Sunday, September 6, 2015

While I was in jail this summer I got so many nice letters from many countries. People who haven’t sent a letter in decades. Newsy letters about what people were doing day to day. From friends and family as well as people who have been reading my stories on the internet and took the time to send fun letters.

Like the series of postcards from Capt. UglyDan who was headed north on a motorcycle trip. His postcards started in Jasper Nat’l Park in Alberta Canada with the next postcard coming from Hyder Alaska at the SeaLaska Inn that I remember riding by the last time I was there, followed by a card postmarked from Dawson City, Yukon letting me know he was on his way to head up the Dempster and finally a map postcard of the Puget Sound when he arrived back home safely weeks later. It was like a slow motion travel blog. Only it was more like haiku since it was limited to such a small writing surface. But I have a good imagination and can totally relate to postcards from the edge with cryptic messages like, “Almost ate it with a moose on the Cassiar Hwy south of Dease lake. Hope all is well!”

Yes, Dan, all is well thanks to all the folks like you in the world.

I enjoyed the travel tales from people like Chipseal. Many people sent me letters describing where they had gone riding and I could remember the roads they mentioned and it brought back great memories. The Thompson family from Illinois sent me a wonderful series of postcards including ones from their vacation in the Carribean. Young Ryan told me about his new dirtbike that he was having fun riding in the woods with his Dad (on the back of a great“Where’s Waldo” postcard). The Trespalacios family also sent me individual letters from North Carolina from all the family members written partly in English and mostly in Spanish. I feel badly that I didn’t have time to write back as that letter arrived just as I was getting released. But thank you Trespalacios family!

I was surprised to get letters from places like Belgium and the most perfect cursive handwriting I have ever seen from Caroline and Evan in the U.K. Dirtydog from Tulsa printed out his entire 40 page ride report and mailed it to me so I would have some evening reading material. (Alas, the mail warden didn’t let it through since it was printed material from the internet and I didn’t get it until I was released). All of the mail had been opened, so I think the mail lady at the jail had to open and read the hundreds of pages of letters and some may have not made it through.

I tried mailing letters to foreign countries and some made it through but some were returned for lack of proper postage since I was limited to pre-stamped envelopes and wouldn’t have known the proper postage to Australia anyway. I especially enjoyed the series of hand water-colored postcards that Peterman’s sister Marianne made and sent me from beautiful British Columbia. (Almost spelled it Colombia). I even got a wonderful letter from an ex-wife that I was married to for five years when I was in my twenties that I hadn’t heard from in over 30 years. Always nice to hear that the people you once knew and loved are doing well.

But I digress. I wanted to share a story that Clif Port sent me. He said it was okay to post it. Clif sounds like a very interesting fellow and I really think he needs to write a book. But until then here is one of his hand written stories from a letter he mailed to me in jail a couple months ago:

July 5, 2015

Buenos Dias Juan,

As you have documented over the years, one of the best parts of moto-travel is the random encounters one experiences along the way. Once upon a time I had such an encounter on a balsa raft on a Peruvian river. Another pilot had purchased an abandoned Cessna 205. It had been stranded by an engine failure at a remote jungle airstrip. The engine-driven fuel pump shaft had sheared shortly after takeoff and the surprised pilot, forgetting about the electric back-up pump, had landed back on the airstrip, running off the far end, collapsing the nose gear and bending the prop. It sat for months, until the owner finally sold it for a song. The guy who bought it, an incurable optimist from Texas with a plan, roped me into going along.

One end of the airstrip where the plane rested was about 100 meters of so from a river, and about 3 days float downriver a road crossed the river, and about 60 kilometers down the road was an airport big enough to accommodate DC-3’s and DC-4’s. So the plan was, disassemble the plane, build a raft, float down the river to the road, hire a truck and head to the airport, load the pieces on a cargo plane and fly them back to Pucallpa, Peru. Easy peasy………

Turned into a bit of an adventure. The Texan and I with two Campa indian friends flew into the remote airstrip in a grossly overloaded air-taxi Cessna 206. While the indians set about cutting balsa trees and building a raft, we removed the engine and prop from the derelict 205 and sent them out in the Cessna 206. Then we removed the wings, landing gear and horizontal tail surfaces, and hired a bunch of locals to help carry the fuselage and pieces down the muddy path to the river and tie them securely to the raft. The plan was to hire 2 or 3 local men who were familiar with the river to guide us downriver. Our Campa indian friends were experienced rivermen but were a long way from home and this river was reported to be quite challenging.

