Over the past four decades, Bruce L. Smith has worked with most big-game species in some of the American West’s most breathtaking and challenging landscapes. In Stories from Afield, readers join Smith on his adventures as a naturalist, sportsman, and wildlife biologist, as he pulls us into the field of learning and discovery across wilderness areas of western Montana, the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and a South African temperate forest. Ranging from humorous to harrowing, Smith’s essays recount capturing newborn elk calves, stalking mountain goats on icy cliffs, being stranded on a mountain after riding out a helicopter crash, confrontations with bears during his research, plus quirky and edifying hunting tales. Throughout his adventures, the magnetism and danger of wild nature are ever present, reminding us that our fascination with wildness often stems from its unpredictability.
About the Author
Bruce L. Smith retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2004 after a thirty-year career as a wildlife manager and scientist. He was named Wyoming’s Conservationist of the Year in 1997 and received the John and Frank Craighead Wildlife Conservation Award in 2005. His latest book, Life on the Rocks: A Portrait of the American Mountain Goat, won two National Outdoor Book Awards.
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Stories from Afield
Adventures with Wild Things in Wild Places
By Bruce L. Smith
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Bruce L. Smith
All rights reserved.
Statistics are no substitute for judgment.
— Henry Clay
Long, cobalt silhouettes of junipers slipped beneath, as we chased our shadow across the dissected sagelands. An immature golden eagle sporting white-banded tail feathers, the decorative plumes prized by Plains Indians, streaked past the helicopter's left door. Dense, still air made for ideal flying conditions. It was a great day to be alive, soaring with the eagle.
Our pilot, John, guided the Hiller 12E around the east flank of Black Mountain. The peak's 10,087-foot, fir-cloaked hulk dominated the skyline. Behind Black Mountain lay Crow Creek basin, a pretty, willow-lined stream nestled between 11,000- to 12,000-foot-high Black Ridge on the west and Trail Ridge on the east. These joined to the north, forming an elongated horseshoe that fed Crow Creek's waters 2,000 to 3,000 feet below.
Our mission on this subzero morning in January 1980 was to survey elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep in the Owl Creek Mountains of Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Along to help me was Rawley Friday. Rawley was Arapaho and a tribal game warden at the Wind River. About my height but stockier, he could handle himself. I liked flying with Rawley. He was devoted to the reservation's wildlife and a jovial companion on surveys; and he owned an iron stomach, something others I'd flown with didn't possess.
The prototype of the rotary-wing aircraft carrying us was built in 1944 by helicopter pioneer Stanley Hiller at the age of eighteen. Hiller Helicopters' first production aircraft, the HillerUH12, first flew in 1948, the year I was born. By 1965 more than 2,300 were built for commercial and military use. The next rerun of M.A.S.H. you watch, look closely at the choppers used for medevac or to transport Hawkeye from the 4077 in the series finale. They are UH12s, first purchased by the military in 1950 as H-23 Ravens.
Like all reciprocating-engine craft, increasing altitude hampers performance. Our Hiller was equipped with a Soloy turbine conversion to ameliorate that limitation. The one drawback was the turbine's increased thirst for fuel, giving us only two to two and a half hours aloft per fill-up. We carefully planned the day's work with that in mind.
It was now midmorning. Nearly two hours had elapsed since Rawley and I met at the Thermopolis airport where our survey began. We'd already recorded 129 mule deer and almost 200 elk across the eastern three-fourths of the sixty-mile-long Owl Creek Range — improved numbers for that area compared to previous winters' counts. The high country loomed ahead.
In search of bighorn sheep along Trail and Black Ridges, we'd be operating at our highest altitudes on this final leg of the morning's flight. Unlike sheep in the reservation's Wind River Range to the southwest, which migrate to lower-elevation cliffs in winter, bighorns here wintered along wind-scoured ridgetops and escarpments. We carried another forty gallons of fuel in five-gallon jerricans in the Hiller's twin cargo baskets — one mounted on the skid beside each door. The additional weight would reduce performance at high altitudes, acting like ballast on a submarine, but avert a gas-guzzling ferry to refuel in Thermopolis. This dance of performance versus mission time vexes all remote mountain flights. But as one pilot told me, noting that far too many aviation accidents are caused by running out of fuel, "The only time there's too much fuel on a helicopter is when it's on fire."
