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Tag Archives: Aviat Husky

This is the last photographic installment from last summer’s travels across America and the final images from my old but reliable camera. After three years of considering the options, my L-lenses are mounted on a new Canon 5D Mark iii. It’s love at first shutter click! As an official farewell to my old EOS XTi, here’s a look at the Badlands of South Dakota from two perspectives.

Badlands, South Dakota

What’s GOOD about the Badlands!

First thing is to make a plan and then change it when that’s the smarter thing to do.

We left Afton on an early August morning with no certainty of where we might end the day. The forecast was thunderstorms and rain with low ceilings across western Wyoming and into the plains. We gave up our week long plan to land at Green River Intergalactic Spaceport (for the novelty and to be able to say we’d done it) but to make a beginning nonetheless. The first half of our VFR (visual flight rules) plan didn’t work out but we used all our resources, and made deviations to a fuel stop at Casper, Wyoming. You may recall that Casper is where four years ago in high and gusty winds we nearly rolled the airplane into a ball on its very first landing ever away from the Aviat factory in Afton. Today the winds were mild and the weather pushed us along in that direction. All went well.

 

Discover the unexpected!

We left Casper under instrument flight rules (IFR) and were able to resume the second half of our original plan which took us over the Badlands in good weather–clear air, visibility unlimited. We landed on a very nice grass runway at Philip, South Dakota in late afternoon and were met by a rancher/pilot who was driving past the airport when he saw our landing and wondered what kind of airplane it was. He helped us with keys to the airport loaner car, called someone to open a hangar for us ($15 for the night) and generally was a good friend to a pair of vagabonds new to the neighborhood. Before long the plane was refueled, installed safely in the hangar, and we were welcomed to a small, family run motel in the nearby town. The airport loaner car was in good condition so we decided to drive the 60 mile Badlands National Park loop road toward Wall, SD. 

The Badlands from two amazing perspectives

Without further ado, here are the Badlands first from the air as a bird or pilot sees it and then on the ground as others do. Other worldly I’d say–from either perspective. We ended the day with steak dinners in a local bar and fell into an early and sound sleep, full of anticipation for returning home tomorrow.

Like a living geography lesson, tablelands and ancient erosion carve a rugged topography

Like a living geography lesson, tablelands and ancient erosion carve a rugged topography

Aerial view of the Badlands, South Dakota

Wild and hidden from all but the most determined, note the road running diagonally through the scene.

Badlands, South Dakota

Cattle Rustlers, Cowboys, Homesteaders, Bandits and Lawmen. The transit was hard but the privacy was endless.

Badlands, South Dakota

Glorious South Dakota sunset over the Badlands

Badlands, South Dakota

Mountain Goat stare-down on the Loop Road in The Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness

Wilderness, a secret place that draws us in and renews the spirit. Root Ranch in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is hard to find on the map and even harder to visit. Once it was a rustlers’ hideout and there are still no roads, just pack trails leading to it through the mountains of central Idaho. The nearest neighbor is several miles away at a US Forestry service camp. But tucked deep into the hills that surround the Root Ranch is a narrow grass landing strip, good for a visit if you have an STOL aircraft (short-takeoff and landing) along with your own stout heart. This small piece of paradise is a bush pilot’s dream come true and a photographer’s living landscape.

Root Ranch

Hay rake

Huskies and other bush planes open wide the door to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness

Every summer a congenial group of Husky fliers along with a Super Cub or two find there way here from all over the western States. That’s the easiest way, the only practical way to embrace this particular wilderness where every necessity must be flown in, ridden in, or walked in. Arriving at Root Ranch on a mid-August Friday with plans for the weekend, it is an annual conclave of adventurers with competent airplanes and piloting skills to fly them. While there is hiking to do, trail crew tasks, and hearty food with lots of front porch conversation, the real attraction is the chance to compare airplanes, discuss the latest accessories, debate aviation headlines, the merits of one thing over another, and find common bond with those who would rather punch holes in the sky than just about anything else. People leave their city lives behind and here are just folks . . . and pilots–two among us are women.

Wilderness is better when you share with your best friend

Most of the weekend guests come alone, their tandem back-seats filled only with camping gear rather than a best friend. We’re fortunate to have each other so we can review at end of day and share the moments with our most special somebody. While that limits what else we can carry, I never mind leaving the tent at home. (Paul says, “What tent?”) We get a luxurious log bunkhouse with solar lights and hot water for the shower! Now that’s my idea of wilderness camping. Big thanks to the other Paul.

