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Aerial Reconnaissance

The Anniversary Gift of a Lifetime:

An Adirondack Flyover

My wife Robin & I received a huge surprise this year from our children for our (Lord, PLEASE, hear my prayer! Help me get this number right!) 33rd wedding anniversary. They went in together and bought us an Adirondack plane ride.

Now, full disclosure before I venture further:

It’s a well-known fact in our family that despite having successfully completed both U.S. Army Airborne & Ranger Schools and being jump qualified, I am, in fact, scared beyond death of heights.

Scared to the point where I still to this day cannot climb a ladder without trembling. All of my hunting tree stands are homemade inclined ladder stands, as there is no way in HELL I’m climbing one of those vertical commercial ladder models. For the most part, I prefer enjoying my hunting forays from the safety of feet on the ground pop up blinds or hunting huts anyways.

My most traumatic annual endeavor, which I undertake but one time each year, is, with an assist from my wife, climbing a ladder up onto my roof to clean creosote buildup from my wood stove’s chimney in preparation for burning wood in my stove through the winter.

So, it should not surprise anyone who knows me to learn that the pre- plane ride purchase discussion amongst my children focused on one simple question:

“Would Dad even go?”

The answer, quite obviously, was an emphatic “HELL YES!”

Because, for whatever reason, totally unexplainable by me, my fear of heights nearly completely dissipates when I’m in an airframe.

That said, it had, until this flight, been a good long while since I’d flown. My flight manifest history having a story of its own.

Not counting a commercial flight as a two-year-old that I do not remember, one on which my mom recounts I spent the entire flight crying and screaming at the top of my lungs “The plane is bwoken! The plane is bwoken!” The first five times I went up in an aircraft, I never landed. I JUMPED!

I’d ridden a bus with my ROTC comrades from Cornell to Fort Bragg for ROTC Advanced Camp and stayed on for two weeks afterwards to attend Fort Bragg’s Airborne school. So, the first flight in my memory bank from which I ever landed, was my flight home from Airborne school.

I later flew to and from Army Ranger school, and of course, a great deal, on all sorts of airframes, during my time in the Army. I recall the baggage attendant making a move to rummage her hands through my duffel as I prepared for the flight home from Ranger school.

With a slight twinkle in my eye, I cautioned her. “You might want to be a bit careful there, Miss. My pet snake’s in that bag.”

The attendant quickly removed her hand from my duffel bag and passed me through to board without further inquiry or question. It was the Columbus, Georgia commercial airport, just outside Fort Benning, a facility replete with travelling soldiers. Many wearing the black and gold tab of U.S. Army Rangers.

The man in front of me, dressed in civilian attire, but with a chiseled veteran’s chin beneath his squared away salt and pepper high & tight, after watching my exchange with the attendant, turned and gave me a quick subtle nod, wink and smile.

I’d probably get arrested and spend the rest of my career in the stockade for pulling a stunt like that now.

In more recent years, I’ve totally given up flying commercially, not out of fear, but rather out of frustration, as my radiation blasted, technologically evolved, survivor’s version of a post cancer body invariably sets off every airport checkpoint security alarm, and I simply grew tired of being pulled out of line for grueling interrogation and everything short of a full body cavity search, even when I present a signed doctor’s note, every time I tried to board an airliner.

However, despite all of those thoughts and memories vividly flashing back through my head, I was excited as my wife Robin & I prepared to board a little four-seater Piper Cub for our anniversary Adirondack flyover.

The kids had booked our flight with the Adirondack Aviation Academy. We flew out of Lake Clear’s Adirondack Regional Airport. We had actually originally been scheduled for a sunset flight the evening before, but after making the drive to the airport from Watertown in a bank of low cloud cover rain, when we got to the airport, our pilot advised us that in flight visibility would be nil. So, we rescheduled for the next afternoon and made the long drive back to Watertown.

Thus, we were happy that this day was sunny, cloud free and bright. I was fully camera armed and ready for some aerial reconnaissance with a bird’s eye view from the co-pilot’s seat. (Which was pretty cool, because, despite having barely enough room for my knees, I had my own set of foot pedals & control stick and could have flown that plane myself if I had to!)

My co-pilot’s chair
Anniversary Flyover, Take II

My wife Robin sat behind us. She seemed quite comfortable on the roomier two-person bench seat.