The fuel gauge registered one-quarter full, as John throttled the Hiller toward Trail Ridge. We'd land on the ridgetop high above, refuel with the jerricans, and begin our hunt for bighorns.
As we approached Trail Ridge, John unexpectedly settled the Hiller in a foot of snow on the Crow Creek Road. His voice was tinged with concern as he said, "I want to check on something." Noting our probing expressions, he added, "I smelled something."
Weird sounds, vibrations, and smells can be telltale signs of trouble to a helicopter pilot, like the tingling sensation I'd felt in the Wind Rivers before lightning struck far too close. I'd not flown with John before, but this attention to detail eased my usual concern about new pilots. Other than being an oversized load for a chopper to lift at six foot three, John seemed competent at the controls. Without shutting the engine down, he climbed out through the flimsy, acrylic door and examined the Hiller's mechanics. In minutes, he was buckling into his shoulder harness, informing his onlooking passengers, "False alarm. Everything's okay." Rawley and I shared relieved looks. "Good," I said as the engine whined and snow whipped like meringue around the ship. "The closest service station's two days' hike from here."
As the Hiller whooshed forward, Rawley and I resumed scanning for big critters or their recent passage from telltale tracks. It was midwinter. A storm had dumped fresh snow — conditions that maximized visibility of game and covered old animal tracks. Any new ones would likely lead us to whatever animals made them.
The Hiller strained and shuddered upward into a world above ten thousand feet that was snowbound, except for stunted treetops, cliffs, and shreds of windblown ridge. This was the windiest area of the reservation. Funneling eastward off the Continental Divide through the Wind River valley, winds howled unobstructed before encountering Black Ridge. On windward slopes and ridgetops, velocities could be brutal. On the leeward flanks, turbulence was particularly dangerous, sometimes insane. In sum, advancing weather fronts made surveying game impossible. Today, high pressure had settled over Wyoming, bringing favorable conditions. Yet John was busy at the foot pedals adjusting for the swirling gusts that yanked the tail boom left then right.
We intended to refuel along the crest of Trail Ridge near Monument Peak, at whatever spot offered a level landing site. The upsurge in wind now threatened that design. A misstep along the ridge's narrow spine could make for an untidy landing. A rogue downdraft or wind shear could prove disastrous. John nudged the Hiller up the west side of Trail Ridge. The ship sailed skyward on updrafts and then yawed sideways as the air settled beneath the rotary wing and buffeted the fuselage. Gaining the ridgetop, the Hiller suddenly banked west across Crow Creek basin. "Thwack, thwack, thwack!" Through the noise-dampening padding of my flight helmet, the main rotor pounded like a jackhammer.
Sensing our intense stares, John announced, "We better look for a landing site somewhere below the ridgetop. Somewhere the winds are more manageable than up here."
The other option, descending more than two thousand feet to Crow Creek to refuel, would cost us precious fuel to regain our eleven-thousand-foot altitude. Neither John nor I wanted to do that. We circled back and scanned the bleak landscape below the ridge crest.
"Maybe there!" John jutted his chin forward.
Rawley and I peered in that direction and back at John's eyes for confirmation. "That spot?" Rawley questioned.
Just above the altitudinal limits of the subalpine fir belt, our eyes converged on the only level perch — more like a possibility of a landing spot. A spur off Trail Ridge descended some two hundred feet to a modest platform and then plunged to Crow Creek far below. The flat was snowbound, like everything else, but offered a landing perch large and stable enough for the petite helicopter to roost ... or so we reassured ourselves. Fresh avalanches shredded Trail Ridge's winter mantle to our left and right. Tons of snow had plunged hundreds of feet in some slides. A spasm of unease clutched my chest.
John circled twice more to gauge the winds. "You okay with this?" he purposefully asked, not taking his eyes off the mountain and the fast-approaching treetops.
The fuel gauge had dipped below one-quarter. From just one hundred feet above, the little LZlooked safe enough to me.
"Yeah," I replied and glanced at Rawley for signs of reluctance. "Let's do it."
