Snowbirding 2018: Boat in Tow

I finally take my little boat to Arizona and get it out on the Colorado River for the first time.

Way back in 2011, when I was spending my fourth summer in Washington State for cherry season, a friend of mine sold me her little jet boat. It’s a 1995 Sea Ray Sea Rayder F-16 and I blogged about it here. It’s not much of a boat, but it runs reliably and it does get me out on the water. What else could I ask for?

The Boat’s Aborted Travel South

My Boat at the Campground
I was living in my fifth wheel for the summer, camped out at a golf course campground when I used my boat for the first time.

I used it for the first time in May 2012, out on the Columbia River. Although I’d been expecting my future wasband to join me in Washington that summer, he had other plans that included his request for a divorce. A (misguided) friend of mine assured me that I’d be able to patch things up when I got home in the autumn and I believed him, so I continued my summer without much thought about his request, especially since he didn’t actually file for divorce.

Near the end of the summer, I emailed him about my plans to bring the little boat home for the winter. I figured I (we?) would take it out on Lake Pleasant, as we had my jet skis years before, and possibly on other Arizona lakes and rivers. Maybe we could recapture some of the fun we’d had earlier in our relationship. When I got no response from him, I started poking around and discovered that although he hadn’t filed for divorce, he’d gotten a lawyer and was living with another woman. He hadn’t filed for divorce because he was hoping to get his hands on half the money I earned drying cherries that summer. I immediately did three things: filed for divorce, changed my will, and scrapped plans for bringing any of my assets home.

So the boat stayed in Washington, stored in a friend’s garage until I could return. There was a hilarious scene during the divorce trial when my future wasband’s lawyer tried to get me to admit the boat was worth more than it was by offering me too much money to buy his half of it. I took the offer but my wasband backed down — he didn’t really want the damn thing; it was just a failed stunt cooked up by his lawyer and the old whore managing his side of the divorce. I was awarded the boat in the divorce without having to pay him a penny for it — after all, it was mine — and was back on the Columbia River in it, even before the divorce papers came through.

Thoughts of Going South

Time passed. Although I loved my new home in Washington State and used the boat there in the summer, I didn’t like the short, dreary winter days when I had no flying work and little reason to stick around. In 2014, I began wintering in Arizona, mostly in a generous friend’s guest house and in my RV on BLM land.

I started seriously thinking about bringing the boat south with me for the winter in 2016. I’d sold my big fifth wheel and had replaced it with a truck camper. This gave me the ability to tow something behind me when I went south. In preparation, I took the boat on its trailer to the local Discount Tire shop to get the tires replaced. That’s when I discovered that they were the original tires and were 21 years old. Can you say “dry rot”?

But when it came time to go south that year, I didn’t feel comfortable about bringing it. The camper was still pretty new to me and I was going to be covering a lot of miles with stops along the way. Did I really want to deal with a boat behind me on a complex trip? The answer was no. So I left it home and made the trip without it.

I began regretting that decision in January when we camped out along the Colorado River at a campsite with a boat ramp and easy access to the river. I had my kayak with me, but it was a royal pain in the ass to get on and off the roof of my truck camper. It would have been nice to launch the little jet boat and use it to explore the river.

At Walker Lake
Here’s a shot of last year’s truck camper (the Turtleback) with my kayak on top. It was a PitA to get it back up there after using it.

But what really convinced me I needed the boat in Arizona was the day trip I made to Arizona Hot Springs on the Colorado River, just downstream from the Hoover Dam. I’d rented a boat to get there and wanted to go back, possibly to camp along the river near the mouth of the canyon downstream from the spring.

The Boat Goes South

Still, it wasn’t until early October 2017 that I committed to take it south. That’s the same time I committed to getting a booth at Tyson Wells Sell-A-Rama in Quartzsite for 10 days in January. The boat would do double duty: I’d also use it as a utility trailer to haul the additional gear I’d need to set up my booth.

I had to make some preparations.

First, I had to buy a hitch extender that would enable me to hook up the boat behind the truck with the camper on top of the truck. You see, the back end of the camper extends at least a foot and a half behind the truck’s back bumper. I searched online and found an extender that would work for the boat’s relatively light load. I had to get it cut down to size at a local metal shop; the guy did the work in exchange for being able to keep the part he cut off.

Next, I had to load up the boat with all of the items I wanted to bring for my Quartzsite booth and possible boat camping along the river: canopy booth tent, extra tarps, tent camping gear (including a new tent), fresh water jugs, cooler. I also had to give the boat’s cover a good coat of water-proofing spray; although it lived in my garage, I remembered the cover getting soggy the few times it had been out in the rain. I didn’t want everything inside the boat getting wet if I hit rain or snow on my way south.