We each donned headsets, did a comms check with our pilot.

“Good afternoon. This is call sign Matt. Thank you for flying with the Adirondack Aviation Academy. I’ll be your pilot. We’ll be flying all over Hell’s Adirondack half acre today. If we happen to run out of gas or crash into a mountain, there’s two stale Snickers bars, a bottle of water & a flare gun stashed under the bench seat. The fasten seat belt sign is now on. Oh, and by the way, there are no stewardesses, tray tables, restrooms, emergency exits, inflight movie or meal. So, sit back and enjoy your flight. Also, if we do crash and I happen to survive, I call dibs on one Snickers bar. Radio check. Over”.

I guess that meant the only remaining unresolved issues were for Robin & I to decide who got to be “Goose”, who got to be “Maverick”, and in the event we suddenly found ourselves stuck nose down in the side of some remote mountain, how we would divvy up the last Snickers bar, and which one of us got to fire the flare gun.

Comms check complete and all systems “go”, we taxied out onto the runway and prepared for takeoff.

Matt had briefed us beforehand on the standard flight plan. The proposed route would give us a tour of the Adirondack Region, then take us across Lake Champlain over into Vermont for a spin.

Robin & I, however, had our own flight path agenda. I told Matt that unless he could guarantee us a bonafide close-up “Champ” sighting (Or Bernie Sanders. Come to think of it, they just might be one & the same. Both sure are dinosaurs!), a Lake Champlain/Vermont flyover simply did not excite us. Robin & I advised Matt of our intended aerial reconnaissance targets. He quickly obliged by re-plotting our route.

After takeoff took us out over Lake Clear and Tupper, we almost immediately banked left, paralleling the shoreline of Upper Saranac Lake.

We had been hoping for a splash of September fall colors, but we were about a week early for that. There were hints here & there, but for the most part, everything was still green & any fall foliage colors we did see were muted.

Foreground: Upper Saranac Lake
Background: Raquette River flow & Tupper Lake

We then crossed down over Bartlett’s Carry,

Upper Saranac Lake/Saranac River & Bartlett’s Carry route to Middle Saranac

& made a pass down over Middle Saranac Lake’s west end & the mouth of South Creek.

Middle Saranac Lake, West End View:
Left: South Creek, Ship & Shaw Islands
Top: Upper Saranac/Saranac River/Bartlett’s Carry/Stormy Point
Right: Halfway Island, Umbrella & Windy Points

We then banked back around to the right for some close-up aerial shots of Hungry Bay, Martha Reben and the two Weller Ponds.

Hungry Bay, Weller Pond & Little Weller
The Martha Reben lean-to is on the point off the front of the wing.

From there, we turned and headed east, down Middle Saranac, towards Ampersand Mountain, and the river.

Bottom to Top:
Halfway Island, Umbrella Point, Bartlett Island, Norway Island, Second Island, First Island, Bull Rush Bay, Saranac River, Ampersand Beach/Walk In
Ampersand Mountain in the background

We then dropped down for a closer view of my family’s annual summer camping trip Bull Rush Bay home, before following the river’s flow down past the locks to Lower Saranac.

Drop Down View:
First & Second Islands/Bull Rush Bay/Ampersand Walk In/Beach & The River

Saranac River View:
The upper locks are visible on the point just left of center.

Lower Saranac Lake view from upriver:
Left: Kelly’s Slough
Right: Loon Bay, Pope Bay, Lonesome Bay
Center: The Narrows, Eagle Island, Ampersand Bay.
The route down through the lower locks to Saranac Lake Village & the High Peaks in the background

Lower Saranac Lake, Low Altitude View:
Boot Bay, The Narrows, Pope Bay
Martin, Duck & Goose Islands

Lower Saranac Lake:
Bluff Island, First & Second Ponds
The State Bridge/Boat Launch & The Route down through the Lower Locks to Oseetah

Once we flew past the state bridge and the boat launch, we paralleled Route 3 down towards Ampersand Bay and my boyhood hometown village of Saranac Lake.

Heading to Town:
Lake Colby (left), Ampersand Bay (center front), Lake Flower (right rear)
Saranac Lake village proper centered
A Bird’s Eye View:
My Heart’s Hometown Village of Saranac Lake

Once we hit the village, I had but one mission in mind:

Locate the house I grew up in & conduct an air recon fly by.

