Machmell Fisheries is a small piece of free scenery created by Propstrike Studio for X-Plane. They offered it for free to promote their new website and to create a little buzz for their upcoming Quatam River Airport . They also sell another small scenery called Allan/Burrows Island. Elsewhere on the forum I sang my praises for both Allan/Burrows and Machmell. What do you say about scenery? That It’s pretty? That the creators obviously worked hard? (Or you can really get in the weeds like I did and complement the placement of flora.) You can do all that or just post some screenshots and everyone will, indeed, get the picture. But stupid as it may sound, I was moved by it. That these guys picked some remote spot, an abandoned fishery in reality, and made it into something both rundown and beautiful inspired me to do more than say, “it’s pretty.” And since I already loved Bella Coola (another payware scenery offered by a different creator) and also since Allan/Burrows isn’t far from either place, there seemed to be a story that could tie them together. The following is a bit of fan fiction that attempts to do just that.
FROM: Maj. Jim
SUBJECT: Re: Are you sure you got the right guy?
May 21 at 02:17
Yes I AM sure! And no, you are not wrong. There are indeed lots of Canadians and many more Americans who on paper are more qualified than you are. Maybe as a recently retired and newly inducted gentleman of leisure you don’t follow the news as much as you once did but it is all hands on deck with the drought out west. Phil, these fires are historic, even biblical! There just are not that many pilots available who haven’t already been put to work trying to get this season under control. I did have a good guy. But living in one of the loveliest spots on God’s Green Earth wasn’t enough to overcome his sense of seclusion—nor his secret affinity for painkillers (just between the two of us). I’ve worked hard to put Machmell on a path that gets her in the black. It drained its previous owner entirely after he put up a lovely cabin and nearly finished the dock. I got it for a song but now I too am in the red. The losses are manageable mind you but it would be a lie to not admit that these fires have been a blessing of sorts. The cash Canada is tossing about is substantial. So this has been a real opportunity for us but if I don’t find a dependable pilot quickly I will be forced either to sub-contract the work and loose some money, or forfeit the contract entirely and loose a lot. That second “option” also comes with a serious loss in reputation and, I feel, a betrayal to my adopted country.
There is NO pressure. I will manage even option 1 if it comes to that. But I’ll be damned if I let another unknown quantity step foot in that cabin, much less touch the choppers. The job is yours if you want it. The work visas will take seconds as will the paperwork with Transport Canada. We are not normally so unbureaucratic up here. It’s amazing how fast the barriers start to drop when the electorate starts to panic. Attached you will find a contract. Run it by a lawyer if you need to but do so quick. To help with speed I think you will find it generous even by New Jersey standards. If I do not hear from you by noon your time tomorrow I’ll get the ball rolling on “option 1”. Whatever you decide, we will always be lifelong friends. If you beg out please still consider coming up next season and I’ll show you the place and teach you the sublime joy that is a well-prepared sockeye.
ps—Why don’t I just do the flying myself? We’ll discuss that after you take the job. Sorry but that’s the way it has to be.
How can I say “no” to that? How can I say “no” to him. If I can lay claim to any success in life I owe nearly all of it to Jim McIntee. All I wanted to do was fly. And all I wanted to fly was helicopters. The recruiter told me that, given my background, the fastest route to fly would be to enlist as a mechanic. If I did well at that job the Army would then offer a Warrant Officer slot with a trip to flight school at Ft. Rucker. To fill a quota recruiters will say anything to the young and naive. Once I saw how the game was played I knew I’d been a sucker. But I am faithful if nothing else. I hit the books hard for the first time in my wayward life. For eight months I learned how to fix Apaches so that others might fly them. A couple of years later came America’s involvement in the horrid cauldron of hatred that was the Balkans–a word has been retooled by history to serve as an adjective for ethnic division and cleansing. That place was where I met Major McIntee. In normal circumstances in a busy Company such as ours I would have been just another unnamed grease-monkey under his command. But things were not normal. We had taken a couple of losses through accidents and the Battalion was left questioning how prepared we were as an effective combat unit. The accidents had nothing to do with the mechanical condition of the our helicopters. But if a cancer was growing in one section it might well be hiding in another. Major McIntee ordered a Safety Stand-down–a two day shutdown of flight operations so that every aspect of the operation could be reevaluated. It was the right thing for a good leader to do even though he must have known it would likely end his career. After the lie I’d been fed when I enlisted, I figured that my allegiance was with my selfless commander, not to the Army. I was young and I was wrong. But I kept my sense of victimhood to myself and outwardly did all the right things to make our little corner of Major McIntee’s command problem-free. As the guy in charge of the hangar I ordered my guys to run our shop like we were going to serve breakfast off the floor. Every piece of equipment was kept clean and in its proper place. Squawks were addressed immediately. More than once I stayed up all night to ensure a full flightline in the morning. And since nothing happens in the Army unless the paperwork says it did, our recordkeeping was the best in the Company. Major McIntee took notice and within the year, I had my flight training slot and he was retired out of the Army.