Once everything was stowed and the boat was covered, I used a pair of ratchet tie-down straps to firmly secure the boat to the trailer. I wanted to minimize bouncing which I knew the lightweight boat did when I trailered it anywhere. I had a long drive ahead of me and I didn’t want any problems back there.

Finally, I had to hook everything up. That meant getting the camper on the truck (after getting a firiend to help me get the truck’s tailgate off), and then getting the boat hooked up behind it. I wound up using my Jeep, which has a handy front tow hitch, to get the boat out of the garage and position it on the concrete driveway apron in front of my big RV garage. Then I carefully backed the truck with the camper on it to get it into position and hook it up. I needed a trailer wire extension piece to make the connection between the truck and the boat’s light system.

The last thing I did was set up my “poor man’s backup camera” so I could keep an eye on the boat while we made our way down the road. As it turned out, I only used it for part of the trip. My new truck camper had a window in the back door that made it possible for me to see out the back through my truck’s rear-view mirror. It wasn’t as good as the backup camera, but it was good enough to keep an eye on things.

And then I headed out with Penny.

My October Vacation

I know I promised a blog post about my October vacation, but I guess you can count that as a broken promise. If I don’t blog about something right after it happens, it doesn’t get blogged about.

The short version is this: I gave myself two weeks to get from Wenatchee to Wickenburg — a trip I have done in the past in just two days. We visited friends along the way: Jim and Teresa in Coeur d’Alene, ID; Ann and Robert in Torrey, UT; Janet and Steven in Hotchkiss, CO. I camped in all kinds of places, from nice riverside campgrounds to crowded National Park campgrounds, to remote roadside pullouts on BLM land. I visited several national parks, hiked for miles, wandered around prehistoric Indian ruins, and did some night photography. The boat trailered behind me like a champ, never giving me any trouble at all. Sure, I looked funny camped out in the desert southwest with a boat, but who cares? At least I gave people something to talk about.

Why yes, I did tow my boat through multiple southwest desert national parks and monuments last October. Here they are at Capital Reef National Park in Utah.

I arrived in Wickenburg at month-end, stayed in my friend Jim’s guest house for two days, and left my camper and boat parked out of the way in his yard with a new solar panel keeping the boat’s battery charged. Then I took my truck down to Gilbert and spent two days with my friends Jan and Tiffani there. I even got a chance to fly a Schweizer helicopter for the first time. By November 4, I was home, just in time to see the first snowfall for the season.

The boat and my camper and my truck waited five weeks for my return.

Take Me to the River!

I returned in early December, after my annual Santa flight. Although I’d originally planned to bring the helicopter south with me, I didn’t have enough guaranteed work to make the trip worthwhile. So I left it behind at home and flew commercial to Phoenix with Penny and a big bag of all the things I’d forgotten to pack in the camper in October.

I spent one night with my friends in Gilbert, reclaimed my truck, and met some other friends in Scottsdale for lunch and a Segway tour. (There’s a long story there that, at this point, isn’t worth telling.) Then I went back to Wickenburg and camped out for two days in Jim’s guest house again. I didn’t do much in the area other than prep my truck, RV, and boat for my winter travels. That included making sure the RV batteries were charged — they were since I’d left the rig plugged into Jim’s house for five weeks — and topping off the fresh water supply. The waste tanks had been dumped before I parked it.

I did take my friend Janet out for a boat ride on Lake Pleasant one day. I wanted to make sure the thing ran. It would be horrible to get it out to the river and then not get it started. But it started more quickly than I expected and we spent an afternoon out on the lake, tooling around, fishing, and exploring the Agua Fria Arm of the lake before it shut down for bald eagle breeding season.

It was the trip on the lake I’d envisioned five and a half years before, but with a different person. We probably had more fun.

Back at Jim’s house, I loaded the boat up again, covered it, and strapped it down.

Finally, on Monday, December 11, I had everything hooked up and headed out to the river. I was planning on staying at a campsite we called Janet’s Point which is about 8 miles south of I-10 on the Arizona side of the river. The campsite is a big flat area with its own boat ramp and access to both a backwater and the Colorado River. Unfortunately, a redneck loser was there — that’s another long story not worth telling — and I wound up in my second choice spot, which was on the same backwater about a half mile away. When Janet joined me with her little trailer and dog the next day, we launched my boat and I motored it over to our campsite.

Our First Outing

Still with me? Yes, I know my backstories can be long.

We quickly discovered that the level of the water in the river and the backwaters fluctuated wildly depending on how much water was released 70+ river miles upstream at the Parker Dam. The first morning, my little boat was mostly beached and didn’t start floating again until after noon. It was worse the next day. That’s when I got the brilliant idea of putting an anchor off the stern to keep the back end in the water. Problem solved.

