Sunday, December 6, 2009


© 2009 by James Wiebe

My friend Jason weighs 235 pounds. He is tall (nearly as tall as me) and strongly proportioned, far more so than me. If he was a football player, he would be a wide receiver. He used to wear a beard that made him look like Abe Lincoln. In fact, when he was pointed out to me many years ago, the mutual friend told me to look for the man who looked like Abe. I found Jason easily, and we became lifelong friends.

[1996 – summertime – at Shearer, which is somewhere deep in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness]
I am staring at Jason as he runs at full gallop across my field of view. Just like Indiana Jones, each step he makes is kicking up dust, and it is hard to imagine someone as large as him running as fast as he is. Why is he running so fast? He is running from my left to my right.

Further to my left is a blue and white Cessna, which is sitting near the end of a wilderness airstrip. Far off to my right is the Selway river. If Jason keeps running as fast as he is, he will run into the river. Jason is running from the airplane as fast as legs can carry a man. I have never seen anything like it.
He stops, and I jog over to him. He is looking at his hand. It has four stings in it. Even in the space of 25 or 30 seconds, the stings are forming considerable welts.

“I was last stung by wasps when I was a child,” he says, “and I may be allergic to these stings.” That’s not good news. We are miles from roads, trailheads, human beings, help, doctors, and civilization. We had just arrived in my Cessna Skyhawk, we had just gotten out of the airplane. Jason was in the process of twisting a tie down stake into the dry, sandy soil so that we could tie the plane down.
He had stuck the stake into a convenient hole in the ground, in order to save a little time, and the wasps had flown out and bit him. Only four made it in the instant of initial attack, and Jason’s quick run had left the balance of the wasp pack behind. But four stings in one hand!

We need a doctor – Oh wait, Jason is a doctor, and he tells me what to do in case things go poorly for him. There really is precious little we can do except watch his hand and pay attention to his breathing. My anxiety level rises.
He and I twist the remainder of the tie down stakes into the ground. We don’t put them into any other wasp nests; no more stings.

There is a small cluster of pine trees alongside the runway which provides an ideal camping spot. We set up our tent.

Jason’s hand is swollen and painful. We have the ideal solution to get his mind from dwelling on the hand: flyfishing. That’s what we are here to do. We can fish, and he can dip his hand in the river anytime to cool it off.

We proceed to fly fish in the Selway river. The wilderness fishing is remarkable; each spot of open water provides a new opportunity to catch more trout. Later, we find a deeper hole. Every time our fly hits the water, another round of fish race toward it. Only one wins; the others return to the depths to await another chance. We catch and release the native cutthroat trout, one after another.

The day wears on. Jason and I hike up and down the river, exploring the wilderness. We return to camp, make dinner, and sit around a fire. The sun sets; I see one hundred thousand stars against a flat black sky. Then it’s time to crawl in our sleeping bags.

The next morning, Jason’s hand is the size of small ham.

[24 hours before the wasp bites]
We had arrived in the small town of Salmon, Idaho, having flown 999 statute miles from Wichita, KS. We were thrilled. I took mountain flying training earlier the same year, and I am eager to deliver Jason and myself deep into the wilderness. Our destination, Shearer airstrip, has been carefully selected from a mountain flying guide. Although I’ve never flown to Shearer before, a qualified mountain flying instructor has agreed to take me specifically to this remote airstrip to train me on its intricacies. Like most good mountain airstrips, it’s in a valley, also along a river, and is a one way in, one way out strip. In other words, you can only approach from one direction for landing, because the airstrip ends in a side of a mountain or some similar impenetrable obstacle. Takeoff is in the opposite direction for the same reason. Prior instruction is a very good idea for the first time pilot. And I had arranged that instruction.

My instructor was used to flying large airplanes, and my airplane was small, and liked to glide well when the power was reduced. This would be a problem.
The approach to Shearer airstrip will fill anyone with awe, first because of the beauty, and secondly, because of the intricacy of lacing the aircraft through the valley and into the airstrip.

At a normal airfield, the proper pattern for landing is a rectangle. You enter the rectangle and trace its outline, you descend in an orderly fashion; you land. This doesn’t work at Shearer. As I mentioned, Shearer is in a valley. There are no rectangular traffic patterns at Shearer.

