Archive for February 20th, 2007

Once again, we find ourselves in southeast Alaska.   The Arctic Chamber Orchestra made several tours down this little strip of mountainous sea coast; the Arts Associations there were avid to have us visit.  I got to visit  Cordova, Wrangell and Haines more than once.  

I remember one time when we travelled over to a port town in a fleet of airplanes referred to as the Grumman goose.  Now, you  really need to click on that link and take a look at some of the pictures on that page.   The story will make better sense if you have seen a picture of this airplane. 

Okay, are you back?  There were three of these rather peculiar looking airplanes waiting for us at the airstrip when we got there in the morning.  I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure we were flying from Wrangell to Petersburg, or vice versa.  We took off on a runway just outside of town, and remarkably there was even a terminal building.  At our destination, we landed in the water of the harbor.  

 While we were waiting to board the planes, the wind was blowing down out of the mountains, something fierce.   We were appalled to see one of the planes get caught by a gust of wind as it waited on the runway, and the tail flipped up.   The thing tilted up on its nose, and we watched as a bunch of guys tore over there and sort of hung on the elevator structure at the back of the plane and pulled it back into its customary attitude resting on its tiny little tail wheel.  The guy in the terminal blithely informed us not to worry, that that sort of thing happened all the time because the Goose tended to be a little top heavy.   He went on to muse how it was a lot better that this had happened before we boarded rather than while there were people in the aisles like the last time.  

We weren’t very much comforted.   But the pilot made a pretty complete inspection of the plane after its little mishap.   Apparently he was a lot more concerned that there was no damage to the hull, and not that concerned about the engines and propellers, which actually had not come very near the ground while it was tilted on its nose.  Satisfied, we were instructed to board.   After sorting us pretty severely by weight and assigning us to seats, we were escorted to our planes. 

It was a beautiful day for flying, and for once the sun was gilding the ice capped Wrangell mountains.   There were birds flying below us in squadrons.   There was a river flowing down into the Inside Passage, with waterfalls.   Below us in the water you could see fishing boats. The landing in the harbor was a rush.   The plane touched down and a curving wave peeled off the surface and arced past the windows.   Suddenly, we lost all our momentum to the embrace of the water, and taxied to the dock where we disembarked. 

Now I know that these stories sound like a series are starting to sound like “Airplanes I Have Known”.  I can’t help it, there were a lot of airplanes.   I’m hoping that there aren’t some ghosts hovering over me yelling things like “How can you not remember whether you were playing a Haydn symphony or one of the Brandenburg Concertos?”  So, I’m flunking the listening portion of music history, lack-a-day. I’ve already apologized in a previous post for not saving the programs over three states and heaven only knows how many moves.   I don’t have any of the recital programs I saved from San Francisco Conservatory of Music either.  If you were looking for some sort of concert review, you might as well stop reading now, because I’m afraid this is just another rather harrowing airplane story. 

There was a tour where we travelled from Ketchikan to Craig.  This may have been the same tour when we travelled in the Grumman Goose, or it may have been another time.  Anyway, we were scheduled to play in Craig, and the only way to get there was by float plane.

A whole flock (flotilla?) of little planes had been chartered.  There was a very sweet Havilland Otter which was detailed to carry a few passengers, the basses, celli and timpani.   There was also a Beaver, and several miscellaneous smaller aircraft.  When we got to the waterfront in Ketchikan to board, it was already late afternoon.   The plane I was assigned to was a four-seater.  

Our pilot looked the three of us over and asked us if we got airsick.  I was the only one who enthusiastically answered that I was NEVER motion sick, so he told me I could be his “co-pilot”.  Our bags and instruments loaded up, the two other passengers clambered into the back seats and got strapped in to his satisfaction.   Then I got in and was cinched down, and instructed rather severely to not touch anything, especially not the foot pedals by accident.  

As is usual in Southeast Alaska, the weather was getting ready to change.  The rain was starting to come in again, and apparently there was some sort of problem for the kid who was flying our plane.  He mentioned something about having to adhere to visual flight rules, and he wanted to get us to Craig, off-loaded and be back in Ketchikan before it got dark.   He didn’t want to stay in Craig overnight because he had a hot date.   I was treated to this explanation over the head phones as we headed off over the water towards Prince Edward Island.  The ladies in the back seat mercifully were spared the details.

The pilot didn’t want to have to fly around the perimeter of Prince Edward Island because it would take too long.  So we headed off over the island en route to a pass between some of the mountains ahead of us.  Unfortunately, as we flew on, the clouds lowered more and more, and our pilot began to worry that we wouldn’t get to the pass before the clouds socked it in completely.   It was a pretty bumpy flight up through the mountains, but it was also quite beautiful.  At one point we flew past a bunch of bighorn sheep perched on a cliff. 

Finally, we arrived at the pass.  We flew through the u-shaped valley, with mountains on either side of us.  As we passed over the edge of the cliff that was on the far side of the pass, the land dropped away beneath us, and apparently so did all the air.  Or at least that is what it felt like. 

“Shit!” the pilot yelled as he wrestled with the controls.  We plummeted several hundred feet straight down, caught in a wicked down draft.  I watched the little needle on the altimeter spin around, and wondered why my life was not passing before my eyes because clearly we were going to die very soon.  Behind me I heard my co-passengers retching wretchedly into their airsick bags.  That is by far the biggest hole in the air I hope to never experience again. 

The rest of the flight was full of “potholes” and we were quite relieved to finally land in the harbor at Craig.  We deplaned, and watched as the pilot took off for his return flight to Ketchikan.  I noticed he headed along the coast and not back towards the interior of the island.  Soon some Arts Association members arrived and transported us to the school where we waited for the rest of the orchestra to arrive.   They had come around the long way, so we had plenty of time to regain our color and spirits before they joined us. 

After the concert, we were split up between our hosts.   Craig was a small town, and we were being housed by volunteers.   The list of people sent out ahead consisted of  last names and initials, and my host was extremely distressed to discover that he had been assigned a single woman.  He was a school teacher, and quite upset, feeling that his reputation was at risk by having a female stay overnight with him.  He had a small tantrum at the arts association people, who tried to reassure him, but he was not sanguine.  Finally, humphing and puffing, he escorted me to his small apartment.  Without closing the front door, he showed me the ropes, and then left me alone while he went over to a friend’s place to stay the night.  I can assure you his virtue was safe with me, he wasn’t that attractive.  And certainly, he was less than hospitable. 

 The next morning I had a lonely breakfast of cold cereal and made my way unescorted down to the harbor where our transport back to Ketchikan awaited. 

And so, another day in the life of the Arctic Chamber Orchestra, another airplane.

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