Oh how I've been dying to share what we did last week!
I've mentioned how I work with the teenage girls in our church congregation which means that I help them put together weekly activities designed to teach them all sorts of useful and interesting things. Sometimes our activities are good, sometimes they're not as good but we do have fun (remember our kayaking trip last summer? That was a bucket load of fun).
I got it into my head to give the girls a look at airplanes. After all, flying is a huge part of life in Alaska: most of the villages are accessible only by air which has led Alaska to have more people with pilots' licenses per capita than any other state. Lake Hood, near the Anchorage International Airport, is the busiest seaplane base in the world and there are many neighborhoods throughout Anchorage that have landing strips running along through the backyards with planes tied up as if you were seeing horses tied outside an old-time saloon in the wild west.
A friend of mine (Dr. Todd Christensen, a dentist here in town and a very nice man) loves to fly and happens to have three planes. Not only does he fly but his teenage sons also know how to fly and I got him to agree to give the girls an evening of airplane instruction.
We women drove north of the city, took the exit for the Old Glenn Highway then headed along for nine more miles until we crossed the Knik bridge (pronounced kuh-nik) where the Knik river snakes along with wide, sandy banks on either side. We pulled off the road onto the gravel then ended up fording the shallows in my minivan as we joined the guys who had flown in ahead of us to welcome the party.
Todd and his boys had flown in with two Super Cubs which are (as he describes it) "the ATVs of the airplane world." These tiny (and I mean tiny) two-seaters weighing 1200 pounds are light enough to lift in 35-40 mph winds because they're meant to fly in anywhere--on mountaintops, on sandbars, on glaciers, wherever they need to land--and to say they're exciting is a bit of an understatement.
We had a short intro to the planes, complete with a tour of the cockpits, then while most of the group got turns sitting and working the rudder and ailerons Todd took us up one by one for rides.
Grace went up first and about the time I was checking out the instrument panel there was this whooshing, roaring, rush overhead and the little yellow craft with my first born child swooped by overhead before banking to the right and heading higher up into the sky. After my initial terror it was amazing and thrilling and then my next thought was that I hoped the girls hurried up and got all their rides in because I was definitely going to be fighting them for a turn.
Once she was back on the ground she was giggling with amazement.
"He pointed to this little sand bar on the river," she said, "and then he said, 'see that sandbar down there? We're going to land on that!' and then he did!"
While Grace went up one of the boys kindly set a small bonfire ablaze on the beach so that we could roast marshmallows as we waited. Every so often the plane would sweep by overhead as it crossed up and down the river
Soon enough the plane would return in a ball of dust and noise and a laughing girl would climb out of the back seat while the next one in line took her place behind the pilot and the plane would rotate on its wheels, turn back where it came from and head away on up the beach before arching into the sky and out of sight.
Each time the plane landed the large and smooth rubber tires would bounce along like cartoon tires made of Jello as they'd flatten against the rocks then straighten again and the wind would carry the wall of dust kicked up by the propeller away from us upriver. The slightly overcast sky was warm and silvery as the evening wore on toward 9pm and the sun still shown and the fire burned brightly.
Finally all the girls had had their turns and I thought it would be acceptable to take a shot at things myself. Todd graciously offered me the last ride of the night and I climbed nervously into the seat behind him, strapping on my seatbelt and adjusting the headset mic so that it fit right in front of my mouth.
Just as the seatbelt was tight the propeller roared loudly and the plane turned upstream along the sand and I heard on my headset the question, "Do you want to have the window open or closed?"
"Open or closed?" I said "I didn't know that was even an option!"
"Then we'll leave it open," he said, as the wheels left the ground and the wind rushed through the cabin that was small enough to make my minivan feel like a mansion. My hair flipped around my face a bit as we got above the trees and the river sunk below us and it was terrifying and inspiring in equal amounts.
We raced along, higher and higher, until we eventually closed the window and turned back around downstream toward the camp. Gaining speed, we zoomed by over the girls' heads until I squealed as if I were on a roller coaster.
Coming back around there were beautiful little cabins on hilltops and ponds here and there. At the edge of one was a man with his snowmobile and I heard on my headset, "See that guy down there?"
"Watch, he's going to try and run his snowmobile over the pond."
And sure enough, the figure moved forward and headed out on the water and with a spray it zipped across the water toward the other side. We were gone by the time he should have reached the other side so I can't guarantee that he made it but I appreciate him making the ride that much more memorable for me.
Finally as I thought we were ready to land Todd said, "Do you have a cell phone or something?"
Thinking it was an awkward time to be making a phone call I said, "Uh, no . . . "
"Anything else in your pockets?"
"I've got keys?"
"Perfect! Here--give them to me."
I passed him my large key chain, complete with my tiny Swiss army knife, and he set them firmly in front of him on the narrow dashboard.
He pulled up on the stick and the plane shot up higher, nosing upward in what felt like a 90-degree angle. My stomach pressing deeply into my seat I giggled in what was surely a juvenile way, enjoying the sensation and briefly reasoning that the odds were pretty good that in this brief, ten-minute ride I wouldn't die.
Then the plane dove. My stomach floated up into my rib cage but what was more amazing was that my keys floated off the dashboard of the plane, then back through the cabin and into my startled, open hand.
"HOLY COW!" I squealed (or something like that) "You floated my keys back to me!"
Which was all I could talk about once we were back on the ground again and I think all the girls were just a little bit jealous.
I think we all could have stayed and done another round of trips but the guys had to go so we said goodbye, forded back across the stream and headed back to town. . . .
Here is a short clip of some of the evening. The only disappointment we had was that just as the plane buzzed by our camp my camera battery went out so that I didn't get any of the footage I'd hoped for. And trust me, you can't be any more irritated about the issue than I am. But it is what it is and at least it's a peek, right?
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