One Reason for the Alaska Bush Plane

#Stand4theManinBlack is a fundraiser to replace the vitally important aircraft that was lost to fire on September 16, 2013. Just one of the jobs of that airplane was to assure the safety of our Professional Guides, Team, Horses and the guests and clients that put their faith in our ability to keep them safe and out of harm’s way.

Stand for the Man in Black

Master Guide Terry Overly is an Alaskan Bush Pilot. The real deal. Landing on sandbars, finding lost hikers, dropping supplies with homemade parachutes to people where no plane or assistance could ever reach and finding the safest routes across the deadly waters that run through the Wrangell Mountains. Since loosing the airplane, life has become much more serious and dangerous for us all.

One memory and reason of how much the Alaska bush plane makes a difference to us all is one of crossing the Chisana River. The water depth and roll looks different standing next to it compared to how you can see it from the height of your horse’s saddle. It shows an even clearer picture from above, from the airplane above.

We were switching camps in the middle of our adventure. Instead of using the well worn trail and route that would take us 8 hours out of our way, we had decided to take a very old route used when Terry was an Assistant Guide for his Mother and Step-Father when he first began guiding. But first, we had to cross the head-waters of the Chisana and it wasn’t looking pretty.

I was holding Thunder still at the edge of the big channel, at the head of the Chisana River, the Chisana Glacier only a couple hundred yards away, watching the Super Cub circle.

 I don’t know of, in all of my experiences, a scarier devil, than the killer-cold, fast and rough running water of the Chisana River at it’s head-water.

Knowing (and so does Thunder) that this is exactly why I am here, I watched the tumble and flow of the water, listening to it’s loud threats and rumble, relaxed my knees and said, “Hep! Thunder.”

 As he steps into the icy water I can feel him tense and brace. Watching the bank on the far side of the channel, we angle up river and choose our route for the standing string of horses and riders waiting.

LeadershipI can feel Thunder sink into deeper water in the same moment I feel the icy water push and lift me in my saddle.  Demanding, “Hep! Thunder! Hep!” as I let go of the reigns and hold tight to his mane.
“Step up Thunder! Hep!”

As he pulls us up and out I lean down to give him a rough and thankful hug and rub on his neck, I find my stirrups and turn. Looking back, at my clients, fellow guide, and our trainees on the other bank, I have a fleeting thought of “shit, shit, shit” then I yell out to be heard above the roar of the water, “Stay!” to the guide holding the line ready and calm.

Pacing Thunder up and down the river channel, watching the water in the widest spots, watching the Super Cub circle, we pick our next try.

This high up on the river, only yards from the glacier itself, the quicksand isn’t our problem, the holes under the muddy water are. The water pouring out of the mouth of the glacier is a powerful force, moving boulders as big as cars as if they were only pebbles.

 Stepping back into the water, Thunder is everything strong and brave. (me? I’m not diggin’ it too much.)

About a third of the way back, into the glacial water about two yards, DOWN (!) we went! We walked directly into a hole. As the water covered me and I saw Thunder’s ears dip under the water, as we fell, I pulled as hard and with instinct more than thought, more concern than strength, as I could spare, directly into the rush of the water and gave Thunder both heals.

Turning head-on into the full force of the head waters lifted Thunder’s feet and we did a pretty tight 180 with me grasping my rope, dallied to the saddle horn, praying the whole time to hold tight because I couldn’t feel the rope or my hands.

As I felt Thunder find solid ground I let go of the rope with one hand, reached, and grabbed his tail. Thunder lunged for the bank and I hit the rocks on my knees.

Lifting a hand to the others, to let them and the Super Cub circling overhead, know I was ok. (yeah, right.) Wet, c-c-cold and feeling like I’d just been beat with a 2 x 4, I was good-to-go.

I sat there for a minute wondering what in the world makes me believe that this is all just a grand adventure. Then, using Thunder’s strong and solid legs, I pulled myself to my feet.

Yelling back to the others, I let them know exactly what I thought of THAT (!) in simple enough terms that anyone could catch my meaning and I even got a few laughs from them.

Dripping wet and on shaky legs, it took three tries to get my boot in the stirrup and pull myself up into the saddle.

(I still have people counting on me to find them a safe way to cross the river, becoming more anxious with each false lead and dunking.)

The Super-Cub, still circling, revs the engine, (which means in Cub-speak, “pay attention”) and dives at the bank and leaves me a trail to follow to the other bank. Circling, watching. Dives again to point the way he wants us to try, and Thunder decides he’s been swimming enough.

After a bit of a “discussion” and dealing with a horsey-tantrum, wheeling and basic…CRAP! we came to an understanding and he stepped back into the river.

Reaching the other side, by a good route, and bearing all the teasing and congrats, “thanks for finding all those holes for us!”, we turned around and crossed the Chisana River together.

As we finally climb the bank off of the rocks and back onto the willow bar and waved off the Super Cub, we tied the horses and built a fire to go with lunch.

The boss had told us about an old trail going up the mountain side of the glacier so that we could short-cut our way to camp.

Seriously? I had my doubts.

To know more about Stand for the Man in Black, please feel free to check out the page here on the website or any of these places too:


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