A brief lull in the wind aided our approach. Into the snow the Hiller settled nearly fuselage-deep. The cargo baskets buoyed it from sinking further. As the turbine engine wound down, the three of us unbuckled our harnesses and stepped onto the cargo baskets' framework and then thigh-deep into powder. Bucking the snow, Rawley and I removed the bungees and ferried the jerricans to John, who emptied the contents of each through its flexible pour spout into the fuel tank. Another two hours of flight time awaited — enough to thoroughly survey the twenty miles of lofty horseshoe surrounding Crow Creek and Mountain Meadows below and then return to Thermopolis with a helping tailwind.
Back in the Hiller, we rebuckled harnesses, squeezed heads into helmets, and connected dangling avionics plugs. John summoned on the intercom, "Ready?"
Rawley and I each replied, "Ready."
"Clear!" John announced and fired the turbine, which after several tries rumbled to life. Sluggishly at first and then with increasing authority, the Hiller rose from our perch, as great eddies of snow engulfed us.
When a helicopter lifts off, it begins so in HIGE — that's chopperese for "hover in ground effect." This signifies a condition of optimal performance encountered when operating near the ground. A helicopter requires less power to achieve the same amount of lift near the ground, because the ground interrupts the airflow beneath the helicopter, reducing downward velocity of the airflow, translating to more vertical lift. Essentially, a compacted cushion of air between the rotary wing and the ground supports and lifts the chopper. Once a height exceeding one rotor diameter is reached, the helicopter transitions to HOGE, or "hover out of ground effect." A pilot will then increase the angle of attack, or the rotor blades' forward tilt, to develop forward-moving speed. Continuous, coordinated adjustments to the throttle, foot pedals, cyclical, and collective controls keep the contraption from gyrating aimlessly.
I mention this not to impress you with my elementary grasp of aviation physics but to illustrate a point. Flying a helicopter is a complex affair, demanding a pilot's constant attention. Airplanes are designed to land on runways or, in the case of float planes, on water. Doing otherwise isn't impossible. Airplanes can land on roads, fields, and less suitable locations in a pinch. Alaskan bush pilots land most anywhere they can. Larry Hastings once landed me on a faint two-track road near Crowheart Butte in his Cessna 182. We both had to pee so badly, after too much coffee and nearly four hours of counting pronghorn antelope, that bladder damage seemed imminent.
Helicopters are designed to land at unimproved landing sites. Think of some butt-puckering situation — a pocket of grass pressed between towering firs, an old burn strewn with snags and downed trees, or a sage-covered hillside demanding a one-skid touch-and-go in a gale — and some pilot has landed there. Such landings I'd survived in Viet Nam I considered heroic. In natural resource work (fire-fighting and rescue work in particular), they happen as regularly. It's just that in civilian employment, rarely are folks shooting at you.
Ours was not the classic takeoff I described three paragraphs earlier. John executed a variation, God bless him. Maybe because we were perched on this little launch pad so near an abruptly rising slope; maybe because the swirling snow hampered visibility; maybe because he wanted to clear all danger before turning the helicopter into the wind; or maybe because of some technical aspect that I probably couldn't explain, if I knew it. I don't know the reason — never thought to ask him.
Instead, John took the Hiller skyward, without dropping the nose to gather forward speed. We went straight up. Up, briefly ... until we fell from the sky. Not like a rock, rather like the autorotation that another pilot had demonstrated on a flight a year earlier. In fact, that's what the Hiller did. It autorotated right back to our launch pad, with a jolt and a billow of snow.
It happened so quickly that I didn't have time to get terrified. Although every time I've thought about it since, my heart zips a bit. Ten yards to one side or the other and we'd have alighted beyond that flat spot on the spur ridge and then begun sliding and tumbling creek bound. The dense stand of firs just below would have halted our descent, but the damage caused by the rotor blades battering the mountainside would be done by then. Picture locking an industrial Mixmaster on high speed, releasing the handle, and then watching it dance from a countertop onto the floor ... only way more dramatic. Helicopter rotor blades are huge. Each measures almost eighteen feet in length on the Hiller. And at full-throttle revolution that's needed to lift the ship and passengers from the ground, they wield tremendous force.
We might have survived, if the cabin remained intact. I don't know the fracture resistance of the acrylic canopy or the tensile strength of the supporting metal alloy structure. It would surely have been tested that day. Fire is the other life-threatening danger, particularly for unconscious or disabled passengers unable to escape from safety harnesses.
