My Lopez Island Vacation

A quick recap, with photos.

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a full month since Penny and I got back from our week-long vacation to a friend’s home on Lopez Island. Time seems to zoom by these days.

I thought I’d take a moment to document the trip, mostly to help me remember it in the years to come. It was a great vacation — laid back but with enough activities to not only keep me entertained but to prevent me from gaining a pound despite all the wine and cheese I consumed with my friend.

Lopez Island

Lopez Island
Lopez Island is one of the San Juan Islands in the northwest corner of Washington state.

Steve and I had gone wine tasting in Napa Valley, CA in March and Woodinville, WA in May. It was at dinner after four Woodinville wineries that he’d invited me to stay at his Lopez Island place in August. That’s when my responsibilities for cherry season were finished and he would be taking his vacation. It was too good an offer to pass up.

Lopez Island is one of the San Juan Islands in the northwest corner of Washington State. It’s less than 30 square miles in size with a population of fewer than 3000 people.

Lopez Island can only be reached two ways: by boat or air — there’s no bridge. Ferry service is available from the mainland at Anacortes with stops at other San Juan Island ports such as Friday Harbor and Shaw Island. According to Google Maps, the 200-mile trip from my home would take just over five hours — assuming I reached the ferry terminal in time to drive right onto the ferry. Six hours is probably more accurate.

Needless to say, I wasn’t very excited about the prospect of driving there. So I treated myself to a helicopter flight. That was only about 90 minutes.

The Trip Out

Of course, before Penny and I departed that Saturday we had things to do. I put two racks of baby back ribs on the smoker at 9 AM and spent much of the day packing and running errands. I wanted to bring some goodies from Wenatchee, including Quincy corn, two kinds of fresh-baked bread, and buckboard bacon from Pybus Market’s Saturday Farmer’s Market, as well as fresh blueberries that still needed picking at a friend’s house. The ribs would pair perfectly with some “Singed Cat” Cab Franc wine from Malaga Springs Winery just down the street from my home. The wine was sort of smoke infused due to the smoke from wildfires in the area back in September 2012 when the grapes were picked. I packed two bottles of that, along with another four bottles of local wine for sharing with my host. I also had five different cheeses that I’d picked up from Beecher’s in Seattle on my way home from Phoenix earlier in the week. I never go to anyone’s home empty handed, but I think I took things to extremes on this trip.

By 1 PM, I’d loaded my big cooler with veggies from my garden and all the other perishables that I’d bought or picked. The wine had its own cooler. Both of these went into the back of the helicopter. My luggage went on the other back seat with my camera bag on the floor. I laid the ribs, wrapped in thick foil, on the floor beneath the coolers. I put Penny’s bed on the front passenger seat, but after a moment sitting there in the sun while I ran up the engine, she wanted to sit in back. The only place to put her bed was on top of the cooler, which was about level with my head. She seemed comfortable enough there. I lifted off around 1:15 PM. After a quick stop at Pangborn Airport to top off both fuel tanks, I pointed the helicopter northwest.

Leaving Wenatchee
It was a beautiful day in Wenatchee, warm with scattered clouds that seemed to thicken to the west.

The flight was mostly uneventful. I tried to keep my route as straight as possible, but there were TFRs (temporary flight restrictions) in the area due to the wildfires we’d been having. One of them was in my path just west of Leavenworth. I kept south of it, flying up Icicle Creek and hugging the base of Cashmere Mountain so as not to stray into it. It was an extremely pleasant flight, cradled at the base of the mountains over the creek, to the end of the paved and then dirt road and beyond.

Icicle Creek
A flight up Icicle Creek.

The farther up the creek I got, the thicker the clouds ahead of me got. The higher I climbed up the drainage, the closer I got to all those thick clouds. I dropped down closer and closer to the trees to stay under the clouds. I slowed down as the path ahead began to look more and more iffy.

A quick look at my location on a sectional chart in Foreflight told me I was just south of Stevens Pass, the highest point on my trip west. If I could just get over the pass, I would probably be okay. Probably.

I started getting hopeful at 35 seconds into this GoPro nosecam clip from my flight. If you listen closely to the audio, you’ll hear the blade flap when I slowed way down before crossing over the ridge.

Finally, I was within about 50 feet of the Ponderosa pine trees, moving ahead cautiously at about 60 knots. Wisps of clouds were tangled in the treetops on either side of me. I looked ahead anxiously at the gap I’d have to pass through. All I saw were clouds — at first. Then an opening with trees beyond it. Could I get through?

I could, but barely. I squeezed through the pass under the low clouds and wound my way between clouds at my elevation, descending over Route 2 just west of Stevens Pass.

Whew.

The rest of the trip was under overcast skies. I beelined it for the coast, flying over Arlington Airport along the way. I detoured north around the surface airspace for Whidbey Island NAS, not really interested in talking to the tower there. That’s when I started noticing a light fog over the water up ahead. Dang!

Fog Over Puget
Fog drifted about 50 feet over the surface of the water west of Anacortes.

I called my host to see what conditions were like at his home. It went right to voicemail. I left a message and pointed the helicopter across the Rosario Strait. The fog below me was light — I could see an occasional boat down there — but I wasn’t sure what lay ahead.

I was over Decatur Island when Steve called back. It was clear, he reported. By that time, I’d gotten the feeling it would be. The fog seemed localized between Decatur Island and Anacortes. I told him I was five minutes out. Five minutes later, I flew over Fisherman’s Bay on Lopez Island. I scanned the shoreline and saw Steve and his sister waving. I circled around and came in for a landing, touching down lightly on the sea grass between the shore and his home.