Root Ranch

Bunkhouses

Wilderness! Ah, the chance to find ourselves in nature

There’s a summer crew of those who trade labor for their member fees preparing three good meals for the group each day while finding time for their own vacation pleasure. And there’s the wrangler and his wife who manage the horses and the laundry. It’s an idyll when you love the place and what you do there, when your work is important and you’re thanked for it. Every autumn Wrangler leads the pack horses down to warmer pastures and brings them back again in spring. Winter visitors come too but they’re here to hunt deer or elk or, for the few with coveted tags, there might be a Big Horn Sheep to sight. They enjoy frosty mornings by the fire instead of flying low among the hills and just above the trees.

Root Ranch

Wrangler Takes His Bow

Huckleberry anything, the best in the west!

Each morning, pilots preflight their airplanes then head out in groups to fly to other mountain strips. Late sleepers awake to revving engines followed by the whine of serial departures. Some are collectors of places taking pride in the number of different runways challenged and won that day. Below is Wilson’s Bar perched on a narrow ledge above the Salmon River. Navigating the curves downstream of the river you cannot see runway 24 or its threshold until you’re no more than a quarter mile away. Pilot’s are advised to watch for the ripples in the river, fly left and prepare to turn back across the river and into the hillside for landing as soon as you see the second, larger set of ripples. Pass over the shale rock slide and make a good landing, good ‘n’ short!

Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness

In the years of good fun, we’ve made friends and learned much. Did you know that there’s no city in Elk City and no river in Elk River? (The City got the river and the River has the town.) The best huckleberry anything can be found in Elk River though and a first rate lunch is huckleberry lemonade and warm-from-the-oven huckleberry pie topped with, you guessed it, huckleberry ice cream. Each year a certain famous Husky pilot doesn’t come. He’s has friends among us but a busy life and career keep him away. He’s missed though.

If you wonder what it might be like to fly close to terrain and land on a rough strip, here’s a Go Pro look over one pilot’s shoulder while landing at Root Ranch.

Root Ranch

Work Party

Root Ranch

The Wrangler

Leave a comment below to tell us where you most like to go for fun and what you enjoy doing there.

 

 

Grand Teton Up Close and Personal_900px-60pct-sRGB

Grand Teton, highest peak in the Teton Range

One hundred miles north of Afton, Wyoming, is Grand Teton National Park which shares its northern border with Yellowstone NP. The peak for which the park is named, Grand Teton–at 13,776′ (4,199 m), is the highest peak in the Teton Range and the second highest after Gannett in the State of Wyoming. The first ascent of Grand Teton was made in 1898 and it remains a principal mountaineering destination in North America. Looking at it eye to eye like this, it’s benign until you imagine picking your way from one hand or toehold to another, hoping not to disturb loose rock or to slip on late summer ice, wishing the winds away.

Dramatic peak to valley distance

Grand Teton together with ten others over 11,000′ in height cluster to make a grand vista called the Cathedral Group. Higher mountains elsewhere in the world are much less dramatic because their foothills make a gradual slope upward. Tremendous peak to valley distances were formed as the young Tetons lifted along a tectonic fault with the east face falling to form the Jackson Hole valley.  Such steep elevations rising abruptly 5,000′ to 7,000′ from the valley floor make a dramatic impression. Today’s Jackson Hole is a playground where once it was a cow town and the whole area plays host to film crews seeking landscape, movie stars and wannabees, tourists, and just plain folks.

Grand Teton, up close and personal

While I’m not especially fearful of heights, a mountaineer I am not! Thanks to a lovely little airplane named Fire Horse we were allowed our own assault on Grand Teton. On a hot August day last summer I was flying a little more than 2,000′ below the top of Grand Teton, high enough to safely clear surrounding terrain up close and personal with the mountain, near enough to feel that a little stretch would just about touch! It was a dry summer of high winds and smoky fires. You can see a layer of dense smoke below the cloud deck and above that clear blue. The white patches are glaciers. Nearly a mile below the right side of the airplane I could see Jenny Lake at the base  of the mountain. Several years ago I painted a couple at their engagement on the shore of Jenny Lake with part of the Teton Range behind them. No wonder he chose that spot!

Good news!