The locals were quite willing to help with raft construction and hauling the plane to the raft, but no one would agree to go with us. They kept saying that we must be loco, that the rapids were “muy bravo” and we could expect to wreck the raft and lose the plane. They said no one had ever attempted to descend the river with a raft this large. But there were no other options, Tex had made an investment and by golly he aimed to give it a go. Come hell or high water, so to speak…

The raft was barely large enough to accommodate the disassembled aircraft because balsa trees were scarce, but finally it was loaded and tied in place. Four guys helped us shove off from the bank, and two stayed aboard until we were well out in the current. Both turned down offers of $100 to stay with us (a huge amount at that time) and dove off and swam back to the riverbank leaving the four of us positioned at each corner with long poles. The current seemed gentle enough and we were moving downstream at 4 or 5 knots, in calm water, surrounded by tropical beauty and the calls of birds and monkeys. In no time we had passed around a bend and were out of sight of any human habitation. All was peaceful and beautiful and Tex was remarking that it sure was strange that no one was interested in earning extra money when one of the Campa indians said to be quiet, and cupped a hand to his ear. Indians were so much more in tune with natural sounds that we thought perhaps he had heard the cry of an animal or bird, but soon we, too could hear the roar of rushing water.

The river was calm as far as we could see but disappeared around a bend about a half mile ahead. We maintained our gentle pace, but the roar increased as we neared the bend. Abruptly we turned the corner and found ourselves accelerating and entering about a quarter mile stretch of white water, with numerous big boulders here and there funneling the river into several distinct channels. There was nothing for it but to pole toward what appeared to be the main channel, hang on tight and hope for the best. It was a wild ride, bumping and grinding, pushing, shoving and yelling, but we made it through wet but intact. The pattern continued for the remaining hours of daylight—a period of calm water and smooth sailing, then apprehension as the noise of unseen rapids built, then frantic, adrenaline-fueled effort, then calm water.

At one rapid the river split into two channels, the smaller but swifter on the right side. The current swept us toward the right side, too late we saw that about 75 meters downstream the overhanging jungle trees completely covered that channel at a level that would sweep the plane right off the raft. Poling as desperately as we could was not enough to change channels, so we grounded the raft on a rock between channels while a Campa jumped off with a rope in his teeth and swam ashore and tied off to a tree. Trapped between the urrent and the rock, it took all we could muster to lever the raft around into the left-hand stream. Eventually we succeeded, cutting the rope that had anchored us in place and dropping into the left channel for a wild ride. We were spit out the bottom completely soaked and with a few broken logs. Just before sundown we reached a quiet stretch of water, pushed up on a mud bar and set up camp for the night, mindful that heavy rain upstream could quickly flood our campsite in the night.

Sometime in the night I rolled over and put my hand in a puddle, instantly waking thinking the river was rising, but it was only a light passing shower that had puddled at the edge of the canvas. At dawn we quickly downed a cold breakfast, broke camp and set out. The river was “tranquillo”, the air still and filled with bird and animal calls. The previous day we had passed occasional clearings with thatched dwellings and smoky cooking fires, and now and again small pastures with a cow or two visible on the bank. this morning there had been no sign of human habitation. We seemed to be completely alone, four guys on a raft with an unusual cargo.

Ahead the river narrowed a bit and swept around a right-hand bend. There were no “rapids” to speak of, but the current definitely accelerated as it entered ther narrower channel and as we rounded the bend we were swept toward the left hand bank where a lady was seated on a rock at water’s edge, washing her hair. She wore only a skirt, pulled up high on her thighs, head down, her long dark tresses billowed in the rushing water. Just as we drew abreast, not more than a dozen feet away, she arched her neck and flipped her hair over her head and onto her back. At that instant her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. She was strikingly beautiful and made no move to cover herself, but seemed completely astonished at the sight of two gringos, two natives and an airplane(!) on a raft passing right through her washroom. She made no sound, nor did we; all of us transfixed by the encounter, until the current bore us away down river.

Later that day the river narrowed to 100 feet or so and we encountered a fallen tree that completely blocked passage. We had only one axe and one machete, so took turns chopping the extremely hard wood, some kind of “ironwood”, said the Indians. The axe tended to just bounce off if too much force was put into the blow. When we finally chopped a section free it fell into the river and sank, too dense to float. Toward evening the river widened and slowed and we drifted along pleasantly, our indian friends showing off their skill at imitating birds by calling them out of the jungle.

We camped again that night on a wide sandbar and the next morning set out in a light rain. About 10:00 we came to the first bridge we had seen, which signaled the cross road we were looking for. We tied up to some bushes and after a while the truck that had been engaged showed up. We had been charged for the whole truck, but the trucker had taken on a cargo of flour in sacks to earn extra revenue. He was not pleased that it was raining and the fuselage and wings were dripping wet and muddy after being hauled up the river bank, but the flour sacks were easily arranged into a nice cradle for the airplane. After a couple hours on the road we arrived at the airport.

Hours later when the weekly airline DC-4 arrived, the Captain refused to load our bedraggled aircraft because he had too many passengers, which paid more. So the Campa indians and I returned with the flight, leaving Tex to guard his airplane. Eventually he chartered a C-47 (cargo version of the DC-3) with a large enough cargo door to get the Cessna inside. Six months later the battered bird was flying, and eventually sold for more than three times what Tex paid for it. But there was a bit of “sweat equity” involved.

More of Clif’s great stories from his days flying over the Andes and across the Amazon with no instruments in later posts.

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