Sure beats driving.

A Week of Fun and Relaxation

Seagull on Log
The rocky beach was full of driftwood logs that made perfect perches for seagulls.

Steve greeted me with a hug and introduced me to his sister, Kathi. Then we offloaded the helicopter and brought everything up to the house. (The ribs were still warm.) I brought my luggage up to the guest room and then set up an area in the corner of the kitchen for Penny’s food and water. Then we unloaded my groceries and stowed everything in his already packed refrigerator.

After we were settled in, Steve, Penny, and I went for a walk to the beach and walked the length of the causeway that separates Fisherman’s Bay from Griffin Bay and San Juan Island beyond it. Penny ran ahead of us, sniffing at the kelp washed up on shore and chasing seagulls and killdeer.

Helicopter at Lopez Island
I shot this photo of Steve’s back yard from the guest room balcony not long after arriving. I had to admit that my helicopter looked even better in Steve’s backyard than it does in my front yard.

Later, we sat on an upstairs deck to munch on wine and cheese and watch the sun set. Then we came downstairs and fixed up a dinner of Quincy corn on the cob, sliced cucumbers from my garden, sea asparagus Steve had harvested from his yard, and smoked ribs from my Traeger, finished off with some homemade barbecue sauce on Steve’s grill. Steve and Kathi seemed to like the Singed Cat as much as I did — the three of us polished off both bottles. We talked until well after dark and turned in for the night.

More Fog
In the morning the bay was shrouded in a thick fog that took some time to lift.

After breakfast, Steve, Penny, and I headed out on Steve’s little boat to drop the crab traps. We both had fishing licenses that allowed us to catch dungeness crabs and wanted to get the traps in the water as quickly as possible because they needed to be pulled on Monday per fishing rules.

Later in the day, we headed out to Shark Reef, with a great hiking trail that wound through woods before emerging at the shore where giant elephant seals sunned themselves on the rocks and bull kelp floated on the water.

Shark Reef
Panoramic view of the poorly named Shark Reef, which has elephant seals instead of sharks.

Elephant Seal
Does this look like a shark to you?

We spent a lot of time just talking and walking and taking photos. Steve is into photography even more than I am and I enjoyed seeing his 6’4″ frame folded up to get a closeup shot of a flower or interesting rock. It’s refreshing to go on a photo walk with someone who understands the importance of light in photography; we did almost all of our photo walks late in the afternoon when the sun was low in the horizon, casting a golden light.

For dinner back at the house, we had salmon that Steve marinated and then grilled. More wine, this time some Chardonay from Steve’s collection.

Sunrise
Sunrise varied from one day to the next; this one, shot from my window on Monday morning, was especially colorful.

Monday morning’s activity included a drive out to Fisherman Bay Spit Preserve at the entrance to Fisherman Bay. That’s where I got my introduction to sea glass — broken glass pieces that have been ground down by the sand and motion of the water. I eagerly joined in the hunt, although I only seemed able to find very small pieces of the stuff while Steve managed to find lots of large ones.

We also visited the local transfer station and a spot the locals call Neil’s Mall — a place where people leave possessions they no longer want and take possessions others have left behind. Steve was looking for a new coffee maker or a carafe for the one he’d broken on the coffee maker he had. Neil’s had both. We wound up taking a gently used Braun drip coffee maker that seemed to have all the parts. Later, we cleaned it up, set the clock, and even programmed it for the next morning’s coffee.

Kathi left around midday and Steve, Penny, and I went out in the boat again to try some salmon fishing. Steve piloted the boat up the bay and out the mouth of it, then back down the shoreline to a point not far (as the crow flies, anyway) from his house. We tried various places, spending a total of about 2 hours without any luck at all.

Crabs for Dinner
We caught three good-sized dungeness crabs on Monday and enjoyed them for dinner that night.

On the way back, however, we stopped to pull in the crab traps we’d set the day before and were rewarded with three keepers. Guess what we had for dinner that evening with the champagne I’d brought along to go with a shellfish dinner?

Kathi’s husband John arrived that evening, too. He’d be with us for the rest of the week, attending a golf tournament on the island and doing work with his computer when he wasn’t out golfing.

I think it was Monday night that Steve and I ventured out onto the back lawn after nightfall for some star photography. I’d come without a tripod, but Steve had his. He said he didn’t have much experience doing star photography, but he certainly had a good helping of beginner’s luck — almost every one of his shots included an amazing star field.

After breakfast on Tuesday, we headed out in the helicopter for pie. A friend of mine had told me that the best airport pie could be found at Port Townsend Airport. Although Steve had been flying with me before — I’d taken him and his sister Kriss on an aerial tour of Napa Valley back in March — neither he nor I had been flying around the San Juan Islands. Airport pie seemed like a pretty good excuse to get airborne.

I pulled both front doors off the helicopter for airflow and so Steve could use his camera without worrying about window reflections in his shots. I loaded Penny in the back seat on her bed. Then we took off from Steve’s backyard.

We flew east over Decatur Island and Anacortes, then followed the shoreline of the mainland south before crossing Skagit Bay to the east side of Whidbey Island. We flew just south of Oak Harbor and over San de Fuca, then crossed the bay to Port Townsend. The airport was south of town. We landed at the end of the parking area and walked to the Spruce Goose restaurant.

Spruce Goose Restaurant
The Spruce Goose does indeed have the best pie at any airport I’ve ever been to.

Although the restaurant had an outdoor eating area, Penny wasn’t allowed to sit with us there. So I tied her up nearby while Steve and I sat down for some pie. I had rhubarb (my favorite) with a glass of milk. I honestly can’t remember what Steve had. But I do remember that both were excellent.