It took a quick minute to get myself (& our pilot) oriented. Everything looks a bit different from the air. I had to identify some visible reference points so “Call Sign Matt” could triangulate and get us zeroed in.

I used Mount Pisgah (left), Moody Pond (right), the trestle & Pine Street Bridge on the river.

I got Matt’s eye trained in on our house by following the river to a point just above the island. Once he thought he had spotted it, he verified target acquisition by pointing with his right wingtip.

Target Acquisition:
“Roger, Maverick. We have the target in sight”.
Left side of the Pine Street Bridge, far side of the river.

“I think it’s time to buzz the tower.

“Negative, Ghost Rider. The pattern is full.”

“Yeah? Well, I’m an Adirondack Outlaw. What’s one more warrant?”

“Buzzing the Tower”
1 Stevenson Lane, “The Murray House”
My boyhood home.

Once we finished “buzzing the tower” over my boyhood home, we did a quick turn past Mount Baker and turned our attention to our primary follow-on aerial reconnaissance assignment:

South Meadows, Marcy Dam, and the route into Colden

South Meadows, Marcy Dam, and the area in and around Lake Colden hold a special magic for me. I literally grew up in those woods.

From the time I was ten, every fall my dad and I pitched camp and hunted deer up along the ridges of Phelps Mountain. I finally shot my first buck up there, a nice eight point, at the age of sixteen. I was hunting alone at the time, before cell phones. Dad had decided to hike further up behind Marcy Dam to hunt, so I field dressed and dragged that big buck down off those ridges and back to our car at South Meadows on my own.

Several times Dad & I hiked into Lake Colden, where the caretaker at the time, Brownie, used to show me polaroid photos of guided fishing trips into Avalanche Lake & Lake Colden. Bearded men with stringers full of beautiful trout filled those photos.

After I graduated high school, as a member of the DEC trail crew, I spent two summers living and working as assistant to the caretaker out of the Interior Headquarters at Lake Colden.

Many years later, after college, the Army, wife, family, children and my life & death battle with cancer, my son RJ & I returned to Lake Colden in late August 2011, just ahead of what was to be Hurricane Irene.

With some help from a good friend of mine, we made it as far as Colden’s Interior headquarters. RJ and I even caught several brook trout in the Marcy Dam Pond. Even before the hurricane struck, I knew then, my health issues being what they are, that that was my last venture in there on foot during my lifetime.

That memorable father/son journey inspired me to write “My Farewell to Colden”, which was published in Adirondack Life Magazine, and proved to be the initial trailhead register entry to my entire Adirondack Outlaw writing career.

So, when our children gave Robin & I an Adirondack flyover, I immediately knew in my heart’s heart exactly where we were going.

We made our initial approach to the Mount Marcy region following my old friend, the truck trail route into Marcy Dam via South Creek.

Overflying my old friend:
Heart Lake to the right
The route into Marcy Dam & Lake Colden’s Interior Headquarters via South Creek

At that point, in order to give Robin & I better sun free photo opportunities, our pilot banked left to bring us in on a backside approach, around behind Mount Marcy.

Colden view as we turned towards Mount Marcy

Our Approach to Mount Marcy

We circumnavigated around behind Mount Marcy.

The Sawtooth Range & Ausable Lakes

I attempted to get a photo of Lake Tear of the Clouds, but despite my best efforts, just could not seem to quite get the right angle.

“Coming ’round the Mountain”
Lower Left: Cliff Mountain/Flowed Lands
Center: Algonquin
Right: Mount Colden

So, I focused on a series of photos of Livingston Pond, where I once found high peaks treasure, and the Flowed Lands as we made our approach over Cliff Mountain, the Opalescent and into Lake Colden, where I wrote the poem “Ghost Lake” and one dark night stood face to face on the trail with an adult male black bear named “Cliff”.

Once we crossed the dam and came out over Lake Colden, I asked our pilot to drop down so I could get a closer look at the lake and the Interior headquarters I for two summers called home.

I loved living and working out of that cabin on Colden. It was a defining experience as I made the long, sometimes perilous hike from boyhood to manhood. It was far and away the very best job that I ever had.