Jim was married to Brenda, a Canadian girl he had met in college. She was from a reasonably well to do family in British Columbia. They decided to plant their roots up there. Jim went on to partner in a charter helicopter operation while Brenda raised their growing family. Meanwhile I was living the dream as an Army Aviator. Although I loved the Apache, the machine I coveted was the machine I got: the OH-58. I flew this obsolete little scout for two tours chasing the Taliban in Afghanistan. I was far from ready to hang up my wings after two combat tours and a stint as in instructor. But the idea of Iraq was not one I felt I could warm up to. I had taken a dozen hits in my short combat career. I felt I’d done my part. The Basking Ridge, New Jersey police department offered me the perfect follow-on gig. I was able to live near where I grew up and fly helicopters in a safe environment almost entirely free of sand or RPGs. Meanwhile, Jim and I stayed in touch. At one point he even hinted that I might be able to come up to BC and fly for him. But I was happy enough with life in my town and the easy flying that came with serving it. Even when the economy tanked and the helicopter was handed over to a larger township I never once considered grabbing the lifeline he had thrown me. I knew that with just a few years remaining with my combined Army and police service, I could retire before hitting 50. So I stuck around as a trooper. Sure, I missed flying but being a real cop brought a satisfaction all its own. Cops had played roles both good and bad in my youth and I now had the chance to put the lessons of those experiences to use. I think I did ok.
FROM: Edgar Espinosa
SUBJECT: Re: What do you think?
May 20 at 12:40
Well brother, since you asked… All your life you have been selling yourself short. Those of us who know you best know that whatever you decide to do, you give it your all. Flying is your thing, not mine. But even to me it is clear what your old boss wants. He wants someone he can trust; someone who can fix stuff as well as fly stuff. This is a just for one season, right? Not a lifetime commitment. So really It’s little more than a PAID VACATION! Unless you think he is offering something truly unsafe, take the job!
And if you do, invite me up.
TO: Edgar Espinosa
SUBJECT: What do you think?
May 20 at 07:26
This is so out of the blue that I don’t think a text is up to the task of explaining the situation. The CO of my OLD old Army company way back when I was an enlisted mechanic has offered a job to fly a fire-fighting helicopter in British Columbia (Canada, in case you skipped geography in med school). What he says he would like me to do is to spend the summer on a remote mountain lake where I would fly and maintain two helicopters, one to fight wildfires, the other to serve the population around the lake as well as the property where the choppers will be based. A couple of workers will be there to assist but the operation will primarily be a one man show. It is an intriguing offer but I have some concerns that I need to bench test with someone I trust.
I can’t claim to be rich in my recent retirement but I’ve been doing OK. Unlike you married types with a brood to send to college and two German SUVs to polish, thriving as a single guy on a cop’s pension is more than doable. If not, I can greet at Walmart. But I can’t help but ask myself: Why would Jim offer such a responsibility when I probably have far less time in type than the hundreds of more qualified Canadian pilots who, btw, actually know the terrain?
Why take a job that’s a world away when I’ve only just retired? Fire-bombing?! I didn’t even know they did that with helicopters! OK…yeah…I kinda did but you know what I mean. I know nothing about that stuff. Yes, the cash would be great. I am certainly not in need of adventure. My life plan was to coast out of this world drinking good bourbon, getting fat and eventually cashing out the house in NJ for a boat in FL. Is that really what I want? I don’t know. Help me out brother. What do you think?
TO: Edgar Espinosa
SUBJECT: Well here I am
May 27 at 22:02
So far so good. Well, not all good—I will get to that in a minute. I am not at Machmell yet but instead staying with Jim and his wife at their lovely home near the Bella Coola airport. The whole place is otherworldly beautiful. They say that the smoke from one large fire down the valley had until Friday been quite thick. But the wind changed the day I arrived allowing me the visibility to take it all in. Majestic though it is, this place is the sticks! I said the same a little more delicately at dinner and Jim’s wife burst out laughing. She gave him an exaggerated questioning stare and said, “Poor Phil has no idea what he’s getting into does he?” Bella Coola (population 2000) is the metropolis for the surrounding thousand square miles. Machmell, where I will be living and working truly is the sticks. Today we did a bit of paperwork. Tomorrow Jim will get me acquainted with the two helicopters and give me a shotgun lesson on using and maintaining the water bombing system in the 412. In flight school, if we were expected to learn a lot in a short amount of time we would say it’s like drinking from a firehose. Well, tomorrow that expression will have a little more meaning.
