Sunday, May 2, 2010

Fasten Your Seatbelts, It's Going To Be a Bumpy Ride

Let me just say right off that today I flew a plane. For a whole hour. Yes, I did. But first, to catch up from where I left off.

On Saturday I was supposed to be flying to Sleetmute. However, as happens in the Bush, the best laid plans of moose and men and all that... Friday was warmish, yesterday was freezing cold and snowing. We met Fred, our pilot, at the airport and he said "Well we could go. Two planes going upriver had to turn back, but if you're willing to try...We might be forced to land on the river. " He was surprisingly cheerful when he said this. Apparently, Fred is prepared to do things other pilots won't try.

I also mentioned about him letting me fly the plane last time and said "But I'm sure you kept your hands on the controls, just in case."

"Nope," he said, and laughed.

And there I thought the whole time that I wasn't actually in control and I was. Someone had mentioned to me the night before that Fred had said "Most people either go too high or too low, but she just kept straight on." I was very proud :o)

So, instead of going to Sleetmute, Emily and I went to a rummage sale at the school and I ended up with loads of bling - some gorgeous traditional earrings and bracelets made of beads. One pair of earrings has tiny mukluks on. Mukluks are little snowboots. Unfortunately, I got the word wrong and told Emily I had earrings with muktuk on. "You have earrings made of whale blubber?" she said. OK, so I need more practise at my yup'ik, obviously.

I then attended a birthday party for a 4-year old. An hour and a half later I could have slept for Alaska. And I was stuffed with cake and ice cream. Yum yum. However, I'm now very worried about having to give my weight on the next plane I fly on (that's another good thing about Fred - he never asks your weight).

Today, Sunday, I got up to find an inch of snow on the ground, but the weather had really cleared up so I could fly to Sleetmute, which is about an hour and a quarter upriver (if you fly in a straight line and don't follow the winding Kuskokwim River it's about 50 minutes). My pilot up was Matt, who's 22 and has been a Bush pilot since he was 16. (Did I mention I flew a plane? Well, that was on the way back, not on the way up). Matt gave me the safety demonstration - "Whatever you do, don't touch that lever," he said, pointing to a lever about one millimetre away from my knee.

Sleetmute is a very small village of around 100 people, and the school has 8 pupils. It's a very special place for me. I spent a couple of days there last time I was there, and one of my favourite people, Mary Effemka - one of the village Elders - lives there.

Bambi at the store very foolishly said I could borrow her ATV (even when I told her I don't drive), and off I set to visit Mary. Just call me Ayrton Senna Pod. I got into 2nd gear and a whole 12 miles an hour. The tracks are really bad at the moment and there are a lot of pot-holes and still a fair bit of snow. When I arrived at Mary's I actually went to the wrong house first and almost got eaten by the most enormous dog. When I knocked on the door I realised my mistake when a very sleepy looking man came to the door. Whoops, sorry George.

I had brought Mary some little gifts from Scotland and she gave me a beautiful suncatcher made of beads. We took a walk down to the river, and sat and visited for a while. Mary lost her husband to suicide a couple of years ago and this time she told me the story of how they had met, and how long she has lived in the village. It was fascinating. Mary is a wonderful lady and I always feel very sad when I say goodbye to her, but I was really glad that I had got to see her.

After that, I met up with Susan, who's the head of the Upriver schools and we went for a walk by the river. Susan travels quite a lot and, while she was away some time ago, one of the villagers brought her some fish and left them outside her house on the steps. Then, before Susan arrived back it snowed. And snowed. And snowed. Covering up the fish on her doorstep. They stayed nice and frozen until the snow started to thaw last week.Finally all the snow disappeared and Susan found 5 rotting fish on her doorstep. By this time, they were beginning to stink a tad, so today Susan threw them down by the river for the birds. As a result, I was able to get really really close to a bald eagle and see it drag off this huge fish in its beak. A couple of the eagles were wheeling above our heads for ages - it was an amazing sight.

Then we went over to the school and some of the students came by to say hello. It was lovely to see them again. After that, Susan, Bambi and I visited for a little while as we waited for my plane to arrive to take me back to Aniak. I learned a very valuable lesson. If someone says they want to give you a gift of oosik, just say no. Apparently it's a very popular thing to give as a gift. But why on earth would anyone want a whale's penis bone? I mean, what are you going to do with it? Do they come with batteries?

Then my favourite pilot arrived to take me home. Oh, did I mention that I flew this plane. I FLEW THIS PLANE!

"Can I sit next to you?" I said.

"Nope, you've got to sit all the way in back," he said. And then laughed very loudly when he saw my crestfallen face. So I got in and put on my headset (I felt like Biggles- it allows you to talk to the pilot and listen in to all the stuff that's going on), and got to shut my own door.

"Do you want to fly low and follow the river?" he said.

"Oh yes, that would be great. How low are we flying?"

"About 50 feet."

"Wow, that's low."

"We can go lower than that,", he said. And, believe me, when Fred says low, he means low. We flew for about 15 minutes 5 feet off the surface of the river. It makes you feel as though you're going really fast.

"This is Red Devil coming up," he said. "In front of us is the school." And when he said "in front of us" he meant that too. I was too petrified to take a photo but when we got to about what seemed to be a foot from the window of the school he took us up over the roof, rather than through it.

And then he said those magic words "I guess if you're going to fly we need to get a bit higher."

"Well, unless you want us to go plunging through the ice it might be a good idea," I said casually, as though flying a plane was an everyday occurrence.