None of these "could haves" happened. We plopped right back where we had been moments before. Rawley and I looked wide-eyed at each other and then at John.
"What happened?" I started.
"Lost the fuel pump," John said. "Just conked out!"
"The fuel pump!" Rawley exclaimed, paused, and then inquired further. "Can ya' fix it?"
"I don't know. Probably not here." John replied.
I looked at my watch. It was 11:30 — plenty of time to check out the fuel pump, fix it, and resume our work. It must be repairable, I resolved. We were snowbound at ten thousand feet and miles from anywhere.
Everyone unbuckled and got out as the rotor blades spun down. "Whoop, whooop, whooooop." Their tips assumed a sad, lifeless droop. John rummaged in the tail boom's stowage compartment and came out with a small toolbox. He climbed up to the engine and fiddled with something for a few minutes while Rawley and I watched and asked a couple of pointless questions. When John stepped down into the cargo basket, he looked grimly past us.
"Let's get back inside," he ordered.
When John triggered the ignition, the engine sputtered but failed to fire. Again he tried, to no avail, and then blurted, "No way. Can't be fixed here. Most likely, it will need replacing."
I felt the air go out of my lungs. My first concern was that we wouldn't complete today's survey. The second was that we probably wouldn't be finishing up tomorrow either. And third, I wondered how long before we would be rescued. That's the thought that stuck.
Before we climbed back into the cabin, I got my daypack out of the stowage compartment. I had water, a sandwich, gorp, and a chocolate bar in there, along with gaiters and a parka strapped to the outside. Flying in the heated helicopter, it was too warm to wear the down parka. It sure was welcome now.
Inside, Rawley and I removed our flight helmets. I replaced mine with a stocking hat. Rawley donned a blue wool cap with earflaps. John fingered the radio switch, adjusted his helmet's mike, and tried to raise the Riverton or Lander airports. "Lander Unicom, this is helicopter ..."
He repeated the transmissions a dozen times. No response. He glanced at us, probably wondering what we were wondering. Then he retuned the radio to another frequency, the Mayday channel. The contrail of a jetliner was passing overhead. His determined efforts to raise a reply were again fruitless.
He wrenched the helmet from his head and offered a couple of choice expressions ... the insightful kind appropriate for our now-apparent predicament. He turned to us and said, "We have no radio contact. The avionics must have been damaged when we landed."
The radio antenna was buried in the snow compacted beneath the fuselage. Even if we dug it out, John replied to my inquiry, it would make no difference. I recall disliking his defeated tone. Rawley and I were willing to dig, excavate, burrow — whatever was needed. But John's further explanation of the problem convinced us that digging was just a good way to get soaked and then good and cold — a surefire formula for hypothermia.
I recall the sun beaming through the clear canopy. It felt warm on my face at its midday zenith. But in five hours, it would sink behind the Wind Rivers; and the air temperature along with it. The morning forecast on the Lander AM radio station called for twenty degrees below zero tonight. That was at 5,400 feet elevation, not here at 10,000. The helicopter's round thermometer showed just twelve degrees on the plus side now. Without an insulating cloud layer, tonight's temperature would be bitter.
John tried the radio again as I mulled our options. I knew that convention dictated remaining with the aircraft in the event of an accident. Search craft would look for the downed Hiller, guided by the onboard ELT, or emergency locator transmitter. Every airplane and helicopter is equipped with one. A crash landing's impact activates the ELT, which emits a radio pulse signal on the 121.5-megahertz frequency. ELTs can be manually activated also. John did so, recognizing that our moderate impact may not have done the job. Aircraft monitoring the ELT frequency, and flying near enough to receive it, would be alerted to our emergency. Great! We would be rescued — as soon as somebody knew we needed rescuing.
Excerpted from Stories from Afield by Bruce L. Smith. Copyright © 2016 Bruce L. Smith. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
2. Big Turtle
3. The Way West
4. The Deer Hunt
5. The Elk Hunt
6. Woodpeckers to Goats
7. The Bear and the Tree
11. Old Garbage Gut
12. In the Timber
13. Baby Elk
14. The Circle
15. Empty Forests
16. Four Decades Later