We got close, very close to losing our house. An arson started a fire near our home town of Pollock Pines. When the rains finally put it out weeks later almost 100,000 acres had burned and the fire set records for the number of resources and the number of retardant drops.
A few days after it started I was returning from a business trip so I stayed at 12,500 feet, well above the fire TFR to show our myself and our neighbors what we had been hearing – that the fire was burning down-canyon and away from us. We felt some relief.
Whoops, not so fast. The winds shifted and all of sudden we were in danger. The fire made one run at us and we were given an hour to evacuate on Monday evening. I had actually decided to jog out to the edge of the canyon to take a look and luckily I was smart enough to take the hand-held scanner with me. Part way there I heard them give the command to evacuate our neighborhood, saying that if the fire jumped highway 50, they would not be able to stop it. I turned around and sprinted home, then started throwing stuff (we had pre-packed stuff on the front deck) into vehicles. The fire had roared up the canyon to Camp 5, a canal maintenance camp below us near highway 50. However the firefighters successfully kept the fire from jumping the canal.
The next day I snuck back in even though technically we were still under evacuation orders. I listened in fascination to the aerial fire-fighting channels as they used DC-10s, DC-8s, S-2s and other attack craft along with over 20 helicopters.
At one point I went down to the end of a spur road (Crystal Summit Drive) in our neighborhood and the smoke was thick and it was obvious the fire was close. The fixed-wing guys couldn’t work it because of the smoke but there was a constant stream of helicopters. But it was dusk and they couldn’t fly much longer.
The sheriff came through out neighborhood again to make sure everyone was out, but we were gone by then. One neighbor that stayed until dark said there were sparks flying above the trees and a red glow filled the sky. He emailed everyone to say he didn’t think our homes would be there by morning and then he fled.
The firefighters had 35 engines practically bumper-to-bumper down on highway 50 and they battled all night, at times fighting a crown fire fully engulfing the trees. The fire jumped the highway several times and they put it out. They lit backfires to try to burn out the undergrowth. They sprayed each other to keep cool. They pumped water out of the canal and water was flowing inches deep in places on highway 50. They dropped trees that were on fire back down-canyon into the fire. They overflew with planes equipped with infrared and recorded hot spots in our neighborhood. It sounded like it was a full-blown battle and they won.
When it comes to protecting structures and homes these guys are truly amazing. Wow.
Had the fire jumped the highway and took hold our neighborhood would be gone, there isn’t any doubt. Perhaps a few homes would still stand, but not the trees. This was driven home by the fact that they dug a fuel break behind our neighborhood. If the fire jumped 50 they were going to run back behind our neighborhood and try to make another stand there.
We couldn’t “re-populate” for 4 more days but the fire at our end of the fire area was pretty burned out and we felt that unless the wind shifted again we were safe. A few days after that I had a business meeting so I took these photos on the way out:
A neighbor blew up one of my photos and put it on a poster-board. She drew a line to each house and we all were able to say our sincere thanks on the huge thank you card. We found out later they showed the “thank you card” at the morning King Fire briefing at fire camp. Really cool. And easier than baking 8,000 brownies, one for each firefighter.
We’ve spent a lot time on the east side of the Sierras this summer and soon I’ll have to get the blog caught up on some of the flights and activities. Betsy and I had a great time climbing the north ridge of Mt. Conness and I thought my friend Graeme would enjoy it also. I was already camping at Lee Vining with my plane for another flight (which I’ll share) so Graeme showed up with his car for the ride up to Saddlebag Lake where we got the last campsite.
We got a good “alpine start” at 4:30 am and reached the climb at 7:30, which gave us plenty of time to enjoy the fun ridge climbing and get to the top by lunch time. It was cold and windy but lot of fun.
I was worried about the wind because I had to fly home that afternoon. You can see from the shot of Mono Lake it was indeed windy. Luckily the cross wind take-off wasn’t too bad. Because of the wind I headed south to Mammoth Pass and up to 12,500 feet so I wouldn’t get rocked too badly. It turned out to be a good plan and the turbulence was manageable.
We did our first combo-trip using the Sprinter as an airport car. In fact, at the time of this writing it is now parked about 100 NM from home as the Cessna flies, or almost 175 miles via roads. Next weekend we’ll fly and pick it up for another adventure, and maybe leave it at another airport.