After our pie, we fetched Penny and walked around the airport ramp area, looking at the planes. I told Steve what I knew about each model we saw — which wasn’t much. Steve isn’t a pilot but was interested in the planes. Actually, like me, he seems to be interested in most everything.

When we left, I decided on a more direct route back. Not the direct route — that would have had us flying over water for about 15 miles — but a route that took us up the west coast of Whidbey Island, past the navy airbase. That meant talking to the tower. I was pleasantly surprised when they cleared us to fly per my request. (I think Steve was impressed.) Later, as we neared the airbase, they amended our instructions to fly at 1500 feet over the field. As we did, we watched two F18s (in formation) and an air tanker take off below us. Very cool.

Whidbey Island
Overflying the airbase at Whidbey Island.

We crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca for the southeast corner of Lopez Island. But rather than go in for landing, we continued west to the west coast of San Juan Island. That’s where the orcas travel and we were interested in seeing them from the air. We flew up the coast and saw plenty of boats on the water and tourists at Lime Kiln Point State Park, a primary orca viewing area. But no whales.

San Juan West
The west coast of San Juan Island. I was about 10 miles from Canada here.

Low on fuel, I headed over to Friday Harbor Airport. I landed near the pumps and topped off the main tank; I knew I’d get more fuel in Bellingham or Arlington on the way home later in the week. Again, we decided to take a quick flight along the coast to look for whales. This time, we scored. There was an orca pod of at least six whales traveling south along the coast. Steve took a few pictures, but I didn’t dare fly any lower than the 500 feet I was at — the area was full of boats and spectators. I didn’t want to be blamed for “scaring off” the whales. We went past and I cruised away from the scene to give Steve time to change his lens. But when we returned, the whales were gone and the spectator boats were breaking up and going their separate ways. The show was over. We headed back to Steve’s place on Fisherman’s Bay.

Fisherman's Bay
Fisherman’s Bay from the air.

Later that day we headed out for yet another seashore hike. This time, we went to Iceberg Point on the southern tip of the island. (No, there weren’t any icebergs, either.) After a pleasant mile or so walk through cool forest, we emerged on a rocky, grassy point overlooking the mouth of Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca. It was clear and I was able to point out the Whidbey Island air base, mostly because its tower made a good landmark. We spent some time walking on pathways that wound among the rocks. Steve showed me some cacti that grew there — yes, cacti do grow in the Pacific Northwest. At first, I thought they were some form of cholla, which we have in Arizona, but they’re apparently brittle prickly pear, which is likely the same variety my neighbor gave me last year to plant in my garden. I realize now that I didn’t even take a picture of them, although I do have a picture of Steve taking a picture of them. (Don’t worry, Steve, I won’t share it here!)

Thistle Ladybug
I played around a bit with depth of field and focus on my Nikon with this view of a thistle and ladybug.

We spent hours there, walking, talking, exploring, taking photos. After a while, we found a quiet spot sheltered from the wind and just stretched out on the grass among the late summer wildflowers, listening to the sound of the waves on the shore and the gulls that flew by. Penny stretched out nearby in the tiny shade cast by my camera bag. It was nice to be unplugged and to go back to the basics of a more simple time. I thought about the countless trips I’d made to the shore on the east coast, alone or with a companion, and how I’d just soak in the scenery and the world around me. What happened to those times? It was good to get a chance to remember them, especially with a companion who seemed to feel the way I did about the experience.

Iceberg Point View
At one point, I sat up to take this photo of the view from where we lounged just listening to the sound of the waves and the birds.

The sun got ever closer to the horizon. When the temperature started to drop, we headed back out.

Near Iceberg Point
Here’s a look at Outer Bay on the walk back to where the car was parked t Agate Beach County Park.

Watmough Bay
A sailboat spied through the trees along the trail at Watmough Bay.

On Wednesday morning, after a search and rescue for Steve’s boat — I hadn’t tied it quite securely enough on Monday afternoon and the wind and tide took it for a short cruise without us — we did some work around Steve’s house, helping John set up some badly needed storage shelves in the garage.

Afterwards, we took another hike, this time along the south side of Watmough Bay, a sheltered cove surrounded by tall cliffs that’s apparently popular with sailors — there were three sailboats anchored there. The trail wound through thick, lush forest that offered glimpses of the bay beneath us as we climbed. Soon, the trail dropped us down into a tiny gravel beach where we spent some time looking for sea glass. Penny wandered off and found something super stinky to roll in. We hiked back to the head of the cove and walked along the beach there for a while.

Pebbles
It’s not easy to find sea glass when the beach is full of pebbles like this.

Back at the car, I had to wrap Penny in a tablecloth that Steve happened to have to prevent her from stinking up his car. A bath for her outside with the hose was the first order of business when we got back to Steve’s house.

Cabernet Sauvignon
I brought along these two Cabs specifically for a taste test.

That evening, we did a side-by-side taste test with the two Malaga Springs cabernets I’d brought along. They both went very well with the steak Steve grilled up for us. I think we both preferred the 2009 over the 2011, although Steve’s blend of the two was probably best of all.

On Thursday, we spent some time setting up a satellite dish antenna in Steve’s side yard. That meant digging a hole and planting a post, then mixing up some concrete and using it to secure the post in place. (We’d put the antenna on the post the next day, once the cement had cured.)

