By Curtis Penner, EAA 1103560
Expectations were high as Rick and I headed out for a bucket list trip to Idaho that had been delayed two years by travel restrictions. After studying guidebooks, watching videos, and reading forums, we knew (or thought we knew) what we were about to experience. We were right, but also very wrong.
We came to Idaho looking forward to a challenge for both the airplane and ourselves. The mission was accomplished exponentially. Our planned route into the mountains involved lowering weather that forced us to backtrack 100 miles and use an alternate route. The old saw about a flight plan lasting only as long as it takes to get airborne was proven right over and over. Once we got past the weather to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness (aka the “Frank”), the airstrips and the geography surrounding them immediately started administering tests. Short, no go-around strips required precise airspeed and altitude management. Some even had hills blocking the view of the runway until short final. Deciding between taking off downhill with a 15-knot tailwind vs. uphill and a 15-knot headwind made theory very real in a short time. Reading about the sink caused by crossing cold water is completely different than experiencing it on short final. Judging runway slope by observing the white water beside the airstrip was a skill I had never used before. Oh yes we were challenged and I’d like to think that we improved our pilot skills, but the lessons came at a velocity and volume best suited to a fire hose, and often came after the test had been administered.
We looked forward to seeing spectacular beauty unspoiled by human interference. The mental pictures generated by our imaginations were pale reflections of the visual feast spread before us. As stated in the 1964 Wilderness Act, the “Frank” officially is “…in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, [Wilderness] is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The impact of that designation has massive reverberations. We did not know that motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport are prohibited on all federal lands designated as wilderness (with the exception of designated roads). This includes the use of motor vehicles (including OHVs), motorboats, motorized equipment, wagons, carts, or even bicycles and hang gliders. The only
way to travel through the wilderness is on foot, on horseback, on a raft, or with an airplane.
The use of existing airstrips have been grandfathered in. What a unique opportunity for
pilots! Our original concept of camping at a different (remote) location every night was awesome. Of course, this required us to bring everything from water purification to solar charging cells. Once we got to Johnson Creek, however, hot showers, drinking water, electricity, firewood, and WiFi was just too tempting. The plan changed from being at a different remote location each night to using Johnson Creek as a base. That way we could head out each morning leaving 75 pounds of gear behind and not have the hassle of setting up and taking down every day. The 50-plus pilots camping there during our stay evidently agreed with our rationale.
There are 83 strips listed in Galen Hanselman’s incomparable 946-page Fly Idaho backcountry adventure guide. These range from Johnson Creek with its manicured 3,504 x 150-foot runway, hot showers, WiFi, and firewood to Mile Hi; a one way, 590 x 30-foot rough strip at close to 6000 feet elevation. Accustomed to widely spaced facilities in the sparsely populated Canadian prairies, I had a mental picture of similar dimensions for the Idaho wilderness. Not so! The area covered by the “Frank” is only about 75 x 50 miles. Airstrips appeared quickly as we flew from one to another. Some were so close together that circuits overlapped! Grass runways, priceless treasures in any locale, appeared all around and at every turn in the shadow of magnificent landscapes that can only be properly appreciated when viewed from an airplane.
Another assumption we held in error was that Super Cubs and other so called “backcountry” aircraft would be all what we would see on the strips and in the air. Yes, we did see lots of that type, but we also saw other Piper models including Warriors, Pacers, and even retractable Comanches. Numerous Van’s RV models (but not the -15…yet!) were enjoying the area as well as a Cirrus or two, and most surprising, a Lake amphibian! The ubiquitous Lycoming and Continental boxers were not the only engines echoing in the valleys. High-rpm Rotax exhaust notes contrasted with the iconic snarl of Pratt & Whitney rotary masterpieces, and periodically, the whine of a turboprop would be heard. The wide variety of airstrips makes this area a pilot’s paradise for many different types of aircraft, not just the big tire crowd.
As a mere mortal, I do not possess the ability of Richard Bach, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Ernest Gann to create images in the imaginations of my readers. To compensate for this deficiency, we have often used video to share what we have seen and experienced with others. This trip, we anticipated that incorporating 360-degree technology would raise both the resulting viewing experience and the amount of editing time required to achieve that goal. Once again, we were correct, but underestimated both dimensions significantly. The results speak eloquently, especially on a big screen, but 141.6 hours went into editing. Check it out here: https://youtu.be/ChV7kPhjvdc
The cast of characters you meet is one of the greatest travel rewards. Having learned this in the past, I looked forward to adding more pilots with an interest in backcountry flying to those that I am fortunate enough to call friends. Sure enough, this trip did not disappoint. Eric and his son came out from Denver to have some father/son time in Idaho. John and his wife came out in the Lake I mentioned earlier. We met a dubstep (yes, that’s a thing!) composer/producer/DJ with thousands of Instagram followers who was enjoying camping at Upper Loon with his friend in a Carbon Cub. Then there was the fellow who flew in with his Kodiak, unloaded his bicycle, and headed up the mountain trail at Big Creek, and the guy with a newly restored Beaver, when asked about fuel burn, answered “If you have to ask, you
can’t afford it.” Truer words were never spoken! Every one of these people and countless others were a real pleasure to spend time and trade stories with, and count as a new friend. What I had not expected were all the wonderful people that surrounded the aviation community. The group of young teen boys camping next to us at Johnson Creek while the fathers were under a roof in town. The father and son that invited us into their mountain cabin; the wonderful lady that served us huckleberry ice cream at Lower Loon; the cowboy/hunting guide in charge of the pack string; the outfitters at Cayuse Creek, and on and on. Once again, what we thought were grand expectations turned out to be eclipsed by the reality we experienced.
We expected the “Frank” to be wild, majestic, and to have amazing vistas. We expected it to teach us lessons. We expected to see some neat airplanes. We expected it to be a place to meet wonderful people. We expected it to provide memorable hangar tales. It did all that, and much more. As my friend the videographer said as we left the mountains “I don’t know how long I have to live, but I want to remember this for all of it.” If you haven’t done it yet, buy “Fly Idaho” and start planning your 2023 trip. It will take your breath away.