October and Still on Floats… and an Owl in Flight, Eye to Eye.

6 October, Hoarfrost River.  Gray and mild, more drizzle.  + 4 degrees C.  

Long time, no write.  If there is truth in the saying that a busy pilot is a happy pilot, I must be just about ready to burst into a fit of wild ecstasy now.  The month of September passed in a blur of flying work.  Luckily, for that work, it was one of the mildest Septembers in recent memory, because floatplane flying is not much fun at temperatures when water does not want to remain in a liquid state.  I had a solid reminder of that the other morning, when I slipped on the frozen float deck and smacked my cheekbone so hard into the wing strut that when I came to, I inspected the strut for damage.  Luckily it was the Husky, because the Bush Hawk does not have wing struts and I would likely have added a frigid swim to the morning’s festivities.  So now I am sporting a shiner which says “float season is almost over.”

At last that long round of work is winding down and I can break out of the routine of gazing at the weather charts over morning coffee, and plotting what might be possible, and tying down the plane in the last light of day.   Moose hunting has been sporadic, and so far unproductive, but there is a young muskox bull hung in the cache and we have laid eyes on two moose so far, east of home.  No shots fired.     

Almost all of my autumn flying has been to the tundra north and east of home these past weeks, and much of it has focussed on caribou.  Native hunters looking for caribou, biologists trying to develop new techniques of photographing and counting them, and far-flung solo forays in the Husky to retrieve radio-tracking collars which have “gone stationary,” in the parlance of the researchers.  This translates to “the caribou wearing that collar is now deceased” about 99% of the time, and “collar prematurely popped off”  every once in a great while.  (The collars have a clasp which is somehow programmed to take a burst of energy from the battery and pop open at a certain date.)  These dropped collars are still sending a VHF signal, which can be picked up from the plane a few miles back, and their last location is still known, so it is usually easy to land and walk and find them, and bring them back to town for overhaul and refurbishment.  Evidently sending a small plane 200 miles out from base to collect a few dropped collars is well worth the cost, because the requests to do so keep coming in.  Good work if you can get it.  A small nimble plane, no passengers, no big loads, nobody on a tight schedule or in a rush for the work to get done.  For a bush pilot, life does not get much better than that combination.  

Surprised yesterday to see four snowy owls in the space of about an hour of flying northeast of Artillery Lake.  That area is familiar enough to me, and I have flown over it, low and slow, frequently enough in the past 26 years, to say that this is either a bizarre coincidence or a real boom in owl numbers.   I suspect the latter.  

Yesterday I came up on one of those owls from behind, with the Husky configured in full-flap slow-flight mode.  He (or she) was striding through the cold air with powerful wing beats, distinctive from the flight of an eagle or a falcon.  I have no doubt he was getting skittish as the plane approached from his 4 o’clock high.  As only an owl can, he turned his head completely around in flight, to fix that amazing owl stare right at the plane.   Magical birds.  An unforgettable sight.  A moment worth trying to share, at least within the paltry boundaries of words.

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