This trip Betsy drove the van to Lee Vining while I shopped, wasted time and generally took my time before I took off nearly 2.5 hours later than she did. As I was downwind Betsy was turning onto Airport Road. We then drove the van up to Tuolumne Meadows were for the first time in years we actually had actual campsite reservations for the ever-popular Tuolumne meadows campsite, but when getting to our camp we discovered someone had poached it and occupied it. No problem, they fessed up right away and were nice about it, and since we were staying in the van and then leaving at 3:30 in the morning anyway, we let them stay.
We got the early start to do the North Ridge of North Peak, and then climbed the North Ridge of Mt. Conness. All in all a fantastic day in the mountains.
Betsy and I like to drive or fly to the east side of the Sierra Nevada for climbing and hiking adventures. We’ve camped, slept in the plane and in hotels. But last Fall we decided to get an adventure van. Sure, it will go places on its own, but we also plan to use it as a mobile airport car – for example we’ll use it in the Bishop area for climbing, then fly home and leave it for a week, returning to use it again the next weekend.
At least that is the plan.
This post is a pictorial story of how we got and built the van. We flew down to San Jose on January 1st and bought an empty cargo van. We played with it for a few months (added tires, suspension, painted part of it, added graphics, lights, etc.). Betsy designed a custom interior and then the van went to Sportsmobile West for almost 4 months for the build-out. On July 3rd we final got our new van.
Here’s the story:
I noticed on a map that the Cliff Dweller’s airstrip in Marble Canyon is right next to a wash (canyon) that leads down to the Colorado River. I called the Cliff Dweller’s Lodge, made reservations for the night (a side trip on a business trip to Phoenix) and asked about the dirt airstrip. It turns out it isn’t theirs, but is owned by the Hatch family that runs Hatch Expeditions river running. So I called them and they said, “Land at your own risk, have fun.” Thank you, Steve Hatch! I really mean that.
The strip was a little soft and bumpy at the start but smoothed out right away. There are chains at midfield, but there was loose gravel beneath them and I couldn’t push the plane by myself there and I didn’t want to taxi in. But there seemed to be enough room, it just meant my plane wouldn’t be tied down. I rode my folding bike to the Cliff Dweller’s Lodge which is nice enough and the outdoor porch dining was perfect.
Early the next morning I headed back to the plane to drop off stuff and grab a day pack. The hike literally starts midfield across from the plane! There is a small drainage ditch that heads off perpendicular to the runway. It gets deeper and deeper until it’s a full-fledged canyon with walls hundreds of feet high. There are two places, one in particular, where you meet another canyon. The canyon involves a lot of scrambling over boulders and rocks, but it isn’t technical except for one 30-foot drop with a knotted rope. (On the way back I noticed you can skip the rope with a side trail).
It took me about two hours to reach the green/blue Colorado. I hung out in the sun on a big flat rock and almost went to sleep, then hiked back out. It’s pretty cool that when you’re still fairly deep in the wash, the first thing you see that tells you that you’re nearing the end is the windsock at the airstrip.
Watsonville airport is 10 miles from Moss Landing, a small but busy harbor and village at the mouth of the Elkhorn Slough. The slough is one of the last coastland wetlands in California. Located on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, it has been described as the best place for wildlife viewing along the length of California’s coast. The Elkhorn Slough is a dramatic backdrop for wildlife year-round— home to otters, seals, sea lions and an infinite variety of birds.
I went on a guided tour of the slough, guided by (not by coincidence) my daughter Belyn, who is currently working as a guide for Kayak Connection for the summer. Going with a guide is wonderful because you learn so much more than going solo. Left to my own devices, I would’ve just paddled away into the slough, but Belyn slowed us down and directed my attention to the sea life under the water— where we could see abundant sea life and even an occasional seal swimming beneath us.
I also learned, for example, that there are approximately 100 sea otters living in the slough, so you’re guaranteed to see at least a few of them frolicking, hunting or floating as they rest. There are about 3,000 sea otters in California, all descendants from a group of only 50 that remained in the 1930’s after extensive hunting in prior decades.
Belyn picked me up at the Watsonville airport, but you could take a cab or there is a Hertz car rental place right on the field (well, a little hard to find but it is there – walk out the terminal building and take a left and its down one block).