I’m smiling! Today I received the flippie from The American Surveyor where FIVE of my photographs were published as part of this month’s cover story, “Arrows Across America.” It was an adventure fulfilled to land at Medicine Bow, Wyoming, and then to explore what was left of the original beacon tower and generator shack. As exciting as it was to land on the rugged dirt strip last August after chasing antelope out of the way, it was a wonderful reward to see five of that day’s photographs in print together with photo credits to Sharyn Richardson – Light Pixie Studio in the leading journal for professionals in land surveying and GPS technology. One of the photos is showcased with a 2-page spread leading the article.

Arrows Across America- Medicine Bow, Wyoming - remnants of aviation

Arrows Across America- Medicine Bow, Wyoming – remnants of aviation’s first radio navigation system

Arrows Across America

Almost one hundred years ago, there were hundreds of these giant arrows stretching from coast to coast. They guided pilots through harsh weather and dark of night to deliver the mail as part of the first radio navigation system. In the wildest parts of the American west many remain, weather stripped of their original bright yellow color and with the beacon towers that topped them harvested for iron during the Second World War. I photographed this one in Wyoming at Medicine Bow and another nearby at Rock Springs; they’re derelict now but more or less whole.

Can you help us find the others?

There are many others too, hidden away in wilderness for the adventurous to find, a lost part of American history and the technological past. So if you know of one near you, please do let us know!

Tail draggers are old-fashioned

You have to fly a tail dragger even when you’re still on the ground. Ours surprises everyone who discovers its full glass cockpit and modern options. One of the things that guides our travel is exploration of the unusual and we’re always game to launch to find it.

Flying for pleasure

Flying a few hundred feet (or a few thousand) above a scene offers a totally different perspective, a living map of sorts and a history textbook too. It changes how we think of things. I’m a licensed pilot and fly for pleasure alongside my husband who is a very senior pilot. He’s instrument rated and I’ve passed the IFR written, hoping to take the FAA check ride soon. We both love our time together in the cockpit. The huge respect we’ve always shown each other has grown in depth and range as we interact in this, a challenging enterprise with no room for folly; we’re safer for the full participation of the other.

And did I mention that it’s oh so much fun!

 

Salt River Valley

Salt River Valley

Afton, Wyoming, may be small but it’s the biggest little town in the Star Valley

Exhausted Mormon travelers emerged from the Lander Cutoff and settled in the Star Valley to build their futures. At fewer than 2,000 people in the 2010 census, Afton is the largest town among Smoot, Thane, and Etna strung along U.S. Highway 89 south of the Palisades Reservoir. It is ranch country for raising horses and cattle along with the grains to support them in rich pasture land beside the Salt River. Country people, cowboys and cattlemen live side-by-side with newcomers attracted by the pastoral calm of a gorgeous place. There is world class fly-fishing in local streams. The town’s water supply pours out of the world’s largest Intermittent Spring in the crotch of mountain peaks high above the town.

They ride horses, drive cattle, and they build and fly airplanes

The second family vehicle is often a horse trailer, an RV, or an airplane. Seventy-five miles north, the more famous Jackson Hole anchors Grand Teton National Park and the southern entrance to Yellowstone. But here in Afton the day-to-day is working class normal. This is a place where generous people judge your character and may offer you a place to rest or even perhaps their brand new truck to drive for the week. We know because it’s happened to us. Oh, and about those airplanes . . . the Aviat Husky factory occupies a hodge-podge of nondescript buildings which look like war surplus, the Second World War, that is. That’s what takes us to Afton! We fly a Husky A-1C 200 and return each year for its annual inspection.

Afton, Wyoming, on the ramp at KAFO

Afton, Wyoming, on the ramp at the fixed-base, the Afton Municipal Airport (KAFO)

Skilled employees build a world-class bush plane, the Aviat Husky

In 2010 we drove into Afton for the first time to take delivery on our plane. A Husky is a superbly competent little bush plane with excellent performance and short takeoff and landing capability. We tease that we spent our children’s inheritance which isn’t too far from the truth. Imagine then, arriving in a small western town with one main street, armed with an address to which we’d sent our money, and what did we find but a shabby collection of derelict grey buildings hard on the narrow sidewalk. (Since we first saw it, there’s been a makeover and last fall was nicely repainted.) Don’t judge this book by its cover! Inside is a factory employing a few dozen industrious employees who basically hand-build the aircraft. They know each one intimately by the time it’s finished and they take great personal pride in putting a bit of themselves into each one by building it right!

Star Valley and Afton WY

What is it about Afton Wyoming? THIS is what it is!

Afton, Wyoming

The Corral

The best food in Afton comes from the sea!