Alas, I once again found myself having to wave “Farewell to Colden” as we made our way out over Avalanche Lake, where Mount Colden and its famed Trap Dike filled my window with their singularly spectacular view.

While I’ve always admired its rocky ascent on my many hikes into and out of Lake Colden, I never myself attempted to scale the Trap Dike, primarily due to my aforementioned petrification of heights.

Once we passed beyond Avalanche Lake, we took one final spin back up towards Mount Marcy, plus the two Haystack, big & little.

We then continued our aerial reconnaissance mission on down through the great range.

The two Haystacks & Basin


Saddleback, Gothics & Armstrong

We braved Sawteeth & Wolf Jaws to cross the Ausable Lakes.

Lower Ausable Lake

Before turning our attention to a confrontation with Giant.

Giant Mountain
Lake Champlain visible on the horizon

From there we gave a friendly passing wave to Lake Champlain, “Champ”, and Vermont’s dinosaur senator of legend.

We then banked once again and focused our attention on Whiteface.

I just loved this next image and the way my wife’s reflection on the plane window as she sat behind me totally engrossed in snapping pictures with her cell phone was superimposed over my Whiteface Mountain photo.

We then cruised down along the west branch of the Ausable River,

snapping photos of the Ski Jumps, Horse Show Grounds & John Brown’s Farm in the process,

before heading over for a flyby view of Lake Placid.

Mirror Lake centered between the village & lake waters of Lake Placid.
Whiteface Mountain in the background.

We then made a return pass over Lake Flower and my boyhood hometown village of Saranac Lake.

As we flew towards Lake Colby and began making our way back towards the airport, my wife’s voice came up over the headset, requesting a Paul Smith’s College flyover with the time we had left.

Our son RJ and daughter-in-law to be Carrie are both Paul Smith’s graduates. That’s where they met.

(Wedding bells will ring this October in Lake George!)

At this point Robin & I had less than ten minutes left in what had been booked as a one-and-a-half-hour flight. Just enough time for one more pass over my Bull Rush Bay cedar log home.

So many of my Adirondack Outlaw adventures & stories have been inspired by experiences I’ve shared with friends & family while camped on Middle Saranac. I’ve spent the better part of a lifetime becoming one with that lean-to and the waters of my favorite lake.

Out of time & anniversary Adirondack flyover complete, Call Sign”Matt” banked back towards the airport and safely landed the plane.

Once we taxied to a stop, I unbuckled my seatbelt and reached over to look for the door handle so my wife and I could open the door and climb down the Piper Cub’s wing to the tarmac.

Only then did I discover that my wife and I had been riding the whole time in a four-seater Piper Cub airplane with a broken passenger side door jerry rigged with a wrench for its handle.

Turns out my two-year-old inflight prognosis was actually prophetic.

Our plane was indeed “bwoken”.


Until Our Trails Cross Again:


Adirondack Outlaw Postscript: Okay! This has officially been the most difficult photojournalism essay I have ever in my life assembled. From my wife & I having to make the round trip to Saranac Lake twice just to get this flight in, to having to constantly reorient myself and regain my bearings as I snapped photos while our plane banked and turned, to then, once at home with my feet safely on the ground, having to cull through nearly 1000 photos, chronologically reconstruct our flight path from memory, and properly identify the lakes, peaks & features in each photo.

I worked diligently over many hours in an effort to ensure that I got everything right. I cannot, in good faith, guarantee that I accomplished that tasked with 100% accuracy. For while our aerial reconnaissance flight path took me over a great deal of Adirondack terrain that I at one time or another knew well, everything looks quite different from the air. I reconstructed the trip off of my topo maps and my memory. As a survivor with no desire to be “that guy” the Forest Rangers have to go in and rescue because he got himself in over his head trying to prove some unknown point attempting something he absolutely hadn’t ought to, it’s been a good long while since I’ve set foot on any of that high peaks terrain.

So, if I misidentified something, my sincerest apologies.

One thing I am confident of is that if I did err, folks will be certain to let me know about it.

Be that as it may, I’ll tell you this. I now have a far greater appreciation for how and why some of those sling loads from my Lake Colden trail crew days did not end up being found quite where the DEC chopper pilots thought they had dropped them.