Drone photo of our campsite
Here’s our backwater campsite, from the air. You can’t really tell in this shot, but my little boat was half out of the water. Oops.

When the water was full up that day, we took the boat out. It was just Janet, me, and Penny. We motored slowly in the backwater for that half mile, got to the channel, and zipped out into the river. I brought it up to full speed and we headed upriver. My logic is that if the boat’s engine is going to crap out, I’d like to drift back toward where I want to be. But the boat ran great.

The only problem was shallow water, which was really freaking out Janet. She apparently had some bad experience running aground with a sudden stop that sent things flying. I wasn’t worried about running the boat aground nearly as much as I was worried about that 120 horsepower sport jet engine sucking up sand. But the boat, when planing at speed, had a shallow draft — seriously, I should look up just how shallow it is — and never ran around, although I had my finger poised over the engine kill button more than once. We motored all the way up to where we could see the I-10 freeway bridge cross the river. Then we turned around and headed back.

Along the way, Janet got a text from her friend Steve. He’d come down to our campsite to visit us, found us gone, used his chainsaw to cut come of the wood we’d gathered into usable pieces, and had headed back toward his camp near Quartzsite. We saw his van, with the bright blue fishing kayak strapped on top, as he drove up the levee road. Janet connected by phone and soon I was motoring toward where he’d stopped along the road.

Wouldn’t you know it? He stopped right by the shallowest part of the river. The boat’s hull scraped the soft sand and I hit the kill button. We were stuck momentarily and used that time to have a shouted out conversation with Steve. Then the river’s current pushed us free and we drifted away. When the water got deep enough, I started the engine and we continued back to camp.

We were a lot more confident about the water depth on the way back. We’d both paid close attention to where the sandbars were on the way upriver and I managed to maneuver between them as we headed south. We purposely passed the opening to the channel back to camp, going an extra half mile or so just to see what it was like down there. But then I turned us around and we rode back to the channel. It was a bit tricky getting in to the very narrow channel with the river’s 6-8 mile per hour current. I had to crab the boat in. Once I was out of the current, I turned the wheel hard to straighten out, zipped through the opening, and reduced power down to no wake speed. We puttered the half mile back to camp.

A Non-Event? Maybe, but that’s not the point.

It’s funny how a boat ride I’d imagined for years turned out to be such a non-event when it actually happened. But, in hindsight, I don’t think it was the actual boat ride that interested me so much. Instead, it was the logistics and challenge of getting my little boat down to Arizona, as I’d planned to do so many years before, and finally doing it. The boat ride itself wasn’t a big deal.

And I think this long and drawn out story illustrates something about me that I’ve only recently begun to be aware of: I live for challenges. Small or large, possible or impossible — my life seems to revolve around finding challenges that interest me and turning them into reality. Or, when I fail, learning valuable life lessons along the way.

Let’s face it: I’m a smart, healthy person with money in the bank, retirement funded, and a comfortable paid-for home to live in. There are no challenges to survival and maintaining the simple status quo of my life. It would be very easy to just kick back and live a boring life at home year-round, entertained by television and punctuated by carefully planned packaged vacations.

And that’s pretty much what I experienced when I was in a relationship with my wasband.

Although it didn’t bother me when I was younger, it ate at me as I got older and heard the ever-louder ticking of my life clock. There is more to life than just waiting around for the end of it.

Finally getting my little boat down to Arizona and taking it out on Lake Pleasant and the Colorado River was a challenge — admittedly a small one — and it feels good to have tackled it and succeeded in making it happen.


I started this blog post in December — which is when I actually got the boat out into the river — and set it aside for a full two months. I thought I should trim it down a bit and I definitely needed to add photos. But I wound up keeping just about everything I’d written before adding links and photos and getting it ready to publish.

We took the boat out one more time before the forward/reverse cable decided to seize up and limit the boat to idle speed. I was fortunate to have that; it made it possible to limp back down to the boat ramp and get it back on the trailer. It took a week in Blythe to get the parts and have it repaired. Then it was back in the water for Christmas and a few more rides on the river. I had the throttle cable replaced, too, and the boat runs more smoothly than ever.

I parked it for nearly a month in a back parking lot at Tyson Wells while I camped out there with my booth. Then, last week, I hooked it back up and headed back into the desert, finally ending up at Buckskin Mountain State Park upriver from Parker, AZ. I had it out a few times, including all the way down to Parker for lunch one day and up to the Parker Dam another day. I enjoyed the luxury of being able to park at a real dock at the campground during my stay.

My boat docked at the Cantina on the Colorado River.
Parked at the Bluewater Casino’s Cantina boat-in restaurant.

