Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Katmais And Cubs: A Desert Adventure

Two superb backcountry aircraft take on the Utah Canyonlands

The Strips
It's difficult to describe the characteristics of the vivid desert that encompasses Monument Valley, Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park near the southeastern corner of Utah. Five hundred million years of geologic upheaval have created a vast panorama of ponderous sandstone formations that glow orange-red in the sun like massive cakes glazed with marmalade. The scale here is stupefying, with a timetable measured in millennia. The formations make you feel not like an ant, but like a sand flea. Among these giants are scores of tiny dirt strips carved out of the rock, which served remote mining outposts decades ago. Today, they've become valued destinations for pilots seeking vistas not available anywhere else on Earth.

The Cubs and Katmais leave Canyonlands at first light, setting out for Tangri-la (UT68), a dirt strip also known as Caveman Ranch. Tangri-la has a colorful history and sits alongside the Colorado River like an oasis rising out of the red rock canyons that surround it. The unique strip and guest ranch is owned by Rod Tangren, and features a lodge and 10 individual guest rooms, which are actually caves blasted into the rock. The rooms stay a consistent 72 degrees year- round because of the insulation provided by the rocks. Tangren built all this with his own two hands and plans for it to become a destination resort.

The 3,000-foot gravel strip is one of the easier backcountry strips to navigate, although silt from yearly flooding on the sides of the strip can trap an airplane. One of our group, David Durham, owns a beautiful Katmai that has kept its stock Cessna tires instead of the marshmallow-like bush tires of the other aircraft. After an easy landing and taxi, Durham parked his Katmai to wait for the rest of the arriving group. Within minutes, the Katmai's small tires sank into the chalk-like sand and took the effort of many to extricate. For the rest of the trip, Durham earned the affectionate call sign of "Little Wheels."

Landing on Happy Canyon's rough dirt strip is a step back in time. Remains of a mining shack contain rusty items on its crumbling timber shelves.
Approaching Tangri-la, a stunning site of geometric azure pools dominates our windscreens. Each is a shade of blue that fades from deep lapis to brilliant turquoise and creates a contrast against the orange canyons that's exquisite. These are potash evaporation ponds built by the Texas Gulf Sulphur Company in the early 1960s. Part of a mine that produces potassium chloride (also called "potash") for use in fertilizers, river water is pumped into the mine to dissolve the potash, after which the brine solution is pumped to evaporation ponds. The different concentrations of potash, copper and other minerals turn the water chromatic shades of blue.

Continuing south, our group blends into a loose formation, with the Cubs scurrying around the sky like ducklings. A 25-year airline captain, Warren flew crop dusters as a teenager, and has an intuitive sense for the backcountry. He sends his relatively inexperienced charges on to Fry Canyon, while he and one Katmai—piloted by Peterson—proceed to Happy Canyon (UT97), a challenging dirt strip that was scraped out of the sandstone to serve a uranium mining operation.

In 1952, a geologist named Charlie Steen struck the largest deposit of high-grade uranium ore in these canyons that had ever been found in the United States. This created a "uranium rush," as nuclear weapons development fed Cold War hysteria and devoured every ounce of uranium available. Landing strips were hastily dug into the red rock to accommodate these operations, and Happy Canyon—like most of these strips—remains a legacy to this time, with a collapsed mine entrance that smells of snakes and buzzes with desert wasps.


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