But I am afraid I must end this letter on a sad note. Jim has colon cancer. He hinted that something was amiss when he offered the job but refused to provide any detail until (or if) I took it. Initially that torqued me a bit but I realized that he must have feared that telling me would pressure me into a corner. They are being told that the cancer is treatable but Bella Coola general hospital is not the place to do it. Once he gets me comfortably tucked in at Machmell a friend who runs a competing flight operation will fly Jim and Brenda to Calgary in a King Air—a very generous and expensive display of friendship. The McIntee’s have a daughter who is an attorney there. They will live with her and her family and, armed with some of the best healthcare in the world, hopefully kick cancer in the cojones.
TO: Edgar Espinosa
June 20 at 22:02
“Paid vacation!” Do you remember saying that!? Well this is no vacation. Bottles of beer sweating in buckets of ice is vacation. 24 hour electricity is vacation. Real plumbing is vacation. Girls in bikinis who think youngish retired cops are “kinda cute” is vacation (a man can dream). You know what is not “vacation”? Mosquitoes. By the freaking billions. I am praying for a fire not only to give me an excuse to fly but in hopes that the smoke will choke the bastards. There are lots of other heat-seeking insects too. At least I haven’t met any bears yet. But they are around and I’ve not heard a lot of nice things said about them.
Now, with my bitching mostly out of the way, here is the story so far about Machmell. It is situated on the shore of Owikeno Lake and surrounded by mountains—a few of which are tall enough to keep snow year-round. The lake is fed by three rivers and one of those rivers gives the fishery its name. Machmell was once run quite successfully by a First Nation tribe. At its peak it supported several families. But they were forced to close the fishery when the Sockeye Salmon population came to a halt in the 90’s. The land has changed hands several times since. Jim thinks he got it for a steal but I am not so sure which party was robbed. It is true that the fish are back. Not only the salmon but my new favorite, rainbow trout. Jim sees potential for the place not just as a fishery but also as a tourist destination. (See paragraph 1). Fortunately for him, it is his flight operation in Bella Coola that put his kids through school. Machmell may as well be an expensive hobby. Running it are a crotchety old man named “Ferrell” and two young brothers from Ecuador, Jesús and Julio. When we met, they heard my name and were pretty excited to finally work with someone who spoke the mother tongue. You can imagine their disgust when they learned the truth about my toddler Spanish. They are both really nice dudes and are, I am starting to learn, the engine of the little operation. They can build or fix just about anything. Jesús is the better English speaker. Last week I needed somebody to precisely move the main rotor of the 412 while I did some troubleshooting on the tail rotor. He kept asking questions about the different parts of the rotor system. I would tell him once and he got it forever. I would now wager that Jesús now has a better understanding of the complex formation of parts that make a helicopter fly than do many pilots. At one point I tried to make a joke about how the “Jesus Nut” is not to be confused with Jesús’ nuts but he didn’t seem to get it.
No, man, I’m not even going to try. You wouldn’t get it either.
On our formation flight down Jim had warned me about “Ferrell”. “He doesn’t really care for ‘white people’”, he said. So I’m thinking Ferrell is maybe a member of one of those original tribal families who once ran the place. Maybe he’s bitter that Europeans playing with helicopters are proving to be poor excuses for operators of a once-thriving Native fishery. Well you wouldn’t know it by looking at him. He looks as Anglo as his name. But he does act the part. The truth is that even though we are not friends (as I feel I now am with the brothers), Ferrell runs the place and runs it well. If the fish stocks are improving it is almost solely through his knowledge and his management. The place is still a sorry mess. But that is because they are just three guys plus some occasional part-time help doing their best with what they have. Farrell happens to be completely mortified around helicopters. He will ride in any fixed-wing airplane, no matter how raggedy-assed, before taking even the twin-engined, air conditioned Bell 412 back to Bella Coola. The brothers on the other hand will fly in anything, even if they have to hang by the skids. They love it.
Ferrell seems to have been around since the beginning of time and as for the other two, this is their third season. (Ferrell stays year-round, while the brothers return home each Fall.) Whether we get along perfectly or not, all of us know how important it is to do this right and keep Machmell alive. And the money is very, very good. Jim, btw, is recovering nicely with his family and the prognosis is good. The surgery went well. He says “chemo is like drinking tequila until your hair falls out!” That’s bad, right?