Steve put the crab traps back out that afternoon. Afterwards, we went for a bike ride out to Fisherman’s Bay Spit Preserve again. That’s when I realized how completely out of shape I was. I hadn’t ridden my bike in about two years and it really showed. The ride was short — only about 2 miles each way — and on relatively flat terrain. Steve loaned me a 21-speed bike quite similar to mine while he handicapped himself (so to speak) with a one-speed. Clearly I’d need to get more time in the saddle if I expected to go riding with him again.

Out at the point we spent some time just overlooking the entrance to the bay while boats came and went. A couple on a road trip from Maryland (if I recall correctly) stopped and chatted with us for a while. The air was warm and comfortable on yet another beautiful day. There’s something to be said about the rain shadow east of the Olympic Mountains and Lopez Island is definitely in it.

Fisherman's Bay Entrance
The bench we sat on at the point overlooked the mouth of the bay and this disused dock with the village of Lopez Island directly across from us.

We went out for dinner that night — my treat — at restaurant just up the road: The Galley. We had seafood (of course) and shared a bottle of wine. The food was excellent; the portions were huge. Outside the window, the sun set over the bay. I realized that my vacation was quickly coming to an end.

On Friday, after fiddling around a bit with the satellite dish, we each did our own thing. Steve went for a real bike ride and since we both knew that I’d just hold him back, he did it solo. Penny and I walked into town, a distance of about two miles. Along the way, I took photos of some of the flowers that were growing alongside the road and took a moment to check out the library, which is located in the original schoolhouse.

Flowers
I don’t know what these are but they were all over the place alongside the road.

Lopez Island Library
A panoramic shot of the Lopez Island Library, which is in an historic schoolhouse. I highly recommend stopping in if you’re ever out that way. It’s a really wonderful place.

While we were in town, I picked up some gifts for my host and a few small pieces of jewelry for myself; chatted with a gallery owner about glass work, helicopters, and the recent flash floods in the Twisp area; tasted some wine; and bought a whole salmon for dinner. The walk home wasn’t exactly fun — the bags were heavy! I refreshed myself with a quick shower before Steve returned, then faced the challenge of filleting the salmon. (Let’s just say I need practice.) Steve grilled up the salmon for dinner and we all feasted on it with some white wine from Steve’s collection.

The next day was Saturday, the day I had a good weather window for my flight home. It certainly didn’t start that way, though: the morning fog was accompanied by the sound of fog horns off in the distance. It took a while to burn off and when it did, we had yet another beautiful day.

Fog at Fishermans Bay
Saturday started with fog, but soon cleared up again.

While I waited for the fog to clear, I packed and did some laundry, then restored the guest room to the way it had been before I arrived, all ready for the next guest. We finished up the last of the blueberries with some yogurt and cereal — we’d actually eaten most of the food I’d brought, although a few pesky cucumbers and zucchini remained. Steve and I lounged in the living room together one last time and Penny curled up to nap on Steve’s lap.

I’d made plans to meet some friends of mine from Wickenburg in Bellingham; when the fog cleared, I texted them to give them an ETA. Then we packed up the helicopter, I put Penny on her perch atop the big cooler, and I said goodbye to my host. A while later, I was lifting off as Steve and his neighbors waved goodbye.

Bellingham and Beyond

The flight to Bellingham was quick — only about 15 minutes — and took me between Blakely and Obstruction Islands, up the coast of Orcas Island, and over Lummi and Portage Islands. I had become accustomed to flying longer than usual distances over water, but still kept higher than I normally would fly, watching out for the seaplanes I kept hearing on the radio.

Blakely Island
Most of the islands have airports; this is the one on Blakely Island.

The tower cleared me to land near the FBO. I shut down, put Penny on a leash, and went inside. My friends Stan and Rosemarie were waiting for me. We shared hugs and went out to their car. A while later, we were sitting on the patio at Anthony’s on the harbor. I had fried oysters — my favorite and not easy to come by in Wenatchee. We talked about all kinds of things, from what was going on in Wickenburg to how we’d spent our summers to the progress I was making on my new home. I hadn’t seen them since I moved out of Arizona in May 2013, although we’d spoken and texted several times since then and it was really good to catch up.

They had me back at the airport by 3 PM for my flight home. The flight was mostly direct, taking me right past or over more than a few very tall, rugged mountains. At least twice I found myself looking at the blue ice of small glaciers on north facing mountain tops. I spied hidden valleys and lakes and dozens of waterfalls. It was a really amazing flight, only slightly marred by the haziness caused by forest fires in the area.

Cascade Mountains
The North Cascades offer a rugged landscape with patches of snow in August.

Glacier View
I don’t know why I was so surprised to see glaciers, but there were at least two along my way.

Mountain Lake
Lakes like this one were hidden away up in high valleys, seldom seen by anyone other than pilots and adventurers on foot.

I did detour a bit to the north to avoid the TFR near Leavenworth. This time, I made a point of flying over Lake Wenatchee, which I’d never flown over. It looked smaller than I remembered it.

Then I was in familiar terrain, passing Cashmere, flying along the Wenatchee River, popping out at the confluence with the city of Wenatchee spread out before me.

Wenatchee from the Air
Wenatchee awaited me with yet another beautiful day.

I overflew my friend Bob’s house in East Wenatchee before turning toward home. As I touched down in my front yard, I thought about what a great vacation I’d had — including my trip there and back — and reminded myself how fortunate I am to have such great friends.

Wenatchee Sunset Flyby

More video from my GoPro nosecam.

I took the helicopter up to Tsillan Cellars on Lake Chelan with some friends for dinner yesterday afternoon. After an excellent steak (but sadly, no wine for me), I flew us back along the Columbia River. There was a nice sunset with lots of pink in the sky and the river was dead calm, reflecting the sky back at us as we flew along at about 500 feet above it.