There are several good restaurants that serve generous fare but the most unexpected, and for our tastes, the most outstanding is Rocky Mountain Seafood run by the colorful Larry and his partner Julie. He’s a retired ship captain and she a harbor master transplanted from Pacific seacoast to interior mountains. And they still have good connections in the coastal fishing industry! The seafood arrives as air cargo and is trucked from Salt Lake City direct to the restaurant, deliciously prepared and on your plate before the tang of fresh salt air has faded. The menu is simple, a mix and match of basic preparations where one type of fish can be switched with another. The whole point is for the flavor and quality of fish to shine rather than indulging a cook’s conceit. If you have a kid’s tastes or don’t like fish, there’s always an excellent steak or Julie’s fine mac ‘n’ cheese. The atmosphere is dockside fish market, casual with sturdy picnic table seating, a diner where you can take your catch home in a sack or have it prepared, seat yourself–among friends or friendly strangers. Don’t look out the windows at majestic western mountains and you just may forget you’re in Wyoming!

Where dreams come true and those dreams can FLY! At the Aviat factory, home of our very own Fire Horse.

And for us there is the added inducement of this, the Aviat Aircraft Company where our very own Husky named Fire Horse was born. They also build the Pitts Special, the renowned competition aerobatic plane, as well as the Eagle II which is available as a kit or factory complete. But we’re partisans for the Husky given our 900′ runway below 200′ cliffs–we need a bush plane!
WhereDreamsFly_900px-70pct-sRGB

At the southern tip of the Wind River Range is South Pass, one of the loneliest and most inhospitable places in the American West. This is hot August yet snow pockets the peaks above icy lakes. The ground is rock. Small plants cling to scruffy soil in a few protected cracks and crags but for the most part it is just rock. Flying close overhead is not recommended except on rare clear and calm days like this one when the wind doesn

At the southern tip of the Wind River Range is South Pass, one of the loneliest and most inhospitable places in the American West. This is hot August yet snow pockets the peaks above icy lakes. The ground is rock. Small plants cling to scruffy soil in a few protected cracks and crags but for the most part it is just rock. Flying close overhead is not recommended except on rare clear and calm days like this one when the wind doesn’t blow

A New Life in the West
We left the westward bound emigrants outside of Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, as they struggled through rutted and rough terrain, the stone monuments of Nebraska’s panhandle. Weeks of burden and drudge later, having buried weaker members beside the trail, their provisions were low but they’d crossed South Pass at the end of the Wind River Range and were working their way through sloping inter-mountain valleys toward the Salt River in western Wyoming near the Utah and Idaho borders. They saw it as a paradise and it is.

The Lander Cutoff on the Oregon Trail
Under the direction of Frederick W. Lander an improved trail called the Lander Cutoff was surveyed across the Sweetwater and the Green Rivers bypassing the worst of the Wind River Range before crossing the continental divide, over high passes in the Wyoming and Salt River Ranges at the headwaters of Grey’s River before making a sloping descent into the Star Valley south of Smoot near Afton, Wyoming.

An Unpredictable Shortcut
One hundred Utah men moved 62,000 cubic yards of earth to complete Lander’s road in three months’ time. It opened in 1859 and, although records are incomplete, it seems the road saw fewer wagons in each successive year. Pioneers did find clear water streams, wood for their camp fires, and good grass for their animals, but the transit was so high and steep with unpredictable, violent mountain storms that this shortcut–seven fewer days and 85 fewer miles to Fort Hall for provisions–was harder than lower and leveler routes further south, even the desert ones.

Overflying the route in August 2013
Today it’s possible to fly the entire route or follow the trails on Park Service roads or off-road vehicles. It  is both beautiful and austere, life-affirming and deadly at the same time. It makes a person respect the courage and determination of those who passed through so long ago in the course of building a modern nation. For them it was a struggle; for us it’s relatively easy. What follows is the route–with my photos to map it–in the same east to west order as the pioneers discovered it from Scotts Bluff to Afton in the Star Valley.

Flying over Grey

Flying over Grey’s River as we near Afton the terrain looks more benign. The long central creases were easy enough to travel but there were still many peaks and passes to cross.

One of advantages of the Lander Cutoff was easy access to water which trails through the southern deserts couldn

One of advantages of the Lander Cutoff was easy access to water which trails through the southern deserts couldn’t provide. But there was no easy transit here either. Water was given but the storms, deep snows, and rugged peaks wore people and animals out and many died.

Surrounded by 10,000 foot peaks this area is prime cutthroat trout habitat that attracts outdoor-adventurers whose resources and creature comforts allow them to enjoy the experience rather than just surviving it as the emigrants had to do. As this sign attests a single drop of rain water can flow into one of three great continental basins. It is majestic!