I’ll leave Buckskin for Cattail Cove State Park later today and, of course, bring the boat with me. There’s a boat ramp there that’ll give me access to Lake Havasu. Although I’d love to take it all the way up to Laughlin — as I did years go via jet skis with my wasband — I’ll likely limit my explorations to Topok Gorge.

Next weekend, I’ll be at Willow Beach Campground just downriver from Hoover Dam. I’m looking forward to taking it up to the hot springs every day during my stay.

Will I bring the boat with me next year on my travels? Probably not. Although it hasn’t been much of a burden to tow it around with me, it is a lot simpler to travel without it. I know I can do and that’s apparently enough.

Besides, I’m not sure whether I’ll be coming back to then Colorado River next winter. I have other, more challenging travel plans in mind.

Last Flights of the Season

Santa drop-off, burgers with friends, and the special apple delivery.

I don’t care what the calendar says — winter is definitely upon the Wenatchee Valley where I live. After an early snowfall not long after Halloween and a subsequent thaw, the typical winter weather moved in, with four days out of seven filling the valley with fog. Sometimes my home, which sits about 800 feet above the river, was under it, other times it was in it, and a few times it was above it. The temperature hovered between 25 and 35 degrees day and night, so it wasn’t that cold. But it could be dreary, which is bad medicine for a sun-lover like me. I honestly don’t understand how people can live on the west side of the Cascades where it’s gloomy far more often than sunny all year around.

I normally go south for the winter and this year is no different. But I had some business to take care of at home, including my annual Santa flight, and couldn’t get back to the sun until after that. Scheduled for December 4, I fully expected it to be my last flight of the year. But sometimes I get lucky. Here’s a quick rundown of the three flights I finished the season with.

The Santa Flight

Pybus Public Market is a venue on the waterfront near downtown Wenatchee, WA. Once a steel mill, it was completely renovated about five years ago and now houses several restaurants and shops and hosts indoor and outdoor merchants for seasonal farmers markets and other events. It’s a really great public space, and a destination for locals and tourists, with plenty of events and things to do and see. Anyone who visits Wenatchee and doesn’t stop by Pybus is really missing something special.

Me and Santa
Here I am with Santa in 2012. Penny came along on the flight — she loves to fly in the helicopter. Note the polo shirt I’m wearing. Even with Santa’s door off, I wasn’t cold in December in Phoenix.

When I lived in Arizona, I was one of several helicopter owners/operators who volunteered to fly Santa in to the Deer Valley Airport restaurant in north Phoenix. The restaurant — which I highly recommend if you’re in the area; get the gyro sandwich — was privately owned by a Greek family and one of their sons would don a Santa suit on Saturdays and Sundays. For the four weekends leading up to Christmas, he’d get flown in by one of the local helicopter operators where a crowd of parents and children waited and cheered his arrival. We’d take turns picking Santa up at one of the FBOs at the airport, flying him north out of the airspace, and then turning around and returning — so it looked like we were flying in from the North Pole — and landing in front of the crowd. Once inside, Santa would sit on a big chair and kids would sit on his lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas while parent cameras snapped. Then, I assume, the whole family would stick around for lunch. I blogged about the first time I did this, back in 2011; my wasband came along and took photos and you can see them in the blog post.

N630ML at Pybus Market
My helicopter is parked on display inside Pybus Public Market back in 2014. You can read the blog post about that here.

So when I moved to the Wenatchee area and fell in love with Pybus, it made sense to offer up the helicopter for Santa’s big arrival the weekend after Thanksgiving. Usually, Santa arrived in a fire truck, but most people agreed a helicopter would be way more exciting. I worked with Steve, the manager there, and set up a safe landing zone — or “heliport,” if you go by the definition that the county illogically clings to (long idiotic story there) — at the south end of the building. I picked up Santa at the airport and flew him in while a small crowd looked on. That was in 2013, the year I bought property for my new home in Malaga.

In subsequent years, Santa and I repeated the performance with bigger crowds every year. Weather was usually a factor though, and I remember one year waiting until the last possible minute to decide whether the flight was a go or no-go. But we made it each year and, when the weather was bad, I departed as soon as the crowd was inside the building so I could get the helicopter put away before the weather closed in again.

In 2016 — last year — the helicopter was in Arizona for its mandatory overhaul so I couldn’t do the flight. There is another red helicopter based in Wenatchee, however, and I knew the owner. I asked him to do it and he was game. But the weather did not cooperate at all and he couldn’t make the flight. Santa arrived on a fire truck that year.

