Moonlight is bright; sunlight is perfect

(c) 2010 James Wiebe.  Reproduction not allowed without written permission of  the author.

1.  Moonglow

I am standing outside the tent.   I can hear the Middle Fork of the Salmon river flowing not more than 30 feet from where our tent is pitched.  I can feel the stillness of the air.  The temperature is perfect — cool, not cold, not warm, not uncomfortable.  Cool.  Just cool.  It is exactly as it should be in the night.

The temperature is perfect, the night air is perfect, the sound of the river is perfect, yet there is something creating more majesty than any of these minor senses.

It is the moonlight.  It is the brightest moonlight I have ever seen.  It is so bright, that I find myself wondering if I am in a dream, wondering if I am wandering in a dream place.

But no, this is not a dream.  It is real.

20 minutes prior, I watched the moon rise.  Since our camp is set in a valley, we have mountains on all sides.  The sides of the hillside were bathed a soft and very white light, but I could not yet see the moon.  Then, it peaked a few rays of moonlight from between pine trees, on a ridge line, across the river valley, up the hill.  A couple of minutes later, and the glow of the moon is full.

Everything in the valley is as visible as if I was in daytime.  I can see the bushes, close up.  I can see every ridgeline.  I can see the hiking trail which cuts five feet from the front of our tent door.  I can see large trees, nearby.

I am still wondering why I am in this dream.  It is so beautiful.

There is no one there, except myself, and my friend, who is sound asleep in the tent.

I look back up at the moon.  I see the moon, racing above the ridgeline to our south.  It has quickly cleared the pine trees, and is now hovering over the top of the ridgeline.  The shadow of the moon is cutting across the valley like a deep velvet knife.

2.  Arrival

We left Challis, Idaho in my C172.  After climbing and clearing the Sawtooth mountain ridgeline, the valley of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River opened up in front of us. There is a scratch in the dirt, atop a slight mesa, aside the river.  A huge tree stands at the west end, like a sentinel.  The scratch in the dirt is a place to land airplanes, if you are able, if you are trained, if the winds are correct, if the density altitude is low enough.   The challenge of doing that is the price of admission for entry into this valley.

I know how to do this.  I will cross to the right of the runway, having descended to an altitude which is perhaps 800 feet higher than the scratch strip.  After I clear the ridgeline at the west end, and clear the sentinel tree, I will turn left, then left again, so that I am now coming back parallel to the airstrip, in what would be called ‘downwind’ at a normal airport.  You can see the sentinel tree clearly in my photograph.

While on ‘downwind’, I will do two things:  put out more flaps, to slow the plane down, and continue a descent, to roughly 600 feet above runway elevation.  Because I am now deep inside the valley, and tight to the airstrip, I see the side of the mountain rushing by below me.  I am perhaps 100 feet from the outstretched limbs of snags and pines as I am cutting air corners inside the valley, so that I can land.  Perhaps I am closer.  I continue racing ‘downwind’, and the runway is now a half mile behind me.

Then I turn, and I can see the runway emerging in the left side of my vision.

And finally, I complete the turn to final.  Flaps are full; my approach speed is balanced between too slow and too fast.  Too slow:  I stall, or land short into the side of the river bank.  Too fast:  I land long, wave at the sentinel tree as I ram into the far hillside at the end of the strip.   Too high:  I will also land long.   Too low:  I will clip the trees, or hit the river bank.  I am balanced.  The plane is balance.  The descent is balanced.  I want to be no more than 30 feet off the ground as the plane clears the river bank.

I fly over the river bank on very short final.  The river bank looks small in the above picture, but is actually an enormous tumbling of rock, from the side of the airstrip mesa down to the ice cold waters of the Middle Fork.

Has anyone ever landed short at Thomas Creek?  What other accidents have happened here?

Hint:  There are more.  I’ve given you only two.

3.  Fishing

The fishing is excellent.  We catch cutthroat trout.  I don’t want to talk about the fishing, other than to say I am a passionate fly fisherman, and the correct fly was helpful.  There is a very good hole for nymph-flyfishing, which Jason found, and it is only about a 20 minute walk from our camp.  I think he said he caught ten or more fish out of that hole.  And we would move down the bank, catching more cutthroat.  They mostly hung close to the bank.

There is a huge bend in the river, about a mile below.  We can wade out — I make many casts and search for more cutthroat trout.