Surrounded by 10,000 foot peaks this area is prime cutthroat trout habitat that attracts outdoor-adventurers whose resources and creature comforts allow them to enjoy the experience rather than just surviving it as the emigrants had to do. As this sign attests a single drop of rain water can flow into one of three great continental basins. It is majestic!

This is Cottonwood Lake in the hills above the trail into Smoots. It is one of those rare places easy to see from a small airplane but that is otherwise unknown except to the locals who love it.

This is Cottonwood Lake in the hills above the trail into Smoots. It is one of those rare places easy to see from a small airplane but that is otherwise unknown except to the locals who love it.

This beautiful plant is salsify, a more robust near cousin to the dandelion. It

This beautiful plant is salsify, a more robust near cousin to the dandelion. It’s native and the root is edible–another way the difficult trail made some amends for the hardships.

Craggy peaks press against the sky. Look closely at center left and you may see before we did the ice boulders camouflaged by soil and sticks. On August 30th the air was hot and dry but the glacial ice was protected in the lee of mountain shadow and by a micro-climate of cold water running from the Intermittent Spring above Afton. We only discovered the ice boulders by walking close enough to feel the very cold air. This is a massive canyon which dwarfs their true size.

Craggy peaks press against the sky. Look closely at center left and you may see before we did the ice boulders camouflaged by soil and sticks. On August 30th the air was hot and dry but the glacial ice was protected in the lee of mountain shadow and by a micro-climate of cold water running from the Intermittent Spring above Afton. We only discovered the ice boulders by walking close enough to feel the very cold air. This is a massive canyon which dwarfs their true size.

This spring up Swift Creek is the largest of three periodic springs in the world. To learn a bit more about it including how it works  click here.

As mountains give way to foothills the terrain is easier and today

As mountains give way to foothills the terrain is easier and today’s recreational roads follow the old wagon route on their way to the Star Valley. Once again we see why this is called Big Sky country.

Can you imagine the relief, the pure joy of seeing this scene after weeks underway? You might have left a child in a lonely grave on a high mountain pass. Your animals too may have sickened and died. You have been exhausted, cold and hungry forever it seems. But now you are here at the head of an easy downhill path into the Star Valley flush with verdant grasslands watered by the Salt River. Hallelujah they surely thought! Their lives would never be easy and there were heartaches to come, but they

Can you imagine the relief, the pure joy of seeing this scene after weeks underway? You might have left a child in a lonely grave on a high mountain pass. Your animals too may have sickened and died. You have been exhausted, cold and hungry forever it seems. But now you are here at the head of an easy downhill path into the Star Valley flush with verdant grasslands watered by the Salt River. Hallelujah they surely thought! Their lives would never be easy and there were heartaches to come, but they’d found a home.

So Many Children A loved one from us is gone. A voice we loved is still. Even after the settlers found a good home near Afton, life wasn

So Many Children A loved one from us is gone. A voice we loved is still.
Even after the settlers found a good home near Afton, life wasn’t easy. The cemeteries in Fairview and Thane and elsewhere are full of them. And too many were children. Among the Lander pilgrims were many Mormons, also known as Latter Day Saints. The marble LDS marker denotes that affiliation. Although the modern population of the area is only a few thousand, many are Mormon and in 2011 the Church president announced plans to build a new temple in Afton.

To pick up the earlier part of the trail, see Scotts Bluff National Monument

Giant arrows are for pointing the way!

Once there were hundreds of giant arrows made of cement pointing the way across America, directing traffic for transcontinental airmail routes. In some wild, lonely places where the weeds grew faster than towns, the arrows remain, forlorn without fresh yellow paint, cracked and waiting to be rediscovered by the adventurous or the lucky few.

Giant Arrows across American

This is the beacon tower and generator shack sitting atop one of the giant arrows at Medicine Bow, Wyoming, still standing in September 2013

 

Giant Arrows included infrastructure for ground maintenance and transient pilots

At right is the same station as it looked in the early 1920s–the two forefront buildings for administration and crew quarters are long gone. In the background you can see the generator house with the prototype black band and the tower.

We’d heard that one of the giant arrows could still be found at Medicine Bow, Wyoming. Last month offered a chance to fly a low course down the wild runway chasing antelope out of the way before flying a proper pattern to land. Later that same afternoon we found the beacon tower at Rock Springs as well.