This year, however, the helicopter was back in Washington and ready to go. I watched the weather all week and found it hard to believe the forecast for Sunday was as good as it was. On Friday morning, I went with Steve to the local radio station and talked up the upcoming flight. Steve said some really nice things about me and the other person who’d come along for the radio spot. Afterwards, I suggested that if the weather was good, Steve and I would go down to Blustery’s in Vantage for lunch. Bring a friend or two, I suggested. I was in no hurry to put the helicopter away if the weather was going to be good.

When Sunday arrived, the weather was perfect for a flight: clear, no fog, light wind. I picked up Santa at Wenatchee Airport and we touched down in the parking area — “heliport”? — there right on time. Here’s a video of my arrival on the Wenatchee World’s Facebook page.

Santa's Arrival by Helicopter at Pybus
Here’s Santa stepping out of the helicopter at Pybus. I have a sneaking suspicion this Pybus website photo is from the 2015 flight because I don’t remember anyone being in the doorway when I arrived this year.

After Santa and most of the crowd went inside, I shut down the engine so a few of the onlookers could come closer to the helicopter. I gave the kids postcards that featured an air-to-air photo of the helicopter over a lake that could be along the Columbia River. Kids got their photos taken with the helicopter. I answered the usual questions about speed and fuel burn and how long it takes to become a pilot.

Onlookers Checking Out the Helicopter
The helicopter at Pybus Public Market after last Sunday’s Santa flight. I like to give kids a chance to see the helicopter up close.

Will Fly for Food

Once the crowd around the helicopter broke up a little, we cleared the landing zone and Steve and a friend climbed on board. I started up and, a few moments later, took off over the river.

I cannot stress enough how perfect the weather was for flying. The cool air and recent engine overhaul worked together to give me amazing performance; cruising at 110 knots was easy. With very little wind, the flight was smooth and I could easily steer the helicopter anywhere I wanted to go. It was my first day flying in over six weeks and it really reminded me why I’d gotten “addicted” to flying and why I loved it so much. I felt as if I could have flown all day, stopping only when I needed fuel, and exploring every bit of the area that I loved.

We flew downriver over the two bridges and along the shoreline. I detoured to the south a bit to fly past my home, which Steve had never seen. Then we got back over the river and continued down toward our destination, about 30 miles (as the crow flies) away. It was nice flying with friends again — I haven’t been doing as many pleasure flights as I like these days — and seeing familiar terrain through their eyes. We saw the fire damage from the two early summer fires, one of which had come frighteningly close to where I live, new orchards and vineyards going in near Spanish Castle, and rock formations along the river. I dropped down low for a better look at the two huge herds of elk on West Bar, then flew up the Ancient Lakes side of Potholes Coulee and down the Dusty Lakes side. We went “backstage” at the Gorge Amphitheater, which was buttoned down for the winter, and past the Inn and yurts at Cave B Estate Winery. I flew past the rock climbers at Frenchman’s Coulee and pointed out the sand dunes near there that are virtually unknown to the folks in the area because they can’t be seen from any road.

Around then is when the wind picked up a little bit, adding some mild turbulence to the flight that made Steve a little nervous — unless he was just kidding? As I descended toward Vantage, I could see some whitecaps on the water surface below us. I crossed over the top of the I-90 bridge and made a right descending turn to my usual parking spot — or “heliport”? — at Blustery’s, crossing over the freeway just 100 feet up. As I set down — rather sloppily in a strong crosswind — I wondered if it was open because there was only one car there. But as I cooled down the engine for shutdown, we saw the OPEN sign. A few minutes later, we were inside, placing our orders.

Steve and Annette at Blustery's
Steve and his friend Annette with the helicopter at Blustery’s in Vantage, WA.

The folks who work in Blustery’s know me and always seem glad to see me. I know they know the helicopter is out there in the parking lot when I come, but none of them have ever said a word about it. One of these days, I’m going to take them up for a quick ride.

I ate my favorite three-meals-in-one-burger: the Logger Burger. It has two burger patties, bacon, ham, cheese, and a a fried egg. It’s huge and very tasty. And messy. I didn’t think I could finish it all, but I did. I pretty much skipped the fries. Steve picked up the tab, of course. That’s one of my rules: when I fly you for a meal on my dime, I fully expect you to pick up the tab for that meal. Folks who don’t get that, don’t get a second flight.

It was about 3 PM when we headed out on the return flight. The wind down there was still blowing pretty hard — it’s almost always windy on the river there — but I pointed the helicopter into the wind and let it help us climb out. I flew along the cliff face on the west side of the river, looking for the bighorn sheep I knew might be there. When I spotted one, I made a 360° turn to loop around and make sure my passengers could see it. It turned out that there were two of them, running off to the west with their white butts making them easy to see among the golden grass and sagebrush. We continued onward over the tops of the cliffs there, looking for more wildlife but coming up empty. This time of year, the elk move to lower elevations along the river, which is why we’d seen so many at West Bar, across the river from Crescent Bar. We descended closer to the river near the old Alcoa aluminum plant, where I made my radio call for landing at the airport. A short while later, we were on the ground.

