoulli’s principle lift us smartly away from the descending slope and we’re safely underway.
Yeah! Piece of cake!
Across The White Divide
It’s been a wonderful, too-short week. The jagged, burnt-umber peaks that we flew among five days ago have exploded into a winter’s dreamland of snow-covered high country.
I’m back with Blake in his Husky, on our way home. At our 11 o’clock position is Larry Teuber’s beautiful evergreen and white de Havilland Beaver, with its iconic radial engine and big-wheeled conventional gear. At our 12 o’clock is Rich Sugden and ever-smiling wife Sue in their Husky.
We stay in formation with the Beaver for a while as Blake and I marvel at the white wilderness below, looking for groups of elk.
I’m reminiscing on a chat with “Tubes” and wonder what he’ll fly next. The successful orthopedic surgeon from Grand Rapids has owned, at one time or another, an envious list of airplanes: Cessna 140, Super Cub, L-39 Albatross, two Pitts Specials and a Husky on amphibs.
After a while, the Beaver goes its own way, then it’s just us two Huskys, winging a pas de deux above the crystal peaks, then dropping down to skim the alabaster snowplains leading back to Driggs airport.
Blake and I chat, and I’m feeling what may be the greatest benefit of spending five days of your life on such an odyssey. Sure, the flying’s been great. The food was wholesome and hearty. Of course, you couldn’t beat the locale.
But it’s the human challenge of stepping out of our comfort zones and getting to know a great bunch of people that offers perhaps the greatest reward. From the epic stories around the nightly bonfires to ranch-style meals inside the lodge, to sharing lunch in a dollar-bill-papered bar in the almost-deserted mining town of Warren, to a midtown landing at a place called Kooksia, it’s the laughter, the stories, the shared takeoffs and landings and discoveries that seem like the larger treasure of this journey into the high country.
See more articles on backcountry flying, rustic destinations and bush planes at www.pilotjournal.com.