Wenatchee at Sunset
The lights of Wenatchee at sunset. Screen grab from a GoPro video.

The lights were on in Wenatchee by the time we reached it. Rather than take a direct route from the Rocky Reach Dam to the airport, I did a downtown flyby. My GoPro Hero 3, mounted on the helicopter’s nose, captured the whole thing.

Got three minutes? Take a sunset flight tour of Wenatchee, WA:

A Visit to the Helibase

Nothing like starting the day with some heavy metal.

When my friend Tristan posted a Facebook update mentioning that he was working fires out of a helibase in Leavenworth, it was all I needed to plan a play day up in the mountains. I told him I’d come at 7:30, before he started work, for a brief visit. Then I picked out a hiking destination nearby, texted a few friends, and made a hiking date.

Alyse and I pulled into the field at 7:30 sharp on Sunday morning. I saw Tristan’s helicopter, a bright yellow Croman Sikorsky S-61, parked in the field with some other very heavy metal. There were no cars near it.

Malcolm & Friends
Malcolm and friends at the Leavenworth, WA helibase.

I drove up to the base trailer and got out, leaving the Jeep’s engine running.

“I’m looking for Tristan,” I told a woman there, including his last name in my comment. “He flies the yellow one.”

“Oh, yeah, Tristan. He’s not here yet.”

A man nearby took interest. “You can’t be on my deck,” he said.

I assumed he meant flight deck. He was being kind but firm. “I’m a helicopter pilot,” I said. “I just want to say hello to my friend Tristan. I haven’t seen him in two years.”

“I really can’t have you on my deck when it’s active,” he said, softening a bit. “You can drive over there and wait for him, but you need to be out when we start flying.”

I thanked him and we headed over, down a path in the grass field with a Do Not Enter sign prominently displayed. I parked by a portable toilet and we got out, leaving Penny behind in the Jeep. I texted Tristan. A moment later, he called me to tell me he was one minute out.

S-61 Outfitted for Firefighting
The Sikorsky S-61 my friend Tristan is flying on a firefighting job in Washington. Note the tandem tanker truck his company uses to haul around jet fuel.

He drove up as I was taking my camera out of my day pack. We shared a big hug, I introduced him to Alyse, and he introduced me to the helicopter’s captain, Sean. We chatted for a few minutes about my old Ducati 900 SS CR, which he’d bought from me in the spring of 2013 at a smoking good price. He’d stripped it down and sold off lots of the parts, in the process of turning it into a real cafe racer.

He gave us a tour of the helicopter that included a walk inside, which had been stripped bare to keep the ship light. It smelled of oil and grease and JetA. The cockpit instrumentation was remarkably simple. There were N-numbers scribbled on a Plexiglas window on Tristan’s side with a dry erase marker.

We climbed down and walked around the side. Tristan told us how it flew — more squirrelly than an R22, he said — and mentioned a few interesting flight and maintenance characteristics. Sean went for the morning briefing and told Tristan he could stay behind. The rest of the crew started working on the preflight, pulling off the blade tie-downs and adding hydraulic fluid to a port near the rotor hub. Tristan showed us the two buckets they use — not at the same time, of course — and described how they dip in a small creek near the fire.

S-61
Here’s another view of Tristan’s ship. Note the Bambi bucket on the ground in front of it.

We talked about his job as the second in command and the things he’s responsible for doing. We talked about what it’s like to fly fires in his position. We talked about the work hours and the challenges and the parts that make it easy and hard. Tristan had lots to say. Like me, he always does.

Note to Non-Pilots:

A fire helibase can be a very dangerous place to visit — which is why nonessential personnel are normally not allowed on “the deck.” The base commander very kindly allowed me a short visit with my friend, but don’t expect him to do the same for you.

Fortunately, this helibase has a nice observer area where you can come visit and watch the helicopters come and go. If you come, obey all signage and the instructions of base personnel and remain within the civilian area.

After about 20 minutes, I figured I’d taken up enough of his time. Besides, the sun was climbing ever higher into the hazy, smoke-filled sky and I was anxious to get down into the Icicle River Gorge where the air would be cleaner and the only sound would be water rushing over rocks. So we said our goodbyes, shared another big hug, and left.

Later, after the hike, we drove past the helibase again. Although the Sky-Crane and Army Chinook were there, Tristan’s ride wasn’t. I didn’t stop.

I’d still like to fly some heavy metal someday. I’d like to see what it’s like to have all that helicopter behind me up in the air. And while I’m not sure I’d be a quick study learning to sling a bucket under a long line, I’m pretty sure I’d catch on and do a decent job. But I doubt that any of that is in my future. Instead, I’ll watch my pilot friends move through utility pilot careers and wonder what it’s really like to be in their shoes.

Or seat.

Good luck, Tristan! Fly safe!

A(nother) Full Day

Sometimes I can really pack it in.

Yesterday was one of those days when there’s simply no rest. Here’s a quick rundown.

A Natural Alarm Clock

I woke at 3:50 AM. It was the sound of three drops of rain hitting my RV roof that woke me. This was an unusual sound that I hadn’t heard in weeks and it took a moment for my sleeping mind to register why it was important.

Rain.

I’m on contract to dry cherries.

I was wide awake in a flash, reaching for my iPad, summoning the radar. Yes, it was drizzling on me, but was it raining on my orchards 5 miles to the west?

Not yet, the radar told me. But there was rain in the area.