I put the helicopter away, thinking it was the last time I’d fly it for the year.

The Apple Express

I was toiling over my to-do list at 7:30 AM on Tuesday when my phone rang. It was the helicopter pilot for one of my clients. I’d done such a good job flying them around a few years back that they’d decided they needed their own helicopter and had bought one. Tyson, a vet who’d learned to fly in the Army, had been hired to fly it and we’d become friends. I still flew for them occasionally, but not as often as I’d like to. They’re really nice folks and I always learn a lot about agriculture when we fly together.

Tyson’s helicopter was in pieces in Hillsboro, OR, for some scheduled maintenance. Normally, that was fine — his employers rarely flew in the colder months. But this morning, they had an emergency. They had to get 240 pounds of apples to a packing plant in Pasco, WA and had a tight deadline. Making the 2-1/2 hour drive was not going to get them there on time. They wanted to fly them. Could I take them on my helicopter?

After a miserable Monday, that day’s weather was perfect. There was some patchy fog low over the river here and there, but a quick check of the weather along my flight path showed it was good to go. So I said yes, got dressed, and hustled to get the helicopter ready for departure.

Tyson came with me, mostly because he knew the landing zone — “heliport”? — better than I did. We left Wenatchee Airport together and landed at the landing zone his employer had set up behind their facility in Wenatchee. On our descent, we spotted a bald eagle perched on a pole beside an empty osprey nest.

Apples in Helicopter
The boxes of apples filled the back seat area of the helicopter.

The apples were in 20-pound boxes and they absolutely filled the back seat area of the helicopter. Honestly, I didn’t think they’d all fit. But we got them in, closed the doors, strapped ourselves back in, and headed southeast on a direct course for the packing plant northwest of Pasco Airport, 86 nautical miles away. That meant an immediate climb to clear the cliffs just south of my home. I hadn’t flown that way in a long time; I prefer following the river whenever I can, but when a client is paying for flight time, you go direct whenever possible.

Just beyond the ridge, the valley was filled with low clouds. I maintained altitude as we flew over them, crossed the river again, and cut across the Quincy basin. The clouds disappeared. The air was calm and the flight was smooth. Tyson and I chatted about all kinds of things. It was nice to have company on the flight. We crossed Saddle Mountain and I maintained altitude to cross the Hanford Reserve, which has been in the news too much lately. The chart requests that pilots maintain 1800 feet MSL over that area and I’m all for that, especially since our flight path took us pretty darn close to the nuclear power plant at the south end of the reserve. The clouds were over the river there again and visibility at nearby Richland Airport was down to 1 mile. I exited the reserve area and started my descent, flying over those clouds.

I called in to Tri-Cities Airport for permission to land. Even though we weren’t landing at the airport, our landing zone was within Tri-Cities’ airspace so communication with the tower was required to enter the space. We saw the facility when were were still a few miles out and Tyson guided me to the landing zone on the southwest side, a gravel parking area. I flew low over some wires and set down smoothly in the middle of the area.

I was expecting someone to come out and receive the boxes, but no one appeared. So Tyson and I offloaded them ourselves, setting them out in a row on the gravel so my downwash on departure wouldn’t knock over a stack. Tyson walked off toward the building and found someone to talk to about the boxes while I took a few photos and secured the back doors. Then he climbed back on board and we departed to the northwest, after chatting with the Tri-Cities tower controller again.

Helicopter and Delivered Apples
Before departing, I took a photo of the helicopter in its landing zone with the apples we delivered. I have a lot of photos of my helicopter in various unusual landing zones. (Or do I mean “heliports”? I’ll have to ask the folks at the Chelan County building department, since they apparently know more about helicopters than I do .)

Track Log
Our track log for the apple delivery flight. I use Foreflight to automatically track the exact path of all of my flights these days.

We returned by almost the same exact route, although I did pass on the west side of the nuclear power plant on my way back. By then, just about all of the low clouds had cleared. It was still calm and smooth. I flew much higher than I usually did, even after leaving the Hanford area, and was treated to unobstructed views of Mount Rainier and Mount Adams. The only other interesting thing we noted on the way back was a C-130 transport flying below our altitude on a practice run for a drop zone east of our flight path. Tyson knew the frequency they’d be talking on and we tuned in. Soon, we heard air traffic control notify the huge plane about traffic 10 miles west at 3300 feet northwest bound — us. Tyson and I kept an eye on it until we were well clear of the area.