In fact, the river beside our campsite has many good holes.  A little rummaging around produces many more cutthroats.

I can’t talk any more about the fishing, because the fishing was excellent.

4.  The cabin.

Before we had brains, we tried sleeping in the cabin one night.  This was the single stupidest decision of my life.  (Rodents.)

That picture doesn’t really describe how the cabin feels after dark.  But this one does:

After that experience with the rodents, we slept in the tent:

5.  Sunlight

I am experiencing the opposite phenomena of the moonlight:  I am basking in a sunlight that is so intense, I once again wonder about the experience.  I am outside, it is bright daylight, and I am experiencing something that is rare for me:  I can see to the distant ridgelines with a vision that is so sharp that I am thankful that I don’t need to wear glasses.

There’s only one thing wrong with that statement:  normally, I wear glasses.  But they are off, and yet my vision is beyond sharp.  This place shares qualities with heaven:  Moonlight is brilliant, and the whole valley is visible.  Sunlight is more brilliant, and I see quite well.  (What is this phenomena I experienced?  I’m not making this up.  I’m just describing it.)  (Also, the above photo is not retouched.  The blue sky is exactly as I saw it, and as my camera recorded it.)  (And finally, your looking uphill towards a hot spring…)

There is a hot spring about 400 yards from our camp.  Water appears to seep out of the mud; animals must like the minerals and the grass.  The water turns into small, very hot spring, and then makes its way down the hillside to the river.  Along the way, it goes through many sunflowers.  In fact, it makes a little pool, and it’s a great place to take a naked hot bath after it gets dark.  I won’t show you that, but I will show you the spring:

The animals like the spring very much.  A day or two later, they show up in great numbers:  Bighorn sheep.

(I now have a large inventory of very high resolution photos of these creatures.)  Here is one more example:

6.  Conversations

Some of the best conversations occur around campfires, or in tents.

Here are the reasons why:

a)  Stresses have been left at home.  They no longer filter our words.  Therefore, when we talk, we have considerably less anger, and are considerably more open to hearing what our friends have to say.
b)  Ideas flow freely.
c)  Laughter happens.
d)  You are excused to be as you want to be.  And your friends still love you.
e)  You are afraid that the moment will end, so there is an inducement to continue talking.

7.  The moment ends.

It is like a dream.  I don’t know if you understand — it hurts to write about these trips.

What I have written about here all was real.  It occurred over a series of several camping trips into Thomas Creek, which is in Idaho.  I have been trained at mountain flying school in Challis, Idaho, in 1996.  Please don’t fly there without the right airplane, and without the right training.  My C172 was special – really.  It had a powerful engine upgrade, and was a good mountain bird.

I have been to Idaho with some of my dearest friends:

* Don, Jason, Kevin, Craig, other Kevin, Scott, Mike, Jesse,,,, and many more.

Everything that I wrote about in this post happened at Thomas Creek — and more happened too.  I have not mentioned the airplane parts we found on the ground, about 3/4 mile from the end of the runway, down the valley, by the river.  Clearly an accident on takeoff, perhaps a Luscombe?  They have been rotting in the sun (and under the snow) for many years.

I also did not mention the other hot springs, about 2 miles upriver, and the incident with the rafting group.

I have somehow failed to leave the cougar sighting story completely out of this writing, and I don’t know why.  It’s a really good story.  I also failed to mention how the land around the bend was once owned by Harrah’s corporation, and used as a showpiece wilderness property for their high roller clientele.

I am now also realizing that the story about the USFS noxious weed fighters has been left out.  That will have to be reported on some other day.  I also have forgotten, somehow, to fully explain how the forestry employee would sit in his cabin, and help anyone who wandered into the cabin.

Perhaps one of the best stories is the man who wandered by on the hiking trail, and needed water.  He was perhaps 8 miles from his destination, and right by one of the best cold water rivers in North America.  And he would not drink from the river, because of the fear (valid fear) of Giardia.  So he was choosing heatstroke instead.  It’s a great story, but you won’t hear it.

I really didn’t dig into the fishing stories, did I?

I guess I’m trying to figure out what this was really about for me.   I’ve done my best, at least for now, to tell that story.

I leave you with a short video link.  Please have a look at the video.  It’s not much of a conclusion, but it least it was a good conclusion for that flight.  OKAY, just one more picture:

My Friend, Don Isaac, fishing on a side channel off the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, deep in the wilderness, deep in Idaho, with no one around to bother us.

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