The Minam Airlift

Serendipity can be a marvelous thing. Rumor had it that the Minam River Lodge, which dates to 1950 and is completely surrounded by the 560-square-mile Eagle Cap Wilderness in northeast Oregon, was to be auctioned off.

The last operating wilderness lodge in eastern Oregon, there are only two ways to gain access to the lodge — an 8-1/2 mile wilderness trail (no motor vehicles of any kind allowed) or aircraft.

Word about the auction got to Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) President John McKenna, who kept an eye on the situation. When the property was purchased by Portland’s Barnes Ellis in 2011, McKenna reached out with a handwritten note congratulating Ellis on his purchase, detailing RAF’s mission, and offering assistance in any way they could help.

“About a week later, I received an email from Ellis,” said McKenna. “‘It’s not often I receive a handwritten note’, was Ellis’s response to me.”

In ensuing emails over the next few months, McKenna learned there was a great bit of work to be done at the lodge to return it to a serviceable state. McKenna suggested area pilots fly the “Minam Hump.”

From there, Ellis’s contractor, Aaron Gille, and  member Bill Ables got involved, and kind of took over, creating the Minam Airlift, in which pilots would fly in equipment and supplies and fly out decades of trash and debris from the lodge.

“This was a demonstration in how something like this should work,” said McKenna. “The door was opened, in this case by the RAF,” but was blown down and flown through by pilots, the Idaho Aviation Association (IAA), and the Oregon Pilots Association (OPA).

Pilots flew (and drove) into Joseph, Ore., on Friday and Saturday, April 13 and 14. An all-hands pilot safety briefing was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Saturday at the Joseph airport. As I arrived at 8:20 a.m., with a pair of 182 pilots I picked up along the roadside, the briefing appeared to be in full swing. Forecast canyon winds had everyone chomping at the bit to get going.

The landing strip at Minam, nestled between ridge lines to the east and west, is 2,000 feet long with a tree-lined dogleg to the east on the south third. Safety was paramount in this tightly packed strip. As Ables briefed the pilots, he noted, “we are flying mattresses into Minam. We don’t want anyone getting hurt — or worse — for mattresses.”

After the briefing, I caught up with a rather energized Ables. “I was thinking we’d get 15 aircraft, and hoped for 20,” he said.

I counted at least 25 aircraft. I say “at least” because there was so much activity it was hard to keep track.

About six aircraft departed for Minam immediately, empty. There was far more to pack out than in, so getting aircraft in to start reducing the debris pile was crucial.

Those pilots left behind went about trying to fit full-sized mattresses into, in many cases, less than full-sized aircraft.

Before long, aircraft started returning, en masse, with trash.

I was lucky to meet up with Redmond’s Stan Clark. He was inbound, by himself, in his Cessna 185 and happily accepted me as a hitchhiker.

As we started the run up the valley, we could hear traffic was stacking up at the strip. We, and two aircraft in front of us, started flying 360s to allow for spacing. Half a dozen circuits later, we were inbound.

Mixed in with the hectic traffic — comprised of various model Cessnas and Maules, an Aeronca, a Stinson, a Piper, and others I am sure — was an UH-1H Huey that delivered a tractor, a saw mill, and various assorted heavy items, and removed 60 years of heavy trash. There was lots going on, to say the least.

Not satisfied with a lone trip inbound, I introduced myself to Bill Langdon, a pilot from Lebanon, Ore., and asked if he was planning to come back after making a trash run to Minam. Indeed he was, and was happy to have a passenger. Lucky me.

There are few places better to get to know someone than in the cozy confines of a cockpit. Langdon’s a nice guy. Easy to chat with and a passionate backcountry pilot.

Ben Sclair and Bill Langdon

After we unloaded at Joseph, he asked Ables if there was anything else needing to go in. “Gille will be back with propane and gas jugs in about 20 minutes if you want to haul either of those in.”