Canada is spending a huge amount of money to protect just a handful of very small villages along inlets feeding the lake. Fires are popping up around us regularly but we are only expected to drop when called by radio to do so. After a month this has happened exactly twice. My job is simple: suck up a load of water and spit it out where directed. It is fun work. I just wish there was more of it. We have an emergency supply of Jet-A that was flown in at great expense by the government but I am expected to fly all the way up to Bella to refuel unless prevented by smoke or weather. Given the limitations that come with no power grid, a well-house dependent on a finicky generator and the unseasonable heat; the cabin itself is pretty swank. Although I am the only one who stays here, the other three have unrestricted use of the place. (They helped build it after all.) They mainly come up for the WiFi (satellite) and otherwise leave me be. A few mornings ago I woke to the sound of the generator. I shuffled into the kitchen still rubbing my eyes to see the somewhat disturbing image of a leathery, sunburned back. The back belonged to a shirtless Ferrell who was stooped over the coffee pot. “I’ve run out.”, he generously explained. Seeing an opportunity for conversation I got out the syllable “So…” only to watch him turn, thermos in hand, and exit through the screen door.
A few times a week Jim’s friends have been dropping by in various forms of flying machines bringing the brothers’ mail, groceries and other supplies. I am still waiting for your care package. How it is that a fish-loving nation like Canada has failed to discover Old Bay might be a subject for science. You are welcome to visit. I sure could kill for the company. But honestly I think it would be best if we were to come up together next year when the clouds and rain hopefully return to B.C.
FROM: Angela Allen
TO: Kurt Allen
SUBJECT: Machmell’s Still There!
June 21 at 8:05 pm
I am back in Bella Coola after a day-trip down to Machmell. The smoke was thick enough that I can’t say I enjoyed the flight. The vis at Machmell was a little better. Even so, I almost turned back. Jim has made numerous improvements since we stayed there last year. The Three Amigos are still around. And it appears that Ferrell might still have a crush on me. He was especially chatty today. He gave me a nice tour of the fishery. He really has done a lot with it in just a few months. I hope Jim knows how fortunate he is to have him. Jim found a helicopter pilot to replace Billy. Yet another American! People must think we’ve taken over. So my secret hopes of getting use of the house for a week were dashed. Although I doubt he’d be too offended if I took the guest room. Anyway, his name is Phil. Ferrell hogged much of my time but Phil and I talked a bit. I get the feeling that he is bored out of his skull. I asked if he had done any hiking and he said that he had done very little, but plenty of fishing. Like you, he is a fan of the rainbows. I told him that his aversion to hiking may well be part of his boredom problem. Maybe that was a little harsh. He took it well and seemed open to suggestions to some of the less technical walks you and I liked. After that it was back to Ferrell who I think wanted me to tell him how much I liked his new dock. Before flying home I took him on a quick flight to a nearby fire he wanted to check out.
Weather and smoke permitting I’ll go down in a few days bringing groceries and coffee for old Ferrell. And yes I promise to let you know every time I fly. (Do have mom remind you that I am 35 years old). “Papa Foxtrot” (the real source of your concern) is running great. Not a drop of water in either float.
TO: Edgar Espinosa
SUBJECT: Package arrived at last. Thanks!
June 20 at 22:02
I got the Old Bay! It was delivered via a Husky on floats flown by an American named Angela, yet another friend of Jim’s. She was quite a sight to see walking up the dock. Ferrell and the brothers knew her from last year when she stayed at the cabin with her father. Ferrell is downright smitten. Good to see that not all colonizers are met with his grudging indifference. She is unquestionably easy on the eyes. She claims to having once been a world champion cyclocross racer. It’s a sport involving bicycles and mud. It appears that you and I did a lot of “cyclocross” as kids while not once considering it a real sport. I think her job now is to convert her daddy’s money into avgas while she works her charms on old men like Ferrell. Sorry for the tone. I just found her to be opinionated, entitled and something of a pain in the ass. She lectured me for not hiking among the bears and kindly drew on the map some “easy walks” she says her dad enjoyed. Like I’m some god damned old man! But seeing the challenge I have started venturing out with a gun and a whistle.
I’ve been flying more. It would actually be nice if Ferrell could come along as he knows the region so well. As a consolation prize he has given me a few (very few) genuinely useful bits of advice. One of the brothers will typically come along if he isn’t otherwise busy. It is our little secret but I’ve been giving them some stick time to and from fires. We’ve come to a barter arrangement: Spanish lessons for flying. That’s a good trade, right? Last week we got a radio call from a nurse serving one of the hamlets situated along the inlet. A small boy had a severe case of appendicitis and required evacuation up to the hospital in Bella Coola. This is the sort of public service where everybody wins. In addition to being a really rewarding experience for me it gave us a chance to stock up on supplies on the government’s dime.