So for the next hour (with one brief exception, of which more later), I flew the damn plane! The Kuskokwim is a very winding river so I got lots of chances to turn. I should say right now that turning while trying to keep at a steady altitude is not exactly easy. To go higher, you pull back on the steering wheel thingy (sorry for the technical term there, we pilots tend to use a lot of that), to go lower, you push it forward. Even a tiny little movement can have it moving up and down like a roller coaster. Or maybe that's just me...

I had two dials to watch. One was altitude, which I tried to keep between 400 and 500 feet. Quite successfully, I must say, at least after the first little while. Near the start we had to cross a mountain, instead of following the river and I was so scared of hitting the mountain (I have no spatial awareness) that I climbed a tad too far.

"Hey, we're up to 1000 feet, but that's cool," said my unfaze-able co-pilot.

"Whoops," I said, as I took the plane into a nose-dive to get back down to 500 feet.

The other dial I had to try and keep at zero.

"I'm doing not too bad on that one," I said, I've been watching it and it's hovering around zero all the time. I was so proud of myself.

"Yeah, it is...shame you're watching the wrong dial." Oh how we laughed.

After a little while I relaxed into it, my dials were fairly steady, and I made the mistake of telling Fred that I was getting quite comfortable.

"Then we'll make it a little more difficult," he said, the fiend. We went off course, to see whether one of the smaller rivers was breaking up yet. So now I had another dial to watch - this one had to point towards the west all the time. OK, so I mastered that one too.

"If you bank it really steeply upwards and then sharply downwards, you can go weightless," he said.

"Oh ha-ha, very funny."

"I'm going to take a photo of you flying the plane."

"I think you might prefer to watch what I'm doing," I said, but he didn't listen to me. Those white knuckles you see on the steering wheel thingy are mine. And the next photo was one that Fred took while I was banking sharply to the left - look at that angle.

Oh my goodness, you have no idea how brilliant it was. I'm still on a high. At one point, he took back control, so he could go in a circle and get really low again so I could see a moose and her calf by the side of the river. I tried to get a good photo but couldn't. Take my word for it though - it was wonderful to see them.

I brought the plane in towards the runway. "You just carry on," he said. Followed by "At the rate you're descending, we're not going to make the runway." He said it so calmly, too. There's something wrong with that man, I'm sure of it. So I gave control back and he landed it beautifully. And then he gave control back to me again. On the ground, you don't steer with the steering wheel thingy, you steer with pedal-y things. Right to go right, left to go left. It sounds logical but it was really hard. I told him if anyone was watching they would think he was drunk.

"Aim for between the telegraph pole and the hangar."

He had to be kidding, it was a six inch space.

"No, I didn't say aim for the telegraph pole, Donna."

"Did I tell you I gave up driving a car because I couldn't park?"

"By the time you leave, we'll have you landing the plane."


I cannot get the huge grin off my face, and while we were flying I just couldn't stop myself laughing gleefully from time to time. It was an amazing experience. I am, officially, the luckiest person in the world.


Michael Malone said...

You are the luckiest and I am the jealous-est. (It's a word, go with it)

Paul D. Brazill said...

Action Woman! That gave me the colly wobbles.

Bobbie said...

Wheee!!!!! What a flight! First of all, I am so glad you got to see Mary Effemka, I know you two have connected and are both special ladies. Secondly, what a hoot about the 'bling' you bought. :-) You look good on that ATV also, it's obvious you can handle that too. Those I know why they left our area early this spring (some always winter here), so they could be there in time for you to see them! Yes they are truly awesome looking, big and when the sun hits their white it is brilliant-unforgettable sights! Too bad the fish were not moving also, watching them catch a living one is another sight you can't forget...but those nice big meals left for them can't be wasted, good photos Donna! Thanks for the photos!

Now...the flight back. Wow, super wow, triple wow!!!! Incredible story and incredible flying!! And pictures too!! Ain't choo somethin'!You betcha!! as they say here!! Indeed!!! What a brave man the pilot is, and what a brave woman you are! Thank you both! And thanks for this post! Wowie Kazowie!

Judy Bobalik said...

Trust me when I tell you Christa would LOVE a whale penis bone.

bookwitch said...

Remind me not to go on a plane with you.

Watermelon man said...

Brilliant Donna! If you ever want to stop being Aeon's bitch (although you're obviously perfectly happy there), your new career as a pilot awaits. Free flying lessons! That would cost thousands. Sounds exhilirating. I'm so jealous too. I wish I could have been there.

To wave up at you

. On the downside, any time we go anywhere like the Fife coast or Inverarary or wherever (if you're still happy to go to such drab, dull places, after you've been so spoiled in Alaska), YOU'RE doin the drivin.

As for the whale bone, did it have a stauner? :-) X

Donna said...

Michael - I'll take that as a word!

Paul - I got the colly wobbles too.

Bobbie - somehow I think the pilot was braver than me. Or mad...

Judy - you're right. My eyes water to think what she would do with it...

Bookwitch - don't worry, if I'm on a Boeing 747 I don't storm into the cockpit and say "Oooooh, can I drive?"

Ewan - I might have known you would be the one to raise the stauner...fnharrr fnharr. Talking about costing thousands - for flights from Kalskag (where I am now) to Sleetmute - so about an hour and a half upriver - costs around $1000 dollars. Since flying is the only option in spring and autumn when the river is neither frozen over for snowmobiling, nor just water for boating, not many people go anywhere in spring and autumn. And I don't think you'd let me drive - you're less brave than Steve :o) xxx

NYCPhoto said...

You need to go up with my old flight instructor. After we finished a lesson we'd go looking for some of his friends in the air and have dog fights. I'm sure you'd be great at it.

Have a fantastic trip.

helencaldwell said...

Oh my goodness, how amazing! You are very very brave. I am enjoying these Alaskan posts a lot. Keep having adventures so that we can read about them.

Rose E. H. said...

You are really adventurers!