I lounged in bed for a while, reading, catching up on Facebook crap (which I’m convinced has become a sick addiction for me, since I get very little pleasure out of it), and checking my calendar for the day. I had three things scheduled: a meeting with my earth-moving guy about the ground work for my utility connections at 7:30 AM, a charter flight at 8:30 AM, and an invitation to help a friend pack Rainier cherries at 10:00 AM.

But the rain made things a lot less solid. Getting called to dry cherries took precedence over anything else I might have to do.

Earth-Moving Plans

Jeff Parks, the guy who had installed my septic system last year and did all the earth work in preparation for my building, arrived at 7:30 sharp. By then, it was drizzling again.

I outlined what I needed and he suggested ways to get the job done. That’s one of the things I like about Jeff — if you want to do something one way and he has a better way, not only will he suggest it, but he’ll explain why it’s better. He’ll also take the time to go over the pros and cons of the different materials that can be used.

In my situation, I need to run a water line from the city water source to my building and my shed, an electric conduit from my transformer box to my building and my shed, and a septic system line from the takeout near the building to the building. I also wanted to install a second takeout near the shed so I could create a complete RV hookup there for guests. I wasn’t in a hurry to get this done, but I did hope to have it finished by August month-end, which was fine for Jeff.

We decided that I’d buy the materials with a shopping list he provided. I already had much of the conduit and pipe I needed. He’d get back to me with a solid estimate.

The Charter

My charter client knew I was a cherry drying pilot and called while Jeff was there to make sure we were still on for the flight. I told her we were, then told her that I’d call her cell phone if I needed to cancel.

But I didn’t have to cancel. At 8:20, I said goodbye to Jeff, locked Penny in the RV, and hopped into the helicopter. Ten minutes later, I was shutting down at Pangborn Airport across the river, ready to greet my passengers.

My passengers were two fruit buyers from the midwest that my client was entertaining during a visit to the orchards. I’d done short tours for a handful of the client’s guests last year. This year there were only two of them and the client didn’t mind my one-hour minimum. I’d pick them up at Wenatchee Airport, take them on a scenic flight around the area, and drop them off at Quincy Airport where my client would be waiting.

My passengers were pleasant men who really seemed to enjoy the flight. They asked me to show them a new orchard being planted north of the airport on some old wheat fields — I didn’t even know it was up there! Then we headed down river, past the Rock Island dam. I pointed out the features now visible due to the low water levels. (The Wanapum Dam is still being repaired so the lake level is extremely low and closed to the public.) We saw Crescent Bar, the Gorge Amphitheater, Cave B Inn and Winery, and Sunland before turning and heading back over Frenchman’s Coulee, Quincy Lakes, and Quincy. One of the passengers obviously knew the area very well because he kept pointing out various orchards and packing/storage facilities around us. After 45 minutes, I landed at Quincy where their ride was waiting. The last 15 minutes of their hour would get me back to Wenatchee.

Packing Cherries

Of course, I didn’t go back to Wenatchee Airport — or home. Instead, I flew to the orchard where my friends Donn and Kathryn were using their cherry packing line for the very first time. The reason I flew instead of driving there was because there was still rain possible and it would have taken 30-40 minutes for me to drive home (or to the airport for that matter) if I were called out to fly. By flying there, the helicopter was only 5 minutes away so I’d be able to respond quickly if called.

The Cherry Packing Line
Packing cherries can be labor-intensive, too.

The packing line was set up in a new building near their house on the orchard. There was a huge walk-in refrigerator where cherries picked the previous day and that morning had been stored. Then a conveyor belt that would take cherries from an ice water bath past quality control people who’d pick out the bad ones. Finally, the cherries came out on the far end where they fell into plastic-lined boxes.

Cherries Dropping into Box
At the end of the line, the cherries dropped into a box.


I shot this little video to show how the cherries moved down the line.

The quality control people worked at a feverish pace, picking out cherries that weren’t “perfect.” They checked for things like size, color, splits, bird pecks, and mold/fungus. Even stems — if a cherry didn’t have a stem attached, it was rejected. (I ate a lot of those.) The line moved quickly; we probably packed at least 10 pounds per minute.

My job was to work with Kathryn to fill the boxes, make sure they weighed 16 pounds (15 pounds of cherries plus the weight of the box and excess water), close them up, and put them on a pallet. The trickiest part was pulling one box away while putting an empty one in its place. It required the two of us to work in harmony to prevent cherries coming off the line from falling on the floor. It took us a few tries, but we finally got it working perfectly. We joked that she was Lucy and I was Ethel.

Drying Cherries

It started to rain while I was there. Then the inevitable phone call from one of my two clients still on contract. Could I dry, please? Fortunately, my helicopter was parked right across the street from the orchard. I excused myself from Kathryn and Donn and walked down the hill to where I was parked. On the way, I ran into the orchard owner. I told him I’d been helping with the cherry packing in the new shed and expected rain so I’d flown over.

I was airborne when the second client called. I was now responsible for flying over about 90 acres of cherries — about my limit for the 2-1/2 hours allotted.

I called Mike, my backup pilot. Although he was off-contract, he was in the Quincy area and could, theoretically, fly up to help out. But he was having engine trouble with his motorhome and needed to sort that out. So I tackled it on my own.

I flew until I was low on fuel — remember, I’d burned an hour’s worth that morning — then refueled at the airport 5 minutes away and flew until I was done. I explain what cherry drying is all about in other blog posts; click the cherry drying tag to learn more.

Back to Packing

No Swimming
I don’t know…do you think swimming is allowed here? Sky looks nasty, huh?

