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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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.”


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