I try to avoid doing things I'll regret. The snow is whiter than white, the sky bluer than blue. The wind is but a zephyr. Today's weather is so perfect. I'll always regret it if I don't drop everything and go ski flying in my Challenger!
At the crack of noon XSL leaps off the snow near runway 25 at Barrie. Up, up and away! Once clear of the airport traffic area we descend and hedgehop north towards Georgian Bay.
Letís have some fun! We do a 270 overhead approach and swoop into a smallish field lined with biggish trees. We glide downhill, paralleling the surface as it drops away, then float across a gully before landing going uphill. The motor helps us up the slope to crest the ridge. As soon as the skis tilt to point down the other side, I firewall the throttle. We literally jump into space! Climbing at an impossible angle, we clear the foliage by a goodly margin.
Trails emerge from woods, cross fields and disappear into the trees again. These spider webs covering the countryside are the back roads of snowmobiles. We cross the shoreline of Severn Sound. Here on top of the ice are the multi-lane freeways, hard packed snow many sleds wide. The tracks make cloverleaves where north-south and east-west routes cross. Smaller feeders connect with access points on the shore.
On weekends this area is a bee hive of activity. People visiting people, people just cruising around. Sometimes upwards of 500 snowmobiles participate in Poker Runs. On weekdays like today it's totally deserted, reminiscent of an episode of The Twilight Zone where not a single car could be seen in Los Angeles. No, wait, there's a sled, heading north! We detour over to exchange waves.
Yesterday I flew by here in the opposite direction, returning from a ski fly-in hosted by the Midland chapter of the RAA. Not long after we passed, an icebreaker battered and rammed it's way through to two lakers trapped at a wharf months ago by the freeze.
This bull in a china shop has literally split Severn Sound up the middle, leaving a miles long wound of open water. All the east-west snowmobile routes have been severed. This is not a problem for an airmobile like XSL!
Let's say though you get on your snowmobile Sunday morning and head across the sound to visit friends. Imagine your surprise on the return trip when you find the gap - a few dozen feet of ice in its liquid state, as impassable as the Grand Canyon. Worse, imagine it's after dark and you don't find the gap until you're in it! Ground bound pursuits are far too dangerous for my taste.
Given the hour, the immediate priority is lunch. Over the hill we go and land in Penetang Harbour at the Famous Dock Lunch restaurant. Of course there are no boats but there are a couple of snowmobiles. XSL keeps them company while I dine.
After lunch, strolling around the harbour, walking on water, frozen water, there's a twinge, a pang of sadness. It's the end of March. The sun has regained its vigour and is trying to vaporize the snow. The air is cooperating by pushing up through the freezing mark. The ski season is drawing to a close. Oh well, soon I'll be back here on floats.
We launch westward, towards the Bruce Peninsula on the other side of Georgian Bay. There's 15 or 20 miles of treacherous ice to traverse. At four thousand feet a semi-circular path keeps us within gliding distance of the beaches of Nottawasaga.
Below and to the right, towards the centre of the bay, long leads connect areas of open water. Off the left wing, bands of distinctly different types of ice follow the contours of the shoreline. One band is a jumble of little blocks which sparkle like diamonds in the sun. A pressure ridge upends huge chunks of ice.
The only skidoo trails here are along the snow covered beach. A solitary figure pulling a sled is walking out from shore. He'd better know what he's doing! Maybe it's Nanook of the North?
We come ashore at the ski hills of Collingwood. Tiny black dots move from top to bottom. This area has little snow cover, the wind has whisked it away. Tenacious remnants of snow are lined up to show it was a nor'wester. A few miles away on terrain less than a thousand feet higher, there is ample snow cover. Micrometeorology is fascinating! Squalls and streamers from lake effect can drop 20 cm of snow in a stripe as precisely as a paint roller.
Ten miles away the perfect field beckons. I set up a glide to a point several hundred feet above the field. Speed increases from eighty-something to ninety-something as the nose goes down. Overhead the field, we do a three sixty for a visual inspection before landing.
I explore the surrounds a little on foot and bask in the sun while munching some trail mix. While we're here, I might as well transfer gas into the main tank from the jerrycan lashed in the back! Chores done for the day, I work on my tan a while longer before heading off along the hedges.
The contour lines on the VFR Navigation Chart barely hint at what's coming next. Ahead the Niagara Escarpment pops straight up. A mere 400 million years ago, a layer of tough rock was formed on the bed of an inland sea. A great uplifting occurred and the area became dry land. Then glaciers came and did their best to scrape the rock away. They failed, as did the countless raindrops that tried to pound the rock into submission.