Afterwards, I landed back near Donn and Kathryn’s house, but this time on a dam around a reservoir in the orchard. I walked down to the packing shed where they were all still working. Kathryn took one look at me and asked, “Are you hungry?”

“I was hoping you’d ask,” I replied.

She brought me into the house and let me loose on salad fixings everyone else had had a while earlier. I made myself lunch and ate it alone while she went back down to work. Then, after a quick trip to the loo, I went back out to help.

Other helpers had taken my previous job so I filled in where needed, giving people breaks as they needed them. In the end, I wound up right where I’d started with Kathryn beside me. That’s where we were when the last few cherries came down the line. We all cheered. They’d packed 420 15-pound boxes — over 3 tons of cherries.

We cleaned up immediately. Extra cherries were handed out. The packing line ladies left. I passed on the cherries, preferring to come back later in the week to pick my own from the same trees — pickers aren’t always thorough. I’d get some blueberries that day, too. Kathryn invited me to join them for dinner in town later on. She’d text me. I looked forward to it, but not nearly as much as I looked forward to taking it easy at home.

When I flew off, the refrigerated truck that would take the cherries to Seattle had just arrived.

A Short Rest

At home, Penny the Tiny Dog was happy to see me. She always is.

I took it easy for a while. I made some soup and watched a documentary about abandoned cities on Netflix.

Kathryn called to tell me they’d decided on Pybus Bystro at 6:30. I told her I’d come if the weather held.

A friend called and I spent a half hour chatting with him. Then I noticed the weather was changing again. One look at the radar and I cut the call short.

I went outside and topped off the helicopter’s fuel tanks with 100LL from the tank on my truck.

I texted Kathryn and told her I wouldn’t be joining them after all.

More Cherry Drying

My other client called first this time. It was about 6 PM when I launched. The second call came while I was enroute.

Track
I hadn’t gotten very far when it started raining. Again.

The orchards are only 5 minutes away by air. I settled in over the trees of the big orchard and was at work for less than 15 minutes when I decided to track the flight with GPSTrack.

I was only 16 minutes into the logged part of the flight when it started to rain. Hard.

I flew over to a friend’s house and landed in his driveway, knowing he was out of town. I called my two clients and told them that I’d wait until it stopped or 7 PM, whichever came sooner. If I re-started after 7, I’d never finish before it got dark. Even then, it was iffy.

It was still raining at 6:55 PM when I started back up.

I speed-dried. I knew I’d never get it all done thoroughly, but I figured I could get most (or all) of it done if I was a bit less thorough. The result wasn’t as good, but was better than leaving 20 or 30 acres completely uncovered. Partial coverage was better than no coverage. Besides, rain was expected overnight and I was likely to be called out first thing in the morning.

Speed Drying
In speed drying, I go down every third aisle instead of every second. Sometimes I do every third one way and every second the other. Less coverage is better than no coverage. Keep in mind that this satellite image is three years old; the orchard configuration is a bit different these days.

I got through all of the big orchard and one of the two smaller orchard’s blocks. By then, it was getting dark. The sun had set around 8:45 PM and clouds on the western horizon made it darker than it would normally be. My landing zone at home wasn’t lighted and I really didn’t want to land in the dark. I also didn’t want to hover five feet over cherry trees in hilly terrain in semi-darkness with a windscreen full of raindrops. So I let the last orchard block go.

It was drizzling when I headed home.

Home

The helicopter was lit up like a Christmas light parade float on the flight home. Strobe light (required during flight), navigation lights (required after sunset), landing light, pulsing lights on my skid shoes. I wouldn’t be surprised if neighbors called me in as a UFO. But it felt good to get on the ground, especially since I knew I was done for the night.

I shut down, let Penny out for a run, and then went in. My friend Bob called while I was pouring a glass of wine. We chatted for a while and I invited him to join me Thursday evening to pick cherries and blueberries. It was after 10 PM when he reminded me that I’d probably be up early.

I finished my wine and went to bed, exhausted.

It had been a very full day.

They Call the Wind Maria

A blog post about pollinating corn with a helicopter.

The call came on Monday from someone who works with a very large agricultural manufacturer. Do I do corn pollination with my helicopter?

The only thing I knew about pollination by helicopter was the spreading of purchased pollen using a special piece of equipment installed in a helicopter. It was a two-person job — one to fly, one to measure out the pollen — and I didn’t have the equipment or experience. I’d actually looked into at the request of one of my cherry pilots this past winter, but when he didn’t seem interested in moving forward and I suspected I might need special certification for aerial application, I let it drop.

Besides, I didn’t realize helicopters were used for corn pollination. I thought helicopters just spread pollen over fruit orchards.

But this new potential client didn’t want me to apply pollen from the air. He wanted me to fly over the cornfields in such a way that the pollen would get blown about and do its fertilization thing.

The way he described it, it didn’t sound much different from the kind of flying I do when I dry cherries. Sure, I told him. I could do that.

The Field Guy

After sending the company a copy of my W-9 for billing purposes — big companies always want the paperwork first — I got a call from the field guy. We’ll call him Bill. Bill and I set up a meeting at the White Trail Produce farm stand in Quincy. It was a perfect place to meet, despite the fact it was an hour drive from my place in Malaga. White Trails makes the best peach shakes.

I was drinking a peach shake with Penny on her leash when Bill drove up. Although we’d never met, I easily guessed it was him — he had a plastic chemical tank on the back of his pickup. We sat down in the shade and talked about the work.