I crossed the ridge behind my house again and started the steep descent to the airport. When I set down, I had mixed feelings. I was sad that this would definitely be my last flight of the year — I had meetings on Wednesday and was leaving town on Thursday — but happy that I’d gotten this unexpected flight on such a great day for flying.

Killer Floods

A review with a backstory.

Last summer, I did a flying gig that started in Spokane and had me flying over a good portion of the state. The client was a video production company based in the U.K. that was working on a NOVA documentary about the ice age floods, which are often referred to as the Missoula Floods.

If you don’t know anything about the Missoula Floods, here’s the short version. Millions of years ago, when the Cascades were a chain of active volcanos, they laid down layer after layer of lava that became (mostly) basalt rock. The Ice Ages came and a sheet of ice stretched from the North Pole down into the northern United States. In Montana, the ice sheet formed a dam across the mouth of a valley and huge volumes of water accumulated behind it. Over time, the ice dam was eroded and broke free, releasing all that water very quickly. It came downstream, across Idaho and Washington State, carving out some very interesting canyons and other formations. Then the ice dam was created again and broke again and created again and broke again. This cycle happened at least 15 times, depending on who you talk to, starting about 16,000 years ago. It explains the modern geology of Central Washington state’s coulees (those carved canyons), potholes, dry waterfalls, and so-called Scablands. You can read more about this in Wikipedia. Or you can just watch the documentary I’m reviewing here.

The best way to get an idea of the massive scale of the hydrologic action resulting from the Floods is from the air. Sure, you can take a hike into a coulee or to the top of Dry Falls and look around, but it isn’t until you get a few hundred feet up that you realize just how enormous these places are. So the film crew looked for a helicopter with a Cineflex camera mount. Of course, there aren’t any of those outside a big city and they did have a budget so bringing one in was not an option. They did, however, find my helicopter company, Flying M Air, which, at the time, owned a Moitek gyrostabilized camera mount (which I’ve since sold).

I should mention here that this is the one and only time that damn camera mount got me a flying gig. I bought it to increase my aerial photo business and very seldom used it. I charged a fee for its use and it probably finally paid for itself sometime in 2014; I’d owned it since 2009. It was a beautiful piece of equipment, exquisitely hand made right here in Washington State, but it weighed a ton and took 30 minutes to assemble and another 20 minutes to break down. I hated dealing with it, despite the $500 per use fee I charged. Packed in two huge Pelican cases — one for the mount itself and one for the three Kenyon KS-8 gyros that went with it — it took up space and gathered dust on my garage floor. I sold it to an LA-based pilot for just $5K this past summer. What a steal. The gyros alone were worth more than that — but I don’t miss it one damn bit. It was not one of my best asset acquisition decisions.

The Flights

Turns out that they needed a videographer who could use the mount and had appropriate equipment to mount on it. I turned to Charley Voorhis of Voortex Productions, one of the two local video companies I’ve worked with. Charley has some impressive equipment — I think he brought one of his RED cameras for this gig — and lots of experience with the mount. (I almost wish he’d bought it.) Then I stepped back and let him make his deal with the client. All I cared about was flying.

The day of the flight came and we left, bright and early, for Spokane. I’d already set up the mount as far as I could, tying it down with gaffer tape since it would be out of balance until a camera was on it. I’d put the door back on so we could maximize cruise speed to get to the client meeting site; the helicopter is limited to 100 knots with any door off. We got there on time and met at the FBO to come up with a plan. I had them top off the tanks with fuel and removed the door where the camera mount was. Charley set up his camera.

We wound up doing several flights. The first was a long one that started in Spokane, flew directly out to Dry Falls — which is about 2/3 of the way back to Wenatchee — circled that more times than I can count, and then headed down the smaller lakes to Ephrata, past Moses Lake, and over the Potholes Reservoir. On board were me (of course), Charley, and the video director (or producer?) who told Charley what shots to get. The mount took up a whole seat but I wouldn’t have taken a third passenger if I could; I have a strict policy regarding the number of people on board for photo flights and always limit it to three.

Dry Falls Photo Shoot
Here’s a closeup of my track, recorded automatically by ForeFlight, for the time we were in the Dry Falls area. What’s ironic here is that we flew around in a noisy helicopter for a good 15 minutes and likely bugged the hell out of people on the ground. A drone probably could have gotten the same footage without disturbing so many people. (Of course, it would have taken most of the day.) But because Dry Falls is a Washington State Park, drones are prohibited. Go figure, huh?

Dry Falls
Photo of Dry Falls by © Steven Pavlov /, CC BY-SA 3.0, I think that most of the footage shot from my helicopter and used in the documentary was shot in this area.

