Pilot Journal
Thursday, May 1, 2008

Backcountry Bash

The Perfect Recipe For High Country Fun

backcountryNo 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.
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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.”

“What’s that?”

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.


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