Karma by Jeff Varvil
The vast inaccessible wilderness of Alaska is impossible to comprehend until you see it from an airplane for the first time. This was hardly my first time. I had already been guiding for six years and had logged at least forty hours flying into remote rivers as a passenger and guide. It’s about a half hour into the flight and I sit back and take in the never-ending post cards that change like a screen saver as we fly at over one hundred and ten miles an hour. Unlike my nervous clients who sit twitching with anticipation, the constant drone of the engine brings me to a place where I am at complete peace with my random thoughts. Like all guides, my reflections are of the float trip ahead, known fishing holes and hopes of on time salmon runs and the huge Rainbow Trout that follow them on their one-way journey to the spawning grounds. Then there are those random thoughts I mentioned.
Did I pack the right flies and enough rods for the clients? Should I have brought more bug dope? This guy sitting behind me is a dink and if he kicks my seat one more time im going to give him unfiltered water with his cool aid. Like the other guy is any better. What’s with him going out of his way to tell me he had just graduated from Yale and than asking me how much the raft will weigh inflated? Another dink, just my luck this year. Oh man this trip is going to suck, but at least it’s the last one of the season. Why do I not hear the engine?
It started out like every other float trip does here in Alaska. It was my anniversary and I was going to be out of town. I was given an allowance by the outfitter and told to entertain three wealthy young clients for the evening showing them Anchorages best Art galleries and local attractions. I was to receive one thousand dollars per person for the trip and I got paid upfront in cash. It was too much to pass up for a week’s work and my wife pushed me out the door and even helped pack my bags. She did take the money first though. I was again to be a fill in guide for an outfitter who needed a last minute replacement. I met my new clients at their hotel the night before we were to leave for a 7-day float trip on a remote Alaska River. I consider my self a good judge of character and therefore opted to skip the Art galleries and a movie and took them straight to the best bar in town. You can’t always count on good fishing on a river, but if you have a dollar bill for bait, the fish are always biting at the Peeler club. They were sons of old southern money and arrogant to the point of obnoxious. All three wore bow ties to the bar. At this point I began calling them Dink 1, 2, and 3. I never did learn their names. We were to fly out at 8 am the next morning and as the night dragged on it became apparent I was in for a long 7 days. I poured them into their hotel rooms around 3 am and told them I would pick them up in three hours. As I walked out the door they were cracking a new fifth of brandy and telling me they loved me. Great Success!
It was six Am and the clerk rang the room for me three times before a groggy chap answered and informed the young man to allow me to come up to his room. A young lady and her friend met me at the door and informed me that Dink 3 had gone back out on the town and had gotten arrested for “Lude Conduct.” Don’t ask because that’s another story and I only have so much time and space in this book. I can tell you it did involve a urine break, a girl under 18, a squad car, tequila and that’s not even close to giving you the highlights. He would be in jail until at least Monday morning and his friends said he was calling it a trip. Yes I would think so. The other two Dinks would meet me at noon and with that the door was shut in my face by the nice lady. That’s why you get paid up front!
We sat at Lake hood for two days waiting for the weather to clear as a front blew threw all of South East Alaska. The new pilot was ornery and short tempered. He was a veteran of flying for sure. He smelled of smoke and stale beer and wore an old dirty brown jacket that looks like it belonged to a mechanic. He wore oversized flying glasses on overcast days to hide his bloodshot eyes. There was no use talking to him because he could only hear out of his left ear anyway. Don’t get me wrong there are pilots that work for the same Air Taxi for twenty years. This guy was just not one of them. He spoke briefly during our preflight speech saying “we all” was making a fuel stop at a lake as he needed to check on some other clients and we were off.
The first half hour was uneventful and that brings us to the silence. The pilot and I exchanged glances as we both turned to look at the clients who were completely unaware that the engine had just quit. Both were wearing connected IPOD earphones no doubt listening to the best of Boy George or some such 1980’s crap rock best of CD! I will refrain from using the Air Taxis and pilots real name for obvious reasons, so for the record let’s just call him Butthead. Butthead had just run the plane out of gas. As he frantically began trying to transfer non-existent fuel from one wing to the other it became very apparent that we were going to have to make an unexpected pit stop. There is a point during an “incident” that a pilot will take advice from a paying passenger. An incident is a nifty term the Airline business uses when nobody dies but damage occurs. As I began to speak into my mike it became apparent Butthead was not ready for that advice quite yet.