You asked why I don’t use the small pad next to the house. When the house was built the trees were felled, accidentally I think, in a way that allows for a safe-ish approach from treetop to touchdown. Once down to a safe(-ish) skid height above the big-assed stumps you flare off the last bit of momentum while making the right dogleg to the pad. For the 412, it is a very tight fit. The departure out of there in this heat is even more problematic but a good breeze can help. So while princess parking next to the house would be nice, I keep the helicopters down by the strip.
I am almost over the hump! Now that the season is practically half over I can safely say that despite my initial grumbling this has been the most unique and rewarding experience of my life. Keep next year’s summer schedule open. We’re coming back together.
FROM: Angela Allen
TO: June Tezuka
SUBJECT: Re. How’s Canada?
July 13 at 10:44 am
Canada seems to be up in smoke. California too, I’m guessing. We have had a few nice days and on those, it is typically majestic. I am writing from Machmell where I have been staying for a week. And I should admit at his point that I have been holding out on you. There is a guy. OK, there! Happy now? But I don’t want to talk about that yet. Skip to the end if you must but I think we are both better than that.
There is a mountain. It’s more a hill really but it is just high enough to still be capped with snow and has a beautiful little blue-ice pond at the summit. It’s been calling my name for days now. I cheated with the Husky and found a sensible route up. The guy (we will call him “Phil” for that is his name) had offered to fly me to the summit in Jim’s helicopter. That was precisely what I initially found so frustrating about him. He eventually came around but it took some explaining for him to understand that it is the climb itself that is the point. Why are we always forced to explain (or hide) our motivations to the men in our lives!? Before I left WA I loaded my climbing gear in the Husky at night so as not to get caught by dad. Sad right? The weather for the climb won’t be an issue. The forecast never changes: sunny, hot, breezy, smoky. My plan is to row across in the pre-dawn dark. I should have plenty of daylight to get to the top in time to watch sun set thousands of feet above the smoke.
So…Phil. He could not have made a worse first impression. While the Three Amigos were helping unload the groceries from my plane he just stood there on the dock gapping at me like he was Captain Ahab and Moby Dick had just washed ashore. I gave him a pass. He’s had nothing but the amigos as company for weeks. I later suspected that he took me for some sort of trust-fund brat. When I returned to Machmell days later his demeanor had changed completely. He seemed a little ashamed that he had prejudged me—like it was a personal trait that’s tripped him up before and he was once again doing a poor job of suppressing it. I figured maybe he didn’t like women. You and I dealt with that plenty on the cycling tour. Some men are old fashioned or have deep mommy issues and see women as objects to be conquered or resisted. That anyway was how I prejudged him. He asked if we could maybe rewind the conversation and start anew. Which is just what we did. Once we got beyond the initial awkward moments (and his patronizing offer to fly me to the top) the friendship grew into a romance and continues to show potential. His one glaring remaining fault is how he fancies himself to be a frontier chef principally through drowning his poor fish in Old Bay and cooking them to a shrivel.
How do I better explain the guy? When he listens he stares straight at your eyes and doesn’t blink. Really. He hardly ever blinks. He is open-minded and loyal. That sentence doesn’t really jump off the screen begging my best friend to wonder aloud, “where can I get me a man like that!” But those are two traits that I really need in my life right now. Sorry but I don’t have the words to explain it. The last few days have been—comfortable, laugh-filled and devoid of stress. Again, I am not hitting the romantic tone that I think I feel inside. My mind must really be on tomorrow’s hike. The takeaway is that I am having a great week. We’ll take it one day at a time. If it continues to work, wonderful! If not, that’s fine too.
So that’s me. Got any more triathlons on the calendar? I’d love to give them a try if only I could swim. I’ll text you as soon as I get back from the hill.
Angela. I was totally not expecting this. She returned to Machmall packed to stay. I was torn. Beautiful company is always welcome but if my past performance indicates future results I knew that I would hit my limit of female toleration in three days or less. I am not even talking about women I was dating—just those whose company I had to keep for any extended period. Whenever that misogynistic monster of mine would make an appearance in front of my brother’s wife, she would say, “Ah yes, Phil is single for a reason.” This would happen often enough for it to become a little inside joke among the three of us. But there was just enough truth to it that very early on she stopped subjecting her single friends to my naked indifference. Now though, amazingly, day three passed and I still wasn’t throwing things. Day five happened to be Julio’s birthday. For the occasion, Angela had prepared a rare feast for Machmell of steaks, veggies, a cake and several bottles of wine she had saved for the event. It was a magical evening. Ferrell didn’t touch the wine but even so, his mood followed our lead. …To a point. He told stories of growing up nearby and how he could never imagine living anywhere else. Even if we could only get him to crack the occasional smile, several times he had us laughing and clinking glasses in salute to his skill as a storyteller. He had gone from monosyllables and grunts to Shakespeare. That’s the effect she has.
