13 Jul Smoke in the Rockies
I thought I had it all figured out.
I carefully checked the forecast winds in Kaslo – a little lakeside community an hour to the south of the lodge – and they were playfully light. More than once voted British Columbia’s prettiest village, Kaslo is where my much-loved 1957 Piper Super Cub lives in its own spacious hangar.
The next place I looked was Invermere, an hour to the east over the Purcell Mountains, some of the most renowned climbing country on the planet. Barely a breeze there.
Banff, an hour further east, looked equally good for weather, and Springbank, right on the doorstep of Calgary with its cowboy hats and oil executives, had storms in store for mid afternoon, but I would be down and the Cub tied up way before then, I decided.
It’s not that it was going to be an especially long flight. Barely two and a half hours if everything lined up. Only last week I had made a three hour flight over equally mountainous terrain. But those were mountains and terrain I knew well, part of my alpine backyard.
And so, if I am scrupulously honest, the prospect of taking my tiny two-seat airplane, built on the coat-tails of World War 2, over some of the most inhospitable terrain in north America, did elicit a tremor or two.
Would altitude be a problem? I wondered.
I have always been a little sensitive to lack of oxygen and, while I have never actually fainted, have often felt weak and dizzy in places where it was in short supply.
Only last winter I felt my balance abandon me in a poorly-ventilated Hungarian chapel I was being shown around and clutched the hand of my unsuspecting lady guide to stop myself falling. She looked terrified.
Back when I had Covid I spent a couple of days in a sort of a light-headed twilight zone alone at the lodge. At one point I caught Katya, my German Shepherd, watching me intently. I think she was considering which bit of me she would nibble on first if I went over to the other side.
I would have to be at around 10,000 feet for some of this flight, I knew, right at the legal limit in Canada of flying without oxygen. But then if I got dizzy – which had happened to me once before – there would always be a valley I could descend into and fly around until I felt better.
What about fuel? No obvious issues there. With full tanks I knew the old bird could go about four or five hours with its trusty engine designed way back in the 1930s. With even the worst diversions and headwinds I should get where I wanted to be.
Updrafts and downdrafts? Often the bane of mountain pilots – a casual friend was killed a few years back by a freak downdraft as he was flying out of Nelson, my local town. Two other pilots I knew – one the late Charlie Russell, the veteran grizzly bear whisperer and a close and much-missed friend – had broken their backs after crashing as a result of freakish gusts. But my little plane had a beefy 160hp engine and could climb prodigiously when I asked her to.
So, I figured, I was good to go. All lights green. At 5.30am I leaped out of bed, keen as a young bear chasing salmon. In no time I had packed my camping gear into my backpack – everything felt familiar and knew its place.
Then I cobbled together a bag of towny gear. I would be flying to the US and Europe in two weeks time and who knew if I would get home before then. I added my flight bag, my laptop and a few bits and bobs – baseball cap (for the sun), anorak (for the rain) and emergency satellite tracker (just in case I ended up on my lonesome on the side of a mountain.)
I jumped in the truck and raced across the bridge to where Sage, our long-serving resident guide-biologist, lives, just next to the runway I have cut in the bush but not yet managed to land on. (Bit short, not very straight, trees in the way.)
“The dog’s all yours,” I shouted as she emerged sleepily from the beaten-up caravan she calls home. “See you in a week, or maybe a month.”
Sage and I had recently returned from a spectacular two-day hike in the alpine checking out bear terrain, hiking and swimming in icy alpine lakes.
It had been gorgeous up there, an experience only slightly tarnished by my having to share a tent with Katya the dog, who, not content with curling up at my feet, had insisted on a more marital arrangement which saw us spend much of the night like man and wife.
At one point I had woken up to even worse – she had placed her doggie arse right next to my head. I love Katya but it was a testing moment.
As I sped down the road to Kaslo I felt a little trepidation but mostly the thrill of upcoming adventure.
If there was just a nibble of doubt it was perhaps not completely unreasonable. The first plane I ever bought I wrapped around a fencepost at a local airport only the second time I flew it, the result of a take-off that went badly wrong. There had been fire engines, ambulances, police – a real palava – though thankfully no injuries.
There had been one or two closes misses since. Only last week I took up a friend, a Hungarian opera singer, and bounced the landing so badly that we catapulted back up into the sky. She swore at me in her native language.
But by the time I got to the Kaslo airfield I was feeling pretty confident. I shoehorned my gear into the back of the plane, went through my checklists, climbed in, and fired up. The engine purred beautifully. As I glanced at the rising sun, I wondered just for a second why it was so orange.
Ah, the fires, yes. After the hottest days ever recorded in late June British Columbia had begun to burn. One village, Lytton, which had hit 49 degrees Celsius a few days before, was consumed in only a few hours. And the fires were still raging. And with the fires, of course, came smoke.
I rolled the Cub to the end of the runway, did my take-off checks, and pushed in full power. Even fully-laden the old girl leaped forward eagerly, as if asked for a dance by a dashing young cavalry officer.
But my smile didn’t last long. At 500 feet the ground began to look hazy. At 1,000 feet it was indistinct. At 2,000 feet I was already having trouble making out its contours. I looked at the mountains to the east that I would have to cross and they were smouldering with menace, smoke hanging on their shoulders in layers.
Without instruments I was relying on what I could see out of the window. And every airman worth his salt knows the life expectancy of a pilot trying to fly visually once they can no longer see the ground. An oft-quoted study done in 1954 put it at 178 seconds. You can argue the details but the point is obvious.
It took me a lot less time than that to realise that, much as I wanted this trip, I was on a hiding to nothing. I made a careful 180 degree turn, and a few minutes later was back on the ground.
As I levered myself out of the little plane, disappointment washed over me like a warm unwanted wave. I slowly unpacked my bags and put them back in the truck. And then I rolled the old girl back into her hangar. She didn’t seem remotely bothered – I’m sure in 65 years of flying she has seen a lot of disappointed pilots.
I’ll still head across the Rockies – a couple of days later than planned – but this time it will have to be by car.
For those of you wondering, the lodge is still closed this year due to Canadian border restrictions imposed because of Covid. We will, however, be re-opening in May 2022 and will be running both our spring bear-viewing and autumn grizzly-viewing next year. I will still be running the lodge, though am bringing in business partners and others to help me.