Langdon chose to haul in four five-gallon gas jugs on a tarp in the back of his 185. After landing downstream at Minam, Langdon was done for the day, so I helped him find a suitable and safe parking spot in the unimproved terrain abutting the runway.

Langdon and I headed up to the lodge to see what was left of the lunch that was served about 45 minutes earlier. It turned out plenty remained of the feast lodge manager Melissa Pelletier produced for the pilots and crew that included ribs, chicken and salad (potato and green).

Day one activity reduced the “haul out” pile considerably, and the “haul in” pile in Joseph consisted of nothing more than a few propane tanks. Nice work. As I looked down the strip, I counted 15 aircraft. All but one was planning to stay the night.

With flight activity done for the day, lawn chairs, tents, and beer-filled coolers came out of hiding…and the storytelling began and continued well past sundown.

Similar to one of the many multi-day fly-ins around the country (think Oshkosh, Sun ’n Fun, Arlington, etc.) some of the funnest and most memorable times are those times when the hardcore remain. Stories are shared and bonds cemented.

As all were woken to the sound of the Stinson Flying Power Wagon launching skyward on Sunday at 6 a.m., I grinned. A finer alarm clock has yet to be created.

Within minutes, Pelletier had coffee brewing and sausage, eggs and chocolate chip pancakes cooking. Hair askew and semi-awake faces marked us all.

Day two would be a smaller airlift, but no less valuable to the Minam crew.

In fact, as we all ate breakfast, lead contractor Gille took this time to praise the “Minam Airlift” crew.

“Amazing thing you guys did here,” he said. He’s not a pilot, but he sured seemed to get the bug seeing all the various aircraft bounding in and out all day Saturday. I won’t be surprised to hear he’s signed up for lessons in the near future.

Like me, Langdon wasn’t planning to be part of day two. I had a seven-hour drive back home, and he was heading into Idaho to visit friends. But when we landed back at Joseph, there was OPA President Dennis Smith with wife Stephanie. They’d driven in from Albany, Ore., on Friday, but stayed in Joseph. They were there to assist the loading and unloading process and thank all the pilots for helping out.

Truly, I don’t think the airlift could have gone any better (at least on Saturday) in all aspects of the event. Lots of equipment made its way in and out, the operations were safe, everyone got along, and the crew at the lodge couldn’t have been more impressed by the support from the pilot community.

The only compensation any participant received, in exchange for what amounted to hundreds of dollars of fuel, was a place to sleep and three meals. Perfect.

As I look back on this event, an opportunity was presented to the aviation community. Not only did we answer the call, we did so in a wonderful fashion.

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 A win-win situation

The Minam River Lodge rehabilitation began as soon as crews could get in in March. Lead contractor, Aaron Gille from Portland, had four crew members and three extras during our visit, but is planning to expand the full-time crew to 10 or 11 by June.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” noted Gille. “All buildings will be repaired, interior roads will be grated, water drainage will be addressed, the mill site needs attention, the forest floor will be cleaned and the Pilot’s Lounge will be fixed.

Gille estimates this will be a three- to five-year project, with the priority list set by the owner.

Lodge manager Melissa Pelletier, originally from Farmington, Maine, sees this season mostly as a prep year. Guests are welcome, but with so much yet to do, she feels the 2013 season will be the true kick-off season.

“One of the pilots suggested a trade of sorts,” relayed Pelletier. “If they fly in to camp, and are willing to haul out some trash, I’ll cook ’em breakfast. I love that idea. Win-Win.”

So if backcountry flying is your thing, and you like camping as well, Minam might be worthy of your bucket list.

The lodge does have Wi-Fi, via satellite, but no cell service. And from the lodge website, “Private pilots may land at their own risk. Transmit on 122.9 and 122.8, and conduct a fly-over to make sure no other planes are arriving or departing from the lodge or adjacent Red’s Horse Ranch. Elevation is 3,600 feet.

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