A proper approach to Shearer requires a descent into the Selway river valley. A good route is to come down Bear Creek, then turn left (upriver) to head towards Shearer, immediately after passing a private ranch, with a private runway; a small oasis of private ownership surrounded by the wilderness. The ranch briefly provides a glimpse of extraordinary wealth – causing an inflective thought as you consider the difficulty of access combined with the beauty of the location; the perfectly green grass runway, the solar cells for power generation. Who could afford to own this? How was it built in this remote location? The ranch quickly recedes behind you.

You continue to fly over the river valley at an altitude of perhaps five or six hundred feet off the water. You see crystal water rushing over boulders below you, and you see mountains on both sides of you. They move by with impressive speed; always that feeling of speed in your peripheral vision. Trees rush by. Mountains rush by. You keep the airplane roughly on the right side of the valley, because, an airplane may be around the corner, coming in the opposite direction, and there are right of ways which should be observed, even for airplanes. So you are a little closer to the scenery of the right side of the valley, and it is perhaps the closest you’ve ever been to a mountain, while moving so rapidly through the air. You have to remain observant, because the valley is making slight S turns as the course of the river, the mountains, and the trees moves around.

So here’s the next problem: even though the airstrip is close (perhaps two miles away, upriver), and you are rushing toward it, you still can’t see it. It is in the valley, but the river turns sharply, and that will require the airplane to make a sharp right turn as the river does likewise. The approach is therefore difficult and blind. When we get to the proper ridge, we will turn right, and only then will we see the runway. And it will be right in front of us. And when the runway is right in front of us, we’d better check for elk and deer on the runway. If they block our way, we had best apply power, climb out in a slight left turn, and gain altitude over the river heading upriver. This decision has to be made immediately, because when the airplane is committed to land, it will be impossible to change our mind. (A last moment climb out will simply cause us to hit a mountain which lies at the end of the runway.)

Remember, I’m with an instructor for this first attempt, right? Nothing can possibly go wrong.

The airplane has been slowed to about 65mph, and we have some flaps extended, even though we still can’t see the airstrip. We are fully configured for landing. The ridge appears ahead and to the right. I bank the airplane to turn over the ridge, and I see trees shooting below me as I cross the ridge line.

Sure enough, the runway is there. It is the narrowest, most unimproved slit of ground I’ve ever landed an airplane on. It looks exactly like a jeep trail. The only thing going for it is that it is straight. It rises slightly upslope towards the far end, then the terrain rises even faster into a mountain side.
It is also very short. This makes things a little trickier yet, simply due to the lack of room for error. Don’t land short (there’s no runway – just weeds and mountain pasture). Don’t land long (it’s a mountain, idiot.) Just land at the right spot, and do it the first time, everytime.

We are very close to the approach end of the runway. The instructor had me cut power to the engine, and so we are essentially gliding towards our touchdown point.
My little airplane is a Cessna Skyhawk, also known as a 172. They are fun, sprightly little flyers. They hold four people, and are also commonly used for instruction.

My instructor’s regular job is hauling passengers and freight in larger aircraft, such as the Cessna Stationair. A Stationair will not glide well. My instructor has forgotten that the 172 we are in is NOT a Stationair. My 172 is gliding very well. In fact, it is gliding so well that we are both realzing that the plane will not get onto the ground before we run out of airstrip. And there is a mountain beyond that.
About 2/3rds of the way down the airstrip, the wheels of the plane finally touch the dirt. The instructor and I both press the wheel brakes as hard as legs will press. The 172 wheels grab dirt and sink and skid as the mountain in the windshield gets larger. (We’re skidding towards it). Mercifully, about 75 feet of dirt and sand remains as the airplane finally skids to a stop.
I exhale. So does the instructor.

“I think we should try that one more time,” says the instructor. I agree. We turn the plane around, take off, head downriver, reverse course, and come back in and land one more time. With better speed control, the next landing is perfect, and my instructor tells me that I’m hereafter OK to do it in on my own. We fly back to Salmon, and I’m glad to be done with him.

Jason is waiting for me at our hotel room. He’s been shopping for food while I’ve been staining seat cushions. We will reload the plane and depart for our remote camping destination in the morning.


--- James Wiebe

PS I've been super busy working on stuff. Hope you enjoyed reading this little interlude from my past. It's basically an uncompleted true story -- I started to write a book about these experiences several years ago and this would have been one of the chapters. My friend Jason is awesome. We've done many adventure trips over the years.