Sunset Over Alamo Lake

I do a custom photo flight at the lake in the middle of nowhere.

The call came on Friday. Could I fly over Alamo Lake for some pictures around sunset?

I asked the logical questions. How many people? Three. Are any of them really big? One big, one medium, one small. Doors on or off? On. Then I told him I couldn’t fly low over the water or anywhere where there were a lot of people. I could get him there and back in about an hour — from Wickenburg. Where was he calling from?

Universal Studios in California, came the surprising answer. But he’d be in Mesa on Saturday and would drive up to Wickenburg. He then proceeded to tell me what he wanted the pictures for and ask a bunch of questions about whether Alamo Lake was a good choice.

“Lake Pleasant is nicer,” I told him. “And closer, too. Alamo Lake is in the middle of nowhere. Not much going on out there.”

“Perfect!”

He agreed to meet me at Wickenburg Airport at 6 PM. It was my understanding that sunset was at about 6:30 in Wickenburg. That would give us plenty of time to get to the lake. The moon would be up and filling out. Even if it started to get dark on the way back, there would be plenty of moonlight for the 30-minute flight over empty desert.

Saturday came. Mike and I decided to take a motorcycle ride up to Prescott. If I get time, I’ll write about that in another blog entry. It was a nice trip. My passenger called at 3 PM while Mike and I were having dessert at a restaurant at the mall. They were on their way. From Mesa.

I’d told him the day before that it was only a 90-minute drive, but I guess he wanted to make sure he got there on time.

I got to the airport at 5 PM. Mike helped me bring the helicopter out and fuel up. I preflighted. My passengers showed up at 5:50 PM. The guy who’d booked the flight, along with his brother and his son. I gave them their prefligtht briefing and we boarded. I was warming up the engine when Mike rode away on his motorcycle. He’d be back in a little over an hour to get me. (My motorcycles live at the airport in the hangar so I had no way to get home.)

I won’t get into details about what the photos were for. Let’s just say that my passenger was writing a work of fiction with an illustrator and needed some photos of what was in his imagination so his illustrator could create the accompanying artwork. He told me a great deal of the plotline as we headed west toward Alamo Lake. He asked a lot of questions, especially about the weather.

He told me he had three data cards for his camera and each of them could take 130 pictures. I wasn’t terribly thrilled with the prospect of flying around Alamo Lake long enough for him to take 390 photos of it. I could spend a lifetime there and not find that much to take pictures of.

As we flew west, the sun was sinking low and the streaks of dirt really showed up on my bubble. It not only embarrassed me, but it kind of pissed me off, since I’d cleaned the bubble while I was waiting for them. I wondered whether my passengers would comment on it (“Don’t you ever clean this thing?”) but they didn’t.

We flew over the lake. My passengers were happy to see it. They started snapping photos. I tried to find one of my stock photos for this piece but couldn’t track one down. Imagine a rather broad valley where three water sources converge: the Big Sandy River, the Santa Maria River, and Date Creek (usually dry). They come together to form the Bill Williams River, which cuts through a canyon as it heads west to join the Colorado River. But Arizona dammed up the mouth of the canyon to form a lake. (Rumor has it that they created the lake to prevent California from getting the water from those three sources.) The lake is roughly round with very few of the flooded canyons that makes Lake Powell or even Lake Pleasant so attractive. Mike and I had camped out there twice and although it was a nice place to get away from it all, there wasn’t much to get away to there.

I remarked at the number of campers in the two main campgrounds. The place seemed packed. They must have had some kind of fishing competition going on. That was the only thing that could ever get that many people out to Alamo Lake. Hell, it was a two hour drive from Wickenburg. Add another hour and a half from Phoenix and you have a long drive. But if you’ve ever been to the Wayside Inn, you know there are fish in that lake.

We flew relatively low to the southwest of the lake and beyond the dam. My passenger wanted to get specific views of the lake and it was my job to deliver him to the exact location where he’d get those shots. I wouldn’t fly low over the lake (no floatation devices on board) or over the campground (no desire to get complaints from the rangers stationed there).

Then we climbed in a spiral over the lake. “As high as you can go,” my passenger told me. I figured that would be about 9000 feet before the vibrations started weirding me out. The lake was at 2000 feet elevation (or thereabouts). The higher we flew, the cooler it got. It started at about 80° by the lake and wound up at about 51° 5000 feet above it. That’s as high as I got. Although the helicopter was behaving nicely, it felt really weird being that high over all that open desert.

The view was bigger up there, although there was a lot of haze. I could see the Bill Williams River winding its way West and the Colorado River and Lake Havasu out there to meet it. I could see the edge of the huge leach field out by Bagdad mine. I could see the mountain ranges lined up in every direction, each range a slightly different shade of color than the one before it. This is the kind of view my passenger wanted, so he was happy. And that’s what counts.

The was one thing that would have made my passenger happier, but it was something I couldn’t provide: clouds. He wanted to see clouds over the lake. But there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky as far as the eye could see. It was a perfectly clear Arizona April day. The kind an east coast girl like me can get sick of when there are too many in a row.

Of course, the higher we got, the higher the sun appeared to get. Sunset was quite a way off at this elevation. I suggested that we descend to hurry things along. My passengers agreed and I started a spiraling descent back down toward the lake. We were about a thousand feet over the lake at 7:00 PM when the sun finally slipped beneath the horizon. It was a typical attractive yet rather boring sunset. A big orange globe sinks. No clouds to turn beautiful colors, no contrails to glow in the sky. The air temperature immediately started to drop.

We headed back to Wickenburg, making one stop to get a shot down the road toward the lake. The darker it go, the higher I flew. It was technically night when I landed at the airport. We’d been up for 1.7 hours, according to the Hobbs meter.

Mike was there waiting for us. My passengers settled up their bill and we went our separate ways.

It had been an interesting flight — mostly because my passengers were city folks from Los Angeles who were unaccustomed to empty desert landscapes. The assignment was interesting, too — not because of what we had to take pictures of but what the pictures were for. It was satisfying to me, as a writer, to see another writer going through the legwork of researching his subject matter. He didn’t just imagine what Alamo Lake was all about based on what he saw on a map or Web site. He’d driven out there once and had gone the extra step (and expense) to fly out there. It was important to him to get it right.

And I was pleased to help him.

What do you think?