Ski Jackets in the Summer

The forecast predicted highs in the mid 90s, but I threw my heavy gore-tex ski jacket in the car, just in case. My dad and I did a quick check ensuring that everything was packed. Even though we had a 30 mile drive, the morning cool had not burned off when we reached our destination. I drove behind a wood-sided building and parked. The smell of high-octane fuel pumped me full of adrenaline as I jumped from the car. I concentrated on my task, unpacking three heavy cases of gear, trying desperately  to ignore the helicopter sitting five yards away. The helicopter I wouldn’t be riding in today. Fortunately, the cases I unpacked were full of fairly exciting gear – a camera which cost as much as a new car, lenses that blew away anything else I’d ever used, and a mini-gyro system that looked as though it belonged in a futuristic outer space movie.

Once the camera was ready to roll, though, I had to load the helicopter. It was hard to ignore the helicopter AND load all the gear into it. I felt as if I were loading suitcases aboard a cruise ship headed to exotic lands, only to stand at the dock and wave goodbye to those lucky enough to remain on board. But this was a job. How could I let myself be distracted like this. I was here to be an assistant cameraman, not a joyrider in a helicopter. Give it up, I told myself.

I reasoned back and forth with myself. Giving up hope of flying… this didn’t mean I couldn’t look the helicopter over. So I examined the machine.

Firstoff, I took note of the doors. This helicopter had three doors – two in front and one in back. Behind the pilot’s seat, where a fourth door should have been, was a large hole. For filming, it is best to remove a door. Without a door, it gets cold inside the helicopter – thus the gore-tex. I’d thrown in a pair of lightweight gloves, too. But I didn’t figure I’d need them now.

The pilot showed up. I retreated to the tarmac’s edge. Dad arrived, and I showed him the camera. He double checked everything, ensuring all was up and running. I watched anxiously as the director, one of the two filmmakers we’d be working with for the next few days, walked up. The pilot delegated seats: Dad would sit in the back, filming out the door hole. The director would sit next to him, to assist when batteries or tapes needed changing. “And I’ll need someone up front with me…” caught my ear. The pilot looked around the tarmac. Where was the producer?

Heights didn’t sit well with the producer, we were informed. That was the best news I’d had in weeks. I jumped in back, to assist the cameraman, allowing the director to ride up front with the pilot. I shuffled batteries and cords around on the floor, trying to make space for my feet. Meanwhile, the pilot flipped switches, threw buttons and donned a headset. I heard the rotor shaft, a few inches above my head, start to spin. Takeoff was rough. Not rough like a car going over bumps though. The helicopter’s uneven motion lacked the harshness of a car on rough roads. It was a wobbly, sweeping sensation, as if the helicopter were a little child taking its first steps, swaying apprehensively. But after a few tentative moments, we glided smoothly through a windless sky.

My job as assistant cameraman required that I keep extra camera batteries and tapes handy, or help the cameraman, my dad in this case, readjust the camera/gyro setup. When tapes and batteries didn’t need changing – which was most of the time – I was free to look out the window. First off, we grabbed flyby shots of the US/Canada border crossing. Three or four passes over the X-ray machines at the border patrol station proved enough. After all, we didn’t really want to irritate law enforcement. On the way toward Glacier National Park, we followed the border swath – a treeless gash separating USA and Canada. Apparently, there are motion detectors and other deterrents hidden along the border, meant to catch illegal drug dealers as they pack valuable contraband across the border.

Last October my dad took Dane and me on a backpack trip known as the Northern Traverse. This 60 mile route follows the US/Canada border from Chief Mountain, Glacier’s eastern boundary, to Kintla Lake, on Glacier’s western boundary.  Seeing Kintla Lake from the air reminded me of this fantastic trip. Moments later, I was delighted to see the hanging gardens at Boulder Pass. When we flew over Brown Pass, I finally realized that we were re-traveling the Northern Traverse. Helicopters have advantages over hikers, namely speed and immunity to sweat. In the time it takes a hiker to hike two miles, we’d flown the entire sixty.

Seeing Chief Mountain on the horizon almost felt like a letdown. The Northern Traverse was already over. Beyond Chief Mountain, that crumbly half-mountain trying to maintain its dignity as a proper peak, flat, hazy plains of eastern Montana stretching out, smooth and golden. Such a sharp contrast to the clear air and darkly forested mountains behind me. Still massive, still beautiful, but not grand. Not awe inspiring.

Somewhere along the Northern Traverse, beyond Hole-In-The-Wall but before Goat Haunt, I noticed that the flimsy little seatbelt around dad’s waist had popped open. He was leaning out the door, trying to film down into a rugged basin walled in by cliffs. After that, I kept busy holding onto his belt. He generally wears a climbing harness and clips into the helicopter, but on this occasion we’d been encouraged to forego harnesses in favor of the seat belts. Never again.

Depending on the producer’s wishes, and the nature of the shot we were trying to catch, we sometimes flew a stone’s throw from the ground, and other times we sailed a mile above the mountain passes below. From a sightseeing perspective, I preferred flying fairly low. Flying high gave stunning panoramas, but the sense of motion resulting from gliding up valleys and drainages with rugged glacier scenery towering over us – this was unparalleled. I’m quite used to seeing the backcountry at two or three miles per hour – on foot. Seeing it at interstate speeds, though was scintillating. We ascended mountains like a runner might ascend a flight of stairs. Flying close to the ground, I watched small, specific details, zip past. Here I saw a small rock outcropping with wildflowers beneath. Next I noticed a large dead log which could house a family of rabbits, porcupines, or various other small animals. From the air, being able to discern sticks and rocks on the ground seemed significant for some reason.

Our eastward flight ended just past St. Mary. Since the sky over the open plains was quite hazy, we didn’t shoot much, but headed back to West Glacier. Like takeoff, the landing was a little rough, contrasting starkly with the smoothness of the rest of the flight. Climbing out of the helicopter, my overstimulated brain began to crunch through all the sensory information just dumped on me. Eventually I realized that strictly speaking, the helicopter was insignificant.  The noise and cramped quarters made up such a minute part of the experience. People don’t take helicopter rides so they can sit on small seats with faulty seat belts. The faux leather pouches with “Information About This Helicopter” packets don’t sell helicopter rides. Nobody really cares that the floor looks like epoxy-coated linoleum. Helicopters let us change perspective. Contours look different from above. You begin to understand the landscape differently.  Mountains which would take hours to climb on foot changed from rock masses looming above us to bumps like you see on 3D maps in the park’s visitor’s center. I descried trails winding and twisting around insurmountable mountain masses. Meanwhile the helicopter cut a straight course through the sky, daunted by no obstacle. For two short hours, I’d had the privilege of enjoying an interactive, unlimited resolution version of google earth.

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