 

 

 

 

One of the Giant Arrows is at Medicine Bow, Wyoming

Back-country wilderness strip at Medicine Bow, Wyoming, and our Husky.

In 1920 the world’s first ground-based air navigation system was authorized by the Congress of the United States

Pilots flying their wood and fabric taildraggers needed guidance from station to station. This first continent-spanning airway was an impressive beginning but in inclement weather with reduced visibility or in the dark of night a pilot couldn’t reliably follow railroad tracks and early road maps. These open-cockpit airplanes only had a magnetic compass for navigation plus a turn and bank indicator and altimeter for flight instruments.

 

A system of lighted beacons atop giant arrows was needed to keep the airmail moving

In a fierce blizzard (1921) a relay of six airplanes and six pilots flew routes coast to coast in opposite directions. One determined pilot named Jack Knight flew three segments of the trip from San Francisco to New York. He succeeded in large measure because of a long series of bonfires along the remotest parts of the route that were tended by postal employees.

As a result of this grand proof of concept, funds were appropriated in 1923 and work began immediately on the first segment of lighted beacons from Cheyenne to Chicago. Why here in the middle of the country? A pilot could start at either coast and reach the long stretch of numbered and color-coded beacons by nightfall to follow them through the dark landscape.

Giant arrows across America

The beacon towers were placed on the mid-point of the concrete arrows to shine their lights forward and back along the route.

By 1926 a 650 mile route from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City was marked every 10 to 15 miles with a yellow painted arrow and a 51 foot steel tower topped by two 100,000-candle 24” rotating beacons pointing back and forth along the airway. A generator shack for continuous power and quarters for crew to keep it running completed the scene. At night pilots could see the flashing lights over forty miles away and flying closer to the beacons a clear panel at the top projected light onto the overlying cloud deck to help determine the ceiling.

The first of the giant arrows and its beacon were built at Rock Springs, Wyoming

By 1929 the giant arrows spanned the continent with 13 intermediate stops. Mail could now travel from New York to San Francisco in just 30 hours. So much achieved in so little time!

Another of the giant arrows can still be seen at Rock Springs

In 1930 a spacious hangar was built at Rock Springs with room for two 18-passenger airplanes and a waiting room. Amelia Earhart visited here and hangared her “Little Red Bus,” the Lockheed Vega she flew across the Atlantic, the one that’s in the Smithsonian. $45,000 bought a lot of hangar in 1930!

One airmail pilot offered route advice; decades later his words give a pretty good idea of the challenges faced by aviation pioneers:

  • CHE + 0 (miles from) Cheyenne Wyo. — Can be identified by the barracks of Fort Russell. The Cheyenne field is three-quarters of a mile due north of the town and due north of the capitol building, whose gilded dome is unmistakable. The field, though rolling, is very large and landings may be made from any direction. A pilot landing here for the first time must “watch his step,” as the rarified atmosphere at this altitude (6,100 feet) makes rough landings the rule rather than the exception. Fly west over or to the north of Fort Russell, which is about 4 miles from town, following the Colorado & Southern tracks to the point where they bend sharply to the north.

CHE + 80.   Elk Mountain Wyo. — To the north of the Medicine Bow Range, a black and white range of mountains, the black parts of which are forests and the white snow-covered rocks. Elk Mountain is 12,500 feet high. Fly to the north of this conspicuous mountain over high, rough country. The Union Pacific tracks will be seen about 15 miles to the north gradually converging with the course.

  • CHE + 134.  Rawlins Wyo. — Follow the general direction of the Union Pacific tracks to Rawlins, which is on the Union Pacific tracks. The country between Walcott and Rawlins is fairly level, but covered with sage brush, which makes landings dangerous. Rawlins is on the north side of the Union Pacific tracks at a point about a mile east of where the tracks cut through a low ridge of hills. Large railroad shops distinguish the town. The emergency field provided here lies about 1¼ miles northeast of town at the base of a large hill.  Landings are made almost invariably to the west. Surface of field is fairly good, as the sage brush has been removed. Easily identified by this, as the surrounding country is covered with sage brush. Landings can be made in any direction into the wind if care is exercised. Several ranch buildings and two small black shacks on the eastern side of the field help distinguish it. Leaving Rawlins follow the Union Pacific tracks to Creston.
The Rock Springs beacon and arrow are hidden behind newer buildings and forgotten

The original beacon house and light tower still stand at Rock Springs, Wyoming, surrounded by newer buildings. Rock Springs was a favorable place to begin the beacon system as somewhat lower terrain gave safer passage through the mountains. It served as the region’s Flight Service Station for 70 years until decommissioning in 1991. The current FBO staff was unaware of its long history.