Corn Tassel
Wikipedia image “Corntassel 7095″ by Spedona Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corntassel_7095.jpg

The problem was this: as the corn was growing, a heat wave had set in. For the past nearly 2 weeks, the daytime highs had been getting into the high 90s and low 100s. The corn had formed tassels at the top — that’s the male part of the plant that produces pollen — and each day the packets of pollen were opening, ready for the pollen to be dispersed by the wind.

Corn Silk
Wikipedia image “Cornsilk 7091″ by Original uploader was Pollinator at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Teratornis using CommonsHelper. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cornsilk_7091.jpg

Unfortunately, the extremely hot weather was killing the pollen within a few hours and the lack of wind was making it nearly impossible for the pollen to reach the corn silk — that’s the female part of the plant growing lower on the stalk — while it was still viable.

Bill’s corn fields needed wind — on demand.

That’s where I came in. They’d call me out to fly low over the corn fields at the time when the most pollen was being released by the tassels — likely between 8 AM and 10 AM. I’d fly back and forth, making sure all the plants got a good blowing. Once the pollen was flying around, gravity and mother nature would do the rest.

That was the plan, anyway.

Bill gave me four maps, each of which had at least a dozen or two corn field locations plotted on it. Each had a different number. They were scattered throughout an area that was probably 50 square miles. He said that each field was on its own schedule, so they would never all be done at once. Instead, only a handful would need to be done on a day.

That worked fine for me. I have a one-hour minimum for flights at my charter rate and would be spending at least 30 minutes round trip for travel time, which they would cover. If I could do two or three fields on a flight, it would likely come out to 90 minutes, which looked good for my bottom line and gave them more bang for their buck. Win-win.

I was booked with a photo flight in Seattle at dawn on Wednesday morning, so my first available day was Thursday. Bill said he’d call Wednesday night with a plan.

The Flight

Bill called Wednesday evening. I pulled out the maps. He listed two fields in Quincy and one in George. He asked me to be at the first Quincy field at 9:30 AM. He’d be on the ground, watching what I did. If I needed to make an adjustment in speed, altitude, or distance between passes, he’d call and let me know. Because the second field in Quincy was so close, he’d probably watch that one, too.

We hung up and I looked up the fields on Google Maps, knowing that the plantings in the satellite view might not match what was actually on the ground. I found the cross streets and noted the shape of the fields. I highlighted the fields on my maps.

Corn Field 1
The first field was easy; all corn, no obstacles. I came in from the southeast and went back and forth to the north.

At 9:15 AM Thursday, I took off and headed to Quincy. After following Road 9 instead of Road 8 for about a mile past the field location, I doubled back and zeroed in on the first field. Bill’s truck was in the southwest corner. As I came in to make my first pass about 10 rows in, he got out of his truck to watch.

It took me a few minutes to get the hang of it; my brain wanted to dry cherries. But this was higher: about 15 feet rather than 5. It was also faster: 20-24 miles per hour rather than 5 to 10 miles per hour.

I looked back on my first few passes to see my coverage and realized that every 20 or so rows would be perfect — the corn was really blowing at least 20 feet on either side of the helicopter. (The corn rows were planted 22 inches apart.) I was probably on my third pass before I got the feel for where I should be and how fast I should be moving. I was on my fifth pass when I started making baby ag turns — not much more was needed at the speed I was operating.

Bill watched. I kept expecting my phone to ring, but it didn’t. When I got near the north end of the field, I realized I had an onlooker there, too.

Corn Field 2
The second field had wires just outside the field. I came in from the north over the wires, circled around, and went up and down the rows. This satellite image doesn’t show the field as it appeared during the flight, of course.

I got through the first field, which was the largest, in about 15 minutes. The second field was right across the road. The were wires on both ends of it, but they weren’t that close to the corn. I made my turns inside the field so there was no need to go anywhere near the wires. Bill repositioned to the north end of that field to watch. When I was nearly done, I realized he was on the phone. Again, I expected my phone to ring, but it remained quiet.

Corn Field 3
This is the last field, which was fully planted with corn. This image doesn’t show the irrigation pivot, but if you look closely enough, you should be able to see the wires on the west side.

I finished up and headed to George. I found the field a lot easier than I expected to, but didn’t like what I saw. Not only did it have an operating irrigation pivot in it, which would force me to fly higher, over the pivot arm when I reached it, but there were what we call “Bonneville” power lines — the tall towers with multiple high-tension power lines between them. The power lines definitely crossed the field. To cover the corn, I’d have to fly under the wires very close to the tops of the plants. Suspecting that I might do more harm than good to the plants — and possibly to the helicopter — if I attempted to fly under the wires, I did only 2/3 of the field before heading out.

There was a house on the north side of the field and about five people had watched me work. I was only there about 5 minutes.

I called Bill and told him I’d finished, what part of the George field I’d missed, and why I hadn’t done it all. He seemed to understand. He also seemed very pleased. I wondered whether he could see the pollen dust on the plant silk. I hoped he’d have some kind of quick confirmation that our “wind on demand” scheme had worked.

I flew back and parked at home. I’d logged just 1.1 hours of flight time.

Repeat Performance?

Learn more.

Want to learn more about how corn pollination works? Read this.

And the title of this post isn’t something I dreamed up. It’s from this song, which was covered by Robert Goulet and others. And maybe — just maybe — it inspired Jim Hendrix to write this song.

Will I do this again? I hope so. It was kind of fun and a welcome break from cherry drying and passenger work.

But it all depends on the age of the corn and the weather. To need me, three things must happen at once:

  • The corn must be ready to pollinate.
  • It must be more than 85°F.
  • There can’t be much wind.

If all three of this conditions apply, my phone might ring with a request to fly in the morning.

I’ll be waiting for it. I need to practice my ag turns.