Over the eons this deposit of caprock has protected the softer limestone below. The surrounding terrain has been worn down hundreds of feet. The edge of the deposit forms the escarpment, a great cliff running from Niagara Falls north to the Bruce Peninsula between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, then across Manitoulin Island and into upper Michigan.
XSL's wing tip traces the twists and turns of the cliff. We bank steeply around a point. Let's climb! We punch through a layer of thin scattered clouds and park at 8,000 feet to view the Bruce Peninsula in its entirety. The escarpment goes up the peninsula fifty miles like a sidewinder snake.
On the right is Georgian Bay and its ice. There's nothing in the sky but the brushstroke of a contrail. On the left lies Lake Huron, tinted pewter by a thin overcast deck. The sun nevertheless manages to leave a bright spot on the water.
Icebreaker tracks cleave Owen Sound, terminating at a laker and a couple of ferries. We haven't tracked the spoor from end to end but it's a good bet that it's the same beast that ran amok over in Severn Sound.
A couple of years ago I flew up here from Boston in my yellow biplane. I remember that Wiarton Airport has a coffee pot and start a letdown. It takes a while to get down from this exalted altitude. We pass abeam the runway and arc out over the bay to burn off height. Then we parallel the escarpment before curving back in to join downwind.
On amphibious floats I would check that the wheels were down and locked for landing on the paved runway. On straight skis there are no wheels to check. The tricky part is flying the circuit down to short final and then remembering to miss the runway! All that bare and dry pavement would make for a very short landing indeed! I divert XSL over to touch down in the snow beside the ramp.
The folks at Wiarton make fresh coffee which I sip leisurely at a picnic bench. Then we launch and head south in the general direction of home. This leg we go low and slow, in the finest ultralight fashion, drinking in the details of the scenery.
What's that? A fox in a tiny rolling meadow of white! Is he out playing in the sun too? I circle back, slip in steeply over the trees and amble over to pay my regards. Br'er Fox watches all this with interest, but as I approach he decides to be coy and trots off into the woods. He looks back and smiles as he enters the trees.
Occasionally I land to draw patterns with the skis on the virgin white canvas, then admire the artwork while spiraling back up.
We dive over the edge of the escarpment and continue the journey home over woods and meadows and farms. We arrive back at Barrie at the crack of dark. Years of practise have made me an expert at squeezing the last drops of light from the end of the day. The Hobbs meter shows XSL's engine has run five hours since we left at midday.
The sun has further depleted Barrie's meagre supply of snow. Spring has sprung, the grass is riz, I wonder where the boidies is!
It's a bit of a challenge to line up enough snow in a row to land. A couple of S turns after touchdown does the trick. Getting back to the hangar is going to be even more interesting. Fortunately I surveyed the scene on approach and have a plan.
We twist and turn to stay off the grass and dirt, scooting over spots where the snow has thinned. Passing behind the wheelplanes on the flight line, we hang a right towards the pumps. Lots of power is required to get on top of the remains of a huge drift, then it's back to idle as we slither down the other side.
We slink behind the barn, zigging to avoid a fence post and zagging to miss a tractor tire, then slip down a snowy ravine and zoom back up the other side. Weaving across the infield it's up and hard right onto the ridge built by the plow. We walk the tightrope along the top and shuffle quickly down the far end. Another right, another left, another huge drift and we're there!
We swing uphill to snuggle up to the hangar. The comet Hale-Bopp looks down from the northwestern sky as I tuck XSL in for the night.
This summer will mark the thirtieth anniversary of receiving my wings in the air cadets. I've landed sailplanes in farm fields, a biplane on a polo pitch, a Cessna on a New Zealand volcano.
Most of the thirty years though have been spent operating out of airports and aerodromes. Whether hard-surfaced, gravel or grass, these are level rectangular spaces with straight lines and right angles. Even the traffic pattern is rectangular. Most flights are missions with every aspect preordained - departure time, route, altitude, speed, destination, ETA.
A year ago I discovered another world, one of curved spaces, where you can fly in proximity to the earth and stop where you wish. Spontaneity is encouraged. It's an unfettered world, where you can fly a circular circuit, at the height of your choice, and taxi without being channeled by lines painted on pavement. This is a world of simple freedoms, of simple pleasures.
This past year of ultralight float and ski flying, my first exposure to both, has been such an eye opener, such a revelation. You can go just about anyplace.
If it's summer and you come across an appealing waterfront restaurant, you splash down and check out the menu. If it's winter and you see a pretty meadow all covered in snow, you land and sit on a fence, letting your thoughts flow uninterrupted.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull wasn't shackled by the cackle of Air Traffic Control. Forget that vector, Victor. No need for a clearance, Clarence. Leave the squawking to the parrots. Come visit my new neighbourhood!
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