CHE + 231.  Rock Springs, Wyo. — After passing Black Butte, Pilot Butte will be seen projecting above and forming a part of the Table Mountain Range. This butte is of whitish stone. Head directly toward Pilot Butte and Rock Springs will be passed on the northern side. The field is in the valley at the foot of Pilot Butte about 4 miles from Rock Springs. It is triangular in shape, the hangar being located in the apex. The surface of the field is good. The best approach is from the eastern side.

  • CHE + 246.  Green River, Wyo. — Follow the Union Pacific double-tracked railroad from Rock Springs. There is an emergency field here which is distinguished [on] account of its being the only cleared space of its size, near the town. Green river is crossed immediately after the city of Green River is passed. Here the course leaves the railroad which continues in a northwesterly direction. By flying approximately 230˚ compass course from here, Cheyenne [Salt Lake City] will be reached.
Original station interiors were utilitarian spaces

The original station interior at Rock Springs

Technologies have always changed us and made new opportunities

But technology never stands still–within twenty years the giant arrows were outdated. Most of the steel in the decommissioned towers went to the war effort. In most places the evidence is entirely gone.

There are exceptions. The Aviation Heritage Museum in New Mexico, has successfully restored one of the old sites, similar to those rediscovered in Utah and elsewhere which inspire hopes for their preservation.

Others like Medicine Bow are mouldering away in the sun, backdrop to cattle ranching and wilderness. An incredible place to visit. Whether you’re a pilot or not, AirNav gives particulars for the primitive airstrip (80V) that are fascinating. I learned for instance that there are on average only 20 aircraft operations a year, that the runway we landed on is graded annually and is in fair condition (the other is not maintained and is considered poor), that there is a lot of wildlife in the vicinity of both runways. There are gopher and badger holes, berms, ditches, fence obstructions, soft when wet, rough and uneven the entire length. And of course, there are no services.

Except we learned that the small hotel in town would pick you up if you called. Nice!

NOTE: In March 2014 five of my photos (with credits to Sharyn Richardson – Light Pixie Studio) were published in The American Surveyor magazine (the top journal for professionals in land surveying and GPS technology) to illustrate the cover story, “Arrows Across America,” by Mike Mickelsen, including the two-page lead. Check it out here.

Wild west at the Medicine Bow station

A bull stands guard with his harem at the old beacon station in Medicine Bow

An airplane is a marvelous way to discover a place, to see its colors and contours in scale. It is a living geography textbook! We’ve just returned from three adventuring weeks flying our Husky west to learn America. Along the way we discovered Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Scotts Bluff is an impressive natural feature in western Nebraska designated in 1919 as a National Monument for its unique geology and heroic human history. On the morning of our first night out, we left the town of Scotts Bluff in instrument weather disappointed that heavy cloud cover would deny us a look from our airplane. But with a bit of weather luck the low overcast parted briefly and voilà–a hazy but recognizable view, not the more famous Scotts Bluff, nor the Jail and Courthouse rocks, but right next door beside the Old Oregon Trail. This is what our early emigrants struggled to cross in their ox drawn Conestoga wagons.

Hover your mouse over the image to see what it looked like straight out of the camera. The goal is ALWAYS to get a great shot from the camera but that isn’t always possible as atmospheric conditions can vary widely, as does our actual distance above or sideways from the target shot. For those times when nature has another plan and a do-over isn’t possible, a photographer needs other workflow tools: What worked here: Multiply and Soft Light blend modes, a Layers adjustment expanded to the right of the histogram, then contrast, white balance, and saturation adjustments. A bit of sharpening was required and almost always is because a small airplane is an inherently unsteady platform and handheld shots are the rule. I generally avoid electronic IS and use a faster speed, higher ISO with f11 for depth of field. While my favorite lens is a 100 mm prime, this time I had a 17-85 mm telephoto in place which let me get several shots at differing focal distances into a few seconds. I think of these decisions during and after the shot as a kind of forensic retouch as necessary.

Eons of wind and water layered areas of hard limestone over softer deposits of sand, lime, fossils, and volcanic ash; uneven erosion left behind unusual shapes high above the Platte River. Geologists are especially interested in the exposed 740 strata of Scotts Bluff. But early travelers on horseback cared less about how they were made and more about how to overcome them.