After the evening’s festivities, Ferrell had his work cut out escorting the brothers safely down the dark trail home. Angela and I finished our glasses and I congratulated her for hosting such a perfect evening. She stood up to clean the table and I of course stood up to help. We began with those best of intentions but other impulses intervened and the housekeeping project was saved for the morning. It was still dark when I woke. I looked at her and instantly felt flush with that giddy feeling I hadn’t felt in twenty years or more. At that moment I could have succumbed to that adolescent impulse to start building a life around her. I am older and wiser now. I knew that within 48 hours I would probably need to gnaw my leg off to get out of the trap she had built for me. The sun did rise, as did another, and clearly there was no trap. Instead I found myself immersed in a wave of calm. Everything about my perception of her changed that week. What was once “entitlement” now became self-assurance. What once was “opinionated” was now ‘enlightening’. The woman who I thought was flying all over the Pacific Northwest on daddy’s dime to tease old men–like me I now admit, came to her funds honestly: by busting her butt on a bike. Her earnings as a real, no-kidding superstar will easily support her for the rest of her life. Those same earnings allowed her to partner with her parents to achieve their dream of buying the island on which their house sits. A few days earlier, before this birthday dinner had changed everything, she complained that the Husky was making a racket she never heard before. I told her to land on the strip so that I might get a better look under the cowl. What I found was an exhaust in very bad shape. Normally one can weld a few cracks but it was beyond even temporary repair. At the time I was a little irritated that waiting for a new exhaust would likely prolong her stay for weeks. That feeling too had flipped. I now found myself a little sad when I learned that the part would arrive in Bella Coola in just a week. I was going to be robbed of her by good customer service.
Angela has a thing for mountains. She expressed some curiosity about the view from a snow-capped one across the lake. Thinking she just wanted to camp up there and watch the sunrise from the top I offered to drop her off. She gave me a wry smile with a look that was half quizzical and half disappointed and then punched me on the shoulder—hard. Without speaking she stared at me waiting for the answer to her unspoken question. I recovered: “Yes, I get it. Being chauffeured to the top is not the point.”
“Right! Not the point at all. I didn’t pack crampons to go on a helicopter ride.”
Honestly, maybe I knew that when I made the offer. Simply hiking out here has its hazards. There are a hundred things that can go wrong in steep terrain when help is days away, if it comes at all. We woke Friday, had an early coffee and she then rowed across the lake just before the first dawn light. I stood at the dock watching the light of her headlamp until she pulled the canoe up the opposite shore. I needed the early start anyway. The 412 was down while I waited for a part. It was a simple locking washer that fit one of the actuators in the rotor assembly. Repair would have to wait until the replacement either found its way here or I made the flight up in the 407. Since the fire risk was low this week I decided to wait and use the down time to more thoroughly inspect the machine.
At around six pm Ferrell ran over to say that Angela had radioed that she had been hurt in a fall. My heart began to race. I notice that my head was spinning as I stepped down from the chopper. He gave me the radio and I pressed the mic, “Angela, it’s me.” The injury could have been anything—a twisted ankle perhaps. But the way Ferrell was anxiously assessing the disassembled state of the 412 told me it must be much worse.
“Angela, It’s Phill, if you can’t speak just key the mic.” I don’t know why I said it but I was unfortunately spot on.
“OK”, I said. Already I was beginning to panic. Helping her was going to be nearly impossible with mic clicks alone. I took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. ‘React one step at a time.’ I told myself.
“Phil…I…can’t…br…breathe.” Between each syllable she unkeyed the mic to either catch her breath or suppress the pain. But as she tried to say ‘breathe’ I could hear the sickening bubbly sound that I had heard once before as a cop—a chest wound.
“OK…” (Enough with the goddam ‘OKs’!) “OK, we will find you. We will get you. Are you able to tell me anything about your location? How far from the summit?”
“Small…(gurgle, cough)…clear…ing. Look for…yell (cough)…tent. (gurgle) Sorry.” The ‘sorry’ damn near broke my heart.