After refueling at Moses Lake — we’d flown about 2-1/2 hours since leaving Spokane — we pretty much high-tailed it back to Spokane. Then we did two flights south past Cheney and east of Ritzville. That’s where the Drumheller Channels are. I’d never even heard of the place, but apparently it’s one of the best examples of the Channeled Scablands. One flight was with the same group on board; the other was with the geologist you see in the documentary. When the geologist was on board, the client’s own videographer flew with me, sitting beside me to shoot the geologist in the seat behind me as he spoke about what we were flying over. That’s probably also when they got footage of my helicopter’s panel and even me. Those two flights each took about a 1-1/2 hours with refueling in Spokane between each one.

After that, we were done. I dropped everyone off in Spokane, retrieved the door, and put it back on. Charley and I sped back to Wenatchee where we went our separate ways.

I think the whole gig was supposed to be just 5 hours, including travel time, but I flew (and billed for) more than 9. It was a very lucrative gig. But what was [almost] better was how much I saw and learned about the geology of the state. That’s one of the reasons I like doing aerial photo work; I get to see and learn a lot.

The Documentary

I have to admit that once my invoice was paid — which took a little effort since the money was coming from the UK — I didn’t give the project much thought. I didn’t even blog about it. That’s probably because last summer was very busy for me and I did a lot of cherry drying work. I even dried cherries later that day. I’d stopped blogging about my interesting flights, although I really don’t know why.

So imagine my surprise when a lawyer friend asked me yesterday in an email if he’d just seen my helicopter in a NOVA episode.

I went online and found the NOVA episode titled Killer Floods immediately. And although I rarely watch television during the day, I’m recovering from a cold and figured it was a good way to kill an hour. So I sat down, fired up the Roku with PBS, and watched it.

Let me start by saying I generally like NOVA documentaries. At least I used to. They’re filled with facts and good videography and leave you feeling better educated about topics than you were before you watched them. But I don’t know if it’s a general trend in documentary filmmaking or just a new NOVA style, but it seems to me that they’re trying too hard to sensationalize the topic or apply it to today’s world.

Two things immediately struck me about this one.

First, the name: Killer Floods. This particular documentary covered three flood events, all three of them were prehistoric. So although it’s likely that they killed something — plants? animals? — they didn’t have an impact on man at the time. In addition, their significance was not the fact that things were killed but more that the flooding changed the shape of the landscape by suddenly and violently eroding and washing away rock.

Second, the attempt to suggest that the three floods documented in the video have anything whatsoever to do with today’s flooding due to climate change. They managed to include footage from the flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey — a mere two months before air time! — which has absolutely nothing to do with these three prehistoric floods. Yet the narrator suggested that they might be related. I think that’s stretching it beyond reasonability.

But hey — I get it. They want people to watch so they come up with sensationalized names (see also Killer Hurricanes and Killer Volcanoes), and try to get people interested by pointing to recent events that they’re familiar with. After all, is the average person going to be interested in a documentary about how three prehistoric flood events changed the landscape in relatively remote areas of Central Washington State and Iceland or under the English Channel? I doubt it. NOVA is competing with reality TV, sitcoms, and sports. While I’m interested in just about any topic NOVA covers, most people aren’t. Sad but true.

That said, I thought the documentary was well written and produced, with plenty of good videography, interview clips, and narration. It walked viewers through the logical process of figuring out how each of the three landscape formations they were researching were actually made. (I already explained the one in Washington State; I’ll let you watch the documentary to learn about the other two.) The Washington one was a bit slow for me because I already knew the answer but I found the other two fascinating. I’ve been planning a trip to Iceland for late next summer and may extend it a few days to take in some of the sights shown in the documentary. And now I have a fresh desire to see the White Cliffs of Dover.

But what really tickled me was seeing my helicopter near the very beginning of the documentary, with the Flying M Air logo prominently displayed. Later, a shot shows my door with my name on it. And somewhere else near the beginning, you can see the helicopter’s controls and even a quick shot of me looking like a bit of a bum in my gray sweatshirt.

Those glimpses were enough to get my brother, who never picks up the phone, to give me a call yesterday evening. “I’m watching NOVA. Is that your helicopter?”

And that set off an hour-long conversation about all kinds of things. Heck, I talked more with him yesterday evening than I had all of last year. (Seriously: he just doesn’t like to talk on the phone.)

This obviously isn’t the first time I’ve been involved in a video production. I’ve been flying this helicopter since 2005 and have done countless video/photo shoots over the past 13 years. But I’m pretty sure this is the first one that has appeared on PBS or a highly respected documentary series like NOVA.

It’s about as “big time” as my little company will get — and that’s okay with me.

If you’re going to watch it, watch it soon. The website says it “expires” on December 7. If you’re really interested in flood-related geology, why not get the video? You can buy it on iTunes.

Look for me in the credits.