One early traveler described it this way as, “a large and deep ravine . . . very uneven and difficult, winding from amongst innumerable mounds six to eight feet in height, the space between them frequently so narrow as scarcely to admit our horses.” Mid-19th century emigrants in wagons following the Platte River west along the Oregon Trail were halted by such impassible barriers until improvements in the trails were eventually made and they found new and better passes out of the valley.

But the terrain features had advantages too as Westward bound emigrants of the Lander, Mormon, and California groups used these huge structures as landmarks to lead them along the base of the bluffs. In our airplane we used them to point the way west toward Afton, Wyoming, the home of Aviat which builds the Pitt Special, the Christen Eagle, and our own Husky.

For the next leg of the journey read about the treacherous Lander Cutoff on the Oregon Trail.

It’s another year of wildfires in the American West, not unusual but headline grabbing for sure. We’ve just returned from our third annual trip to Afton, Wyoming, home of Aviat and birthplace of our very own Fire Horse Husky! And it’s the second year for smoky transits across Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and Montana. California makes big headlines for their raging Rim Fire at Yosemite, while Oregon and Utah also do battle with Vulcan.

After refueling at Pocatello, Idaho, I flew north toward Salmon, Idaho, over Craters of the Moon National Monument. Big Southern Butte is one of the largest lava domes on earth, a coalescing of two domes rising 2500 feet above the surface west of Idaho Falls. Take a look as seen from 12,500’ MSL. When I’m shooting my husband flies, otherwise I’d rather be flying than almost anything else.

Notice the band of grey-brown band above the horizon and at the same approximate altitude as we are. Dense smoke makes aerial photography more time-consuming because filtering and color adjustments are required in post-production. Only afterward could I see the scene as clearly as you can here! [To see what I mean, hover your mouse over the image. That’s what it looked like straight out of the camera.] One trick is to use blending modes in several layers—Darken and Multiply work well for mid-to-dark tones while Overlay and Soft Light often work for mid-to-lighter tones—and then paint-in the effect where you want it while varying opacity. Experiment to find what gives you the best result from each image. Yes, you will need a photo editing program like Photoshop or Topaz FXLab. Hover your mouse to see the original, unretouched.

A rugged, back country taildragger like our Husky can land almost anywhere. It’s a 200 horsepower “pack leader” that’s made for short fields and rugged terrain. There’s a rough strip (U46) northwest of the Big Southern Butte that gives ready access to climbing, hiking and mountaineering as well as amazing views of the Snake River plain and the Rocky Mountains. We’ll save it for another trip in sky clear conditions.

A week later we landed for fuel at Glacier National Park north of Kalispell in western Montana to find a pair of airtankers on the apron at the Glacier Jet Center. It’s a Canadair CL-215 firefighting flying boat designed to operate in the heavy winds and gusts found over forest fires. As for the skilled pilots who fly them, it’s a career for the bold and the brave as it takes mad flying skills while navigating perilously close to active fires, rising thermal currents, and thick smoke.

Amphibious aircraft like this are water bombers called Scoopers for the efficient way they deliver their payload of up to 1,176 gallons of water or 12,000 pounds of foams, gels, or retardant chemicals. Despite their size and 20,000 pound empty weight they are capable short takeoff and landing aircraft. This Scooper was built in 1986 and is owned by a company in Arizona on duty in the summer of 2013 to fight wildfires in West Yellowstone and the Shoshone and Flathead National Forests.

 

Nature can be fickle then turn on season’s dime to pay back for all the trouble. 2012 was a droughty year and when the rains finally came in July some benefitted while others were just a little too south or received just a little too little and late.

Then came blazing September with fiery reds and oranges and golden in intensities and shades that few can remember! They say it’s the drought that gets the credit. Nature’s apology for making trouble!

I fly a small airplane that takes us far and wide. It doesn’t fly very fast but lets us explore the scenery slipping past underneath. This is a Fiery Maple Arch that I wouldn’t have discovered but for flying over a lucky route and a stunning quarter-mile long driveway in a hidden valley. See what we saw in the second photo below.

Fiery Maple Arch

Fiery Maple Arch

Imagine beautiful countryside in every direction, then tucking over a ridge to find a fairytale farm with a long, manicured avenue of maple trees, balanced, symmetrical, ablaze! Such good work should be rewarded! To thank those who planned and cared for that archway, I sought them on the ground with the gift of an enlargement. In my coming and going underneath their arch of trees, I found a paradise of color, their own special place, worthy of their work and a certain reward. For them of course, and for me as well!

Above the Fire