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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backcountryI 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.

Rustic Luxuries

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.


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