I gave Ferrell the radio and ran over to the 407. Ferrell said something on the radio that sounded like, “We’re coming, Angela. Stay strong!” He helped me remove the covers and tie-downs. By this time the brothers had arrived. Looking at Jesús I said, “Angela’s in trouble and I am going to go get her. I may not be able to leave the helicopter so someone must come with me.” Ferrell didn’t give him a chance to make a move. “I’m going, Phil!” I believe that’s the first time I’d heard him say my name. No time for questions. Battery, fuel pump, Start. Ferrell hopped in and fumbled with the belts. Jesùs gave him a hand and put the headset over his ears.
I tried to imagine the easiest route to the summit. I never once showed the slightest curiosity about how she planned to make the climb. How could I have been so stupid! Two thirds of the way to the top was the yellow tent without supports, partially unfolded and scattered around what we quickly realized was Angela. She had unpacked the tent to make herself visible. That effort may well have saved her life at least long enough to get her back to Machmell. The “clearing” was a scree-covered incline that was landable but would require me to keep the rotor loaded in a near hover with Ferrell’s skid on the uphill slope. Angela was looking at us with a pale, panicked expression. She tried to roll herself onto an elbow to make the lift easier for Ferrell but winced hard and dropped flat. He didn’t need the help. The skinny old man is a beast. He cradled her broken body as easily as he might a child and smartly duck-walked towards the front of the chopper where the rotor gave him a little more room to approach. She spat a little blood onto her cheek as she cried in pain. Carrying her like that in a squat must have been a Herculean effort. He had to lay her down next to the skid to open the back door. I was too focused on staying in control to see how he managed it but he got her in and took a seat in the back. The front passenger door was still open. There was nothing I could do about that. It could fly off the hinges for I cared. I screamed to Ferrell to radio the brothers and tell them to meet us at the house.
The brothers and I did what we could to keep her comfortable once inside. But honestly she already looked like death would come hard and soon. Each breath came with an excruciating cough. She had broken several ribs and both lungs were at least partially collapsed. She was exhausted. Angela didn’t fall where we found her. She fell higher up the hill but knew that rescue would be impossible where she lay. Her right leg was badly broken. Her right arm was fractured. Plus the ribs. And those were just the injuries that were obvious to us. Despite them she must have crawled to the clearing. How long or how far I don’t yet know. Ferrell grabbed the scooter to see if he could find the nurse. The hamlet where she lived was a few miles away and we didn’t even know if she was there. But a birth earlier in the day was cause for a celebration which left our poor nurse in no shape to ride, much less provide any sort of care. What could she have done anyway? I called the hospital with the satellite phone and a doctor, more likely THE doctor, was put on the line. There was nothing he could do but confirm the obvious that her symptoms meant time was extremely urgent. By this point night had fallen. I proposed flying her up to Bella Coola but when I described the method of transport he said that traveling upright or curled in the cabin of the small Bell could easily kill her. She needed to stay on her back as comfortably still as possible. The doc put me in touch with Steve Ebens, the guy who flew the McIntees to Calgary. I didn’t know much about his operation other than that it was active and successful. I knew about their King Air (a largish twin-engined turboprop) and I knew about the A-stars, single engine helicopters similar to the 407. I assumed (or rather hoped) that in the middle of his fleet would be something like a Caravan—big enough to carry a patient but “bush” enough to land on the strip.
“No sir”, said Steve “those are all I’ve got”.
The helicopters do light work during the summer and work their asses off in the winter ferrying heli-skiers who share Angela’s adventurous streak. And neither helicopter was equipped with a litter.
“But that’s not a problem, Phil. The King-Air is made for medevac!”
“I am sure it is, sir, but Machmell is a postage stamp with a mountain at one end and a hill at the other.”
“Yes, thanks for the update. I’ve been there many times. Have the guys clear away the bigger debris like sticks and rocks and leave the rest to me. I will land at sunrise. Someone will need to be prepared to ride back with us because I cannot in good conscience bring a nurse. It will just be me.” If it’s ‘not a problem’ why did he need a conscience to land here?
The brothers spent the night clearing the strip. Ferrell fashioned a gurney from 2x4s and plywood. Providing any comfort to poor Angela was futile. But I did my best. She coughed up a sticky fluid mixed with blood and cried in agony when she had the energy to do even that. She was taking in so little oxygen that her fingernails were turning blue. The same nurse along with much of the village came to the house well before sunrise. We carefully placed Angela and her mattress on top of Ferrell’s gurney and carried her the 500 yards to the strip. Steve landed at sunrise as promised. We put a barely conscious Angela into even more agony as we moved her from the mattress to the litter. We were killing her. I rode with her in the back. Steve taxied to the end of the runway and then did something pretty extraordinary. He instructed Jesús to marshal him backwards so that his tail was as far into the stumps and brush as possible. He did this by placing the props in beta, reversing their pitch and subjecting them to likely permanent damage from small rocks stirred by the turmoil. Forward of the King Air there formed a huge cloud of dust that obscured the first half of the runway. He waited a moment for the cloud to drift and settle then throttled past redline, released the brakes and we hurtled down the tiny runway to what seemed like certain doom. I no longer cared.