After all we were still at three thousand feet and gliding just fine. He simply held up the “Talk to the hand” card and pushed random buttons as if one of them would produce a genie that would fill up the plane with fresh aviation fuel. I tapped the fuel gauge and held my hands over my eyes in disbelief. After watching the big dial drop to one thousand feet I figured now was as good a time as ever to play “Goose” and let Maverick the Butthead know there was a small lake off the right side of the plane. I looked back at Dink 1 and he smiled and gave me the big thumbs up and I could easily hear in the silence of the moment “Karma, Karma, Karma Chameleon” blasting through their headsets. I cannot tell you how quiet it is gliding in an airplane is with no engine running. I could hear my own heart beat very clearly.
I looked back at Butthead and spoke clearly and calmly into the headset being very careful not to offend him in any way. “ Hey Einstein, You ran the plane out of gas, your not fooling anyone, put it down on the lake to the right. He snarled and said nothing and dipped the wing to expose the little horseshoe shaped lake. He nodded his head as if to begrudgingly acknowledge the lake and began dropping altitude for a water landing. We were in a 206 equipped with floats so the water landing was ok with me. The problem was the lake was very short and shaped like a horseshoe with land in the middle. It was certainly less than ideal landing conditions. I smiled thinking At least it was still blowing around 40 mph and raining sideways.
“Damn it, stop kicking my seat!” I snapped at Dink 1. Take off those stupid earphones and start praying.” “Were going crash to land on this lake.” The look on his face told the story. He was completely taken buy surprise. He thought we were just going into the refueling lake. He began to mumble something. “Don’t talk, just pray and tighten your seat belts!” It was immediately understood and relayed to Dink 2 the Road Scholar who immediately started asking me questions. “ Listen Buddy, Please be quiet and let the man fly.” I tightened down my shoulder harness and looked over the door carefully. With that I looked at Butthole and thought of my new wife and child. All I could think of was that Im going to die with two dinks and a Butthead. I just knew Saint Peter would get a kick out of that at the gate. “OH, boy I better be nice to the Dinks or I may no get through the gates!” “No chance of that anyway” I mumbled to my self. With that I turned around and said, “Sorry guys, we will be fine, lets just let the man fly, Ok.” A nervous nod from both clients and I turned around to see the lake at about two hundred feet and coming up fast.
The little plane hit the water hard and way to fast with the wind at our back. This was not Butthead’s fault and he did a great job just getting onto the lake in the first place He had already passed the lake and had to glide back to it and to this day I’m not sure how he pulled it off. Don’t get me wrong he is still a Butthead for running out of gas. But in this mans opinion if you’re going to fly with a Butthead, at least fly with a lucky one. A sigh of relief escaped from the breath I had been holding. It was short lived, as we slammed into the horseshoe point of land and the plane did a nosedive into the tag alders. The plane was nose down in the brush and still had both wings attached. Butthead then said, “We need to get out of the plane.” I just nodded my head and held up the hand gesture he used on me earlier. I did not know whether to kiss him or kill him. I got out of the plane ok and tried to help the Dinks get out my side. The plane’s front end was out of the water on land but the back end was pitched high in the air. When the Dinks let out their lap belts they both fell into the front seats. We helped them out of the tiny plane and all stumbled through the brush onto clear ground. We had some miscellaneous equipment in the plane but the rafts and rest of our gear were to follow on a second trip. The pilot tried to save face and say that he was not sure what had happened. I held off in making the situation worse at that time. After all we have all run out of gas in our cars and im sure he knew he screwed up in estimating the fuel to head wind ratio. Uh Huh, Right!
Two hours later we were flown out with a helicopter back to Anchorage. No injuries at all. We did go back out the next day on a five-day float trip instead. After all, the raft and my equipment were fine. It was a long 5 days but we did have something in common after all. We were 3 plane crash survivors. I mean “Incident” survivors. My dear Grandma says, “Jesus was not ready to take me yet. I just think St. Peter needs more material up there and I have been a good source. Now comes the good part, well, not really for the pilot but for you. The kicker is the pilot died in a car accident a few years later. How you ask? A car hit him when he ran out of gas on the side of the road during a storm.
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