“Boys, start looking for a place to ditch the plane because there are no runways”
The three of us loaded the gear, packed the couple hundred pounds of caribou meat into the rear of the plane, and taxied across the tundra. As the pilot turned the plane to fly into the wind for takeoff, he suddenly decelerated and said; “Boys, we’ve got too much weight in the plane. We need a plan B.”
Our problem was that we were overweight and too short on runway. The pilot was making the decision to abort our current takeoff and fly me alone to another spot some 40 miles away. Plan B was after dropping me off, along with several 30 gallon trash bags of caribou meat coated with fresh blood, he’d return to pick up my friend, and the rest of the gear. With weather changes that can happen with the flip of a coin, it was imperative that we execute the new plan immediately.
The flight to the new location was a mix of millions of desolate acres of alder bushes, twisting Alaskan streams, and mountains. It was both rugged and breathtaking, but also extremely unforgiving. There’s another saying bush pilots have; “Alaska’s beautiful, but she’s got teeth”. We all knew the weather could suddenly change without warning and swallow up those who dared venturing into her cold, silent grasp.
As the pilot decreased power and touched down, the plane bounced side to side on the huge tundra tires, eventually coming to rest on its tailwheel. Without shutting down the engine, the pilot passed me his AR 15 as I’d left my high powered rifle at our other location, pointed in the direction of where he wanted me to mark off a new runway for his return, and told me to keep an eye out for bears.
Only seconds before we’d approached the area where we were to touch down, the pilot called for me to look below and off to the right. There, only 100 feet below us was a huge double shovel caribou, limping and alone, but it was being followed by a 1,000 pound grizzly just waiting for the caribou to tip over. As the prop from our Super Cub passed 30 feet above the 1,000-pound mass of teeth, claws, and muscle, I somehow assumed most bears were sluggish and well-kept like the ones at the zoo, but this bear was wet, matted, muddy, and hungry.
Within about a minute, the plane simply vanished from view, and then a staggering reality hit. I was totally alone and there was an enemy who could see my every move and was determining if I was an easy target.
The truth was that I was an easy target. I was a young guy, full of lots of passion and the desire for adventure, but I’d never been trained how to survive in an environment like this. Few men have. I had very little of the “know-how” needed when things got bad, really bad. In my back pocket I had $800.00 in travelers checks tucked in my wallet, but I’d left my high powered rifle back at camp? I can still see the pilot looking at me with a, “Boy, where are you from?” look as he passed me his AR15. The pilots parting words to me were: “If the bear gets too close, just fire off a couple of rounds in the bear’s general direction and it should leave you alone.” Should leave me alone, I thought to myself? My faith was strong and I knew how to pray, but that was about the limit of my knowledge for survival in 1984. Like so many young men I had the hat and t-shirt, but very little of the “know-how”. I didn’t ask for help because I was afraid of being exposed.
Starting to believe that the bear was more interested in the caribou than it was in me, I began to explore the area. I walked about two hundred yards until I came to an incredibly steep rock face that kept going down and down below my position until it intersected with the ground floor some 500 feet below. I remember thinking about how “all the clouds have rocks in them” and how I’d never want to be in a plane wreck up here because no one would ever find you. That thought no sooner went through my mind when I spotted something red and white about 75 feet below me on the rocks. There, smashed like a balsa wood model was a small plane. My stomach climbed up into my throat as I made my way to the plane not knowing what or whom I might find. Looking inside I discovered the plane to be empty of its occupants and stripped of all electronics, but I couldn’t imagine how someone could have survived that mess.
After about two hours, I once again heard the sound of the Super Cub returning to pick me up. After repacking the plane to distribute the weight for takeoff, the pilot turned the plane around, throttled her up and headed into the wind.
The flight out was going smoothly. The weather was clear behind us and looked clear in front of us…until we got about half way through the mountain pass on the trek back to Anchorage. As the skies above us began to drop we kept flying lower and lower, 2,000 feet, 1,500 feet, 1,000 feet, and 500 feet. The pilot turned around to us and said, “Boys, start looking for a place to ditch the plane because there are no runways and this weather is forcing us down…quickly”.
All I could see below was a swift, whitewater glacial melt stream, lots of huge rocks and trees. The pilot got on his radio and put out a “Mayday” as he understood someone needed to know our location because the odds were quickly stacking against us and we needed help. We kept waiting, but there was no response and enveloping clouds were engulfing us into a sea of white forcing us even lower…400 feet, 300 feet, 200 feet…
Just as the pilot was ready to take the plane down and risked a landing on a rocky creek bed, a voice crackled across the radio waves. I don’t remember the call sign or what he said; I just remember that he offered us a small runway a couple of miles dead ahead. The bad news was that they said we weren’t allowed to land there because it was private property.
The good news was that our tuff and rugged, half crazed bush pilot said, “I don’t care what you say sweetheart, We’re Landing!” The person on the other end of the radio, not too happy at being called “sweetheart”, reluctantly guided us to their location.
“You’re going to see a sharp bend in the creek bed below you surrounded by a group of pines. The runway is just on the other side of the pines. Set her down as soon as you clear those pines…sweetheart!” That was the last communication we had before setting her down safe and sound. There was a time even this experienced bush pilot knew to ask for help when he needed a guide, and it saved our lives.
Real life storms, whether in the Wilds or on the Home-Front have a way of forcing your faith-life and knowhow into the open. My faith-life was strong, but I had very little of the “knowhow” needed to survive the wilds. If you think the strength of your faith and repetitive prayers are all you need to survive back in the matrix we’ll call the “Home front”, you’re foolish, arrogant, self-righteous, or extremely naive. It was time for the tags to come off my clothing and be willing to get a little dirty. I needed much more than just the hat and t-shirt. Just like our pilot, I needed a guide to lead me through both the spiritual and physical wilderness.
Where in my life are these verses connecting right now, and what revelations in my life is the Holy Spirit showing me through these verses?
. . . “Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” (James 1:2-4, MSG)
. . . “I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you.” (Psalm 32:8, NASB)
. . . “Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5, NLT)