TO: Edgar Espinosa
SUBJECT: Re: Angela
July 15 at 11:15
I am back at Bella Coola General Hospital with Steve. He’s been here for an hour even though I told him that he has done enough already and should really go home. But I think he is more worried about me than Angela. He doesn’t know her. I called Jim. He asked me to do something I hadn’t considered: call Angela’s parents. I said, “Can you do it Jim? I don’t even know their names.”
“Sorry Phil. You were there. It HAS to be you.”
I am exhausted, confused and don’t know what I will say. I better end this here and give it some thought. Call or text when you can.
Phil, are you there?
Can I call?
I’ll call you.
Me: “Hi Edgar”
Edgar: “Any word?”
“Nothing yet. Earlier I called this place a “hospital” but it’s really more like a big clinic. Angela is probably the most excitement they’ve had in a week. Hold on a sec. (I cover the phone) Excuse me, miss, but can you turn that down…or off? Sorry, man, this lady we’re sharing the waiting room with likes her morning TV loud. I better step out.”
“OK brother. You sound shot. So just try to listen if you can and we will get you through the next couple of hours so you can get some sleep. Pneumothorax is not fatal, understand? It certainly would have been had you guys not brought her to care in time. But now that she’s there, she will recover. Did she ever lose consciousness?”
“Good. She’s badly broken but she will recover, OK? And don’t worry about the size of the hospital. This is the sort of thing they know all about. Their bread and butter is, I would imagine, ski accidents, car crashes and the occasional fight. These are just the sorts of events that cause the types of injuries Angela is suffering from. A collapsed lung is treatable by any general surgeon. Mostly, the lungs heal themselves. So what she needs is time. In a month or two, you will have your old Angela back, I am certain. OK?”
“It’s OK brother. Cry it out. You probably haven’t slept since Friday. You are beyond exhaustion and you have been through a lot. You learned to care for someone only to watch her suffer and nearly die. You are at the extreme of human experience. You simply must get some sleep or you yourself will get sick and then you will not be of any use to her. You are all she’s got up there.”
“But first, Jim is right. You must call her parents now. If, God forbid, I am wrong and some complication arises, they will never understand why they weren’t told right away. You think she means something to you? You have no idea. She is their everything. Introduce yourself as a friend of both her’s and Jim’s. Tell them that she was in a climbing accident, that she is now in the hospital and that she will be OK. Start with that and let them take it from there. But do it now.”
“OK. …Thanks brother.”
“I’m here. Take a moment to pull yourself together and get it done. And Phillip?”
“I’m sorry to break it to you, brother, but I think you might be in love.”
FROM: Angela Allen
TO: Kurt Allen
SUBJECT: Home Soon!
October 02 at 6:29 pm
We have a nice break in the weather and tomorrow is shaping up to be a perfect day to fly. Our world that was so recently scorched is now soaked. Bella Coola was even coated in a thin layer of snow this morning! Snow so early is just another example of what a wild year of extremes this has been. Please don’t either of you worry. I can walk nearly limp-free now and use the cane only when I need a little extra support. We have been doing lots of flying over the past week. The only discomfort I have felt from flying is when climbing on and off the floats. Phil will make a decent co-pilot although his two attempts at landing the Husky on the river have been comical. He is hopelessly uncomfortable aloft without out the soothing vibration of a rotor over his head beating the air into submission.
As I mentioned, we have been busy. We spent the week at the house mainly to pack, clean, winterize and hopefully leave it in better condition than Phil found it. The last day was as much an emotional effort for me as it was physical. Especially so when I finally had to say “goodbye” to Ferrell. He had visited me a couple of times during my recovery at Jim’s house in Bella Coola but this was the first time for him to see me flying and running about. He saved my life and I told him so. Lacking any reply he paused for a moment then gave me an awkward hug. As he stepped back he quickly turned his head to brush away a tear. For Ferrell, this must have been a monumental display of emotion. Once recovered, he gave Phil a warm handshake, a pat on the shoulder and said, “Maybe we’ll see you again next year.”
“There is no maybe, Ferrell! Only next time let’s hope for a little less smoke.”
On that last day we made several trips back and forth to bring supplies and the two helicopters back to Bella Coola. Jesus and Julio rode with Phil on the last leg. This was the end of their season too. We will see them off and then head south ourselves.
Phil will be staying.
Love to mom. See you soon!