Flying would be a lot easier if you never had to land. Or if you were only going to land on over-sized well-marked concrete runways. But photographing exotic landscapes means sometimes landing in exotic places.
Jim Webster had already flown 24,000 hours in the Alaskan bush when he picked me up at the Prudhoe Bay pond. His Skywagon bobbed on straight floats. It rarely touched land, living instead either in the air or on water. Dunes of kamikaze mosquitoes had blown into the plane’s every nook and cranny. Jim had long ago given up sweeping out their delicate little carcasses.
I wanted to run my finger down the razor edge of climate change for a book on which I was working, so I’d come north to the Beaufort Sea. Ben Jones invited me to join his USGS crew on Teshekpuk Lake, half way to Barrow. It was summer and the unblinking Arctic sun just went round and round in a cloudless sky.
Ben studies the retreat of the Arctic shoreline, accelerated by thawing of coastal permafrost and the prolonged seasonal disappearance of sea ice. He spends months at a time in this isolated and precious wilderness. After coffee in the cozy if cramped USGS shack, we walked out to the Skywagon, swatting mosquitoes all the way. Sometimes the simplest lessons are the most profound: Jim, a patient man, said he never never never ever takes off until his engine is warm.
Our first stop was Drew Point where Ben wanted to investigate an abandoned wellsite. Jim landed on saltwater and Ben, Carl Markon, and I waded ashore. Two miles toward the well, what had been a brown rock got up and grunted. We executed an immediate about-face and smartly retreated back to the sea. Next stop was Kovolik, an abandoned Inupiaq village that will eventually tumble into the Arctic Ocean as the shore erodes landward forty-five feet a year.
Jim picked out a nearby lake that seemed plenty long. Once he splashed down, though, he sighed the sigh of a remorseful man and said, “Oops.” The lake, deep enough in the middle, remained inches shallow a couple hundred feet out from the shore. Jim was pretty sure he had enough room to take off but Ben, Carl, and I would not be aboard. In retrospect, I wonder if the plane would have been light enough if we had swept out all the mosquitoes. Jim pointed vaguely east and said he’d meet us “over there”.
The instructions, cryptic to me, were good enough for Ben. We headed out on foot, first to the mossy remains of buildings and boats at Kovolik, then a few miles further to an obsolete DEW station called Lonely. The tussocks made each mile seem like three. I struggled to keep up with Ben and Carl, both absurdly well conditioned to demands of this formidable terrain. Swatting mosquitoes became as automatic as breathing. We watched but saw no bears. I was happy beyond all measure. I have no idea what time it was when we reached the ghostly radar domes at Lonely where Jim waited patiently aboard the Skywagon. If only every day of my life could be so full.
Waiting plays a surprisingly large role in a pilot’s life. This seems counterintuitive in a business built on speed. Jim was good at waiting. I’ve since tried but haven’t always succeeded in carrying this lesson with me on trips to other places. An advertising company back east once wanted pictures taken on the moon. The closest I could get was Lunar Crater in the middle of Nevada. I landed at Duckwater, not at the airport because there was none, but on the empty highway. I taxied up to an Esso station, startling the bewhiskered attendant who hadn’t seen a truck let alone an airplane in hours. We talked about this and that and nothing at all, passing time as the sun crept lower. But eventually the conversation sputtered so I took off. I should have been patient, should have waited.
I arrived too soon; the sun was still high in the sky. The Buzzard circled, sniffing at nearby roads, all decidedly single lane. We chose one and landed at the base of one of the other nearby craters. So far so good. But in one of those flashes of brilliance that always get me in trouble, I thought if I goosed the plane around a curve and on uphill, I could be looking over the rim and down into the crater.
Nice view. Bad idea. When I tried to let up on the brakes, I knew I was in trouble. The Buzzard was poised to roll backward into a sea of sagebrush. I have no parking brake. I duckwalked the plane backward a few feet, stopping alongside a numbskull-sized rock. I frantically leaped out and crammed the rock behind a wheel before it could begin to roll again. The Buzzard looked back at me with an expression that unmistakably said, “You’re such an idiot.”
“You’re really gonna land there?” I asked myself one morning above a riverbank in the southwest. The strip was banana-shaped, trenched a few years ago by DEA agents trying to thwart marijuana farmers in bib overhauls. It was maybe eight hundred feet long. To get in, I had to fly through the top of a palo verde that stood guard at the approach end. I dodged the first trench and had slowed sufficiently to roll harmlessly through the second one. The Buzzard was light so I wasn’t worried about getting out. Unlike landing, taking off is usually more a matter of lighting the engine, mashing the throttle, and then pulling back on the yoke. God I love that plane.
One last story. Jene Vredevoogd rode shotgun to Alaska once when I was photographing glaciers. For a month we explored the ice-encrusted southeast corner of the state, camping four or five days each at airports from Wrangell to Whittier. As our month drew to a close, I planned to park the Buzzard in Juneau for a few weeks while I flew south commercially to tend the home fires.
Jene and I had been living in tents and cooking outdoors in the heart of bear country. The plane bristled with a rifle, big pistol, and a bigger shotgun. But anticipating the upcoming hiatus, we had stashed our camping gear and the artillery with friends in Juneau. There was just enough time to run up to Taku Glacier before catching Alaska Air back to Arizona.
Taku is interesting. In a warming world of shrinking glaciers, it is the anomaly that seems to be growing. Taku Glacier had been advancing into saltwater for the last few years. Don’t be fooled though. Ours really is a warming world. It’s just that tidewater glaciers sometimes kick past their terminal moraines and have adolescent growth spurts.
Jene and I had been lured here by the stories of local pilots in Juneau. They told us about a one-way strip that ended right at the toe of the great growling glacier. On final, nose high with a lot of power and two notches of flaps, Taku’s five-mile grinning face completely filled the windshield. I aimed for the thousand foot patch of moss we’d heard about. Touchdown was feather-light. If only every runway was paved with moss, all my landings could be so soft.
We stopped, shut down, and wandered around the remaining bit of land that lay between ice and the inlet. Water ran everywhere. Ice swept up the willow thickets like they were dust bunnies. This was bear country if ever we had seen it. We felt incredibly exposed. No guns. Prey. Pray. Still we lingered. Alaska Air would surely wait for us.