April 22, 2011
Why I Wrote Autumn Run
Patch ignored the squawk of his plane’s stall alarm and bucked a shifting crosswind. The Cessna heaved and fishtailed as though fitted to a warped track across the sky. Two dozen feet over an alpine lake and angled all but crabwise by the gale, he brought the nose up and felt the floats reach forward. Seconds later he eased back on the throttle and the plane caught choppy water that left the windshield awash with spray.
He turned on the wipers and headed for a rocky beach at the foot of slate-colored mountains. Near the base of a haulout his client was packing gear and taking down an orange tent. Patch coasted to shore where ice shattered in his path and the floats scraped coarse gravel. He opened the door and leaned outside, his body all gaunt lines and restless angles. His long graying hair tossed about in the cold wind.
“Let’s be quick,” he hollered. “Bad weather’s on its way.”
What he didn’t say was the notion most on his mind—that he should have put his foot down and stuck with their original takeout plan. They were pushing their luck to be in the air with a storm brewing. The client stumbled over loose shale to the water’s edge. His jeans and fleece jacket were grimy with campfire ash and dried blood. He carried a full pack that he hoisted up to Patch.
“Thanks for the extra dayshike,” he said. “I got a nice bull—three brow tines, big rack.”
Patch nodded congratulations, but thought: A moose that size won’t be an easy haul. He looked at the hunter’s sweat-stained face, his tired eyes and greasy hair, and guessed the man had missed more than his morning coffee. “You don’t seem too excited,” he said. “In fact, you look like hell.”
“Nothing that a hot shower and a meal won’t fix.”
Patch set the pack down and folded his arms. “Even so, we’ll be traveling through rough weather. Find a bag or a piece of tarp, anything, and stick close to it. Okay?”
The man nodded.
They stowed the quartered moose and the remaining gear and Patch shoved the plane off. He guessed at the distance to the opposite shore and considered the altitude needed to ferry into the pass. He fed the engine and heard the moose rack and meat shift in the pod below. With the float rudders down to hold direction, Patch squared off into the squall. The wind moaned and tossed rivulets of water over the plane’s cowling and windshield. He powered through the chop, breaking the water’s suction by raising first one float, then the other. The shore loomed menacingly close, but he eked enough lift to rise and take to the sky.
“Damn,” he said, “we’re packing a load.”
They circled out of the narrow neck of the draw and into clouds that gathered between the mountains. Wet snow fell at times, as did rain. Patch took his bearings from the brief moments when the sky opened and he could see terrain. He settled into a rhythm marked by the pitch and keel of flight and bad weather.
Halfway through the pass, the fog thinned and a river appeared flowing through a pastel carpet of tundra. Patch saw a speck of color that he puzzled over until it disappeared behind a hummock of ground. He tilted the yoke and the plane lurched and came about. The stall warning droned briefly.
“What are you doing?” the client asked.
“I might have seen a tent down there.”
The plane held its circle, at various times propelled crosswise, abreast, and headfirst into the storm. Each moment exposed them to a separate and distinct battering. The client covered his face with wind-chapped hands and groaned.
“Got a bag?” Patch asked.
Patch scanned the cockpit and snatched a map from above his visor. He snapped the paper open. “Here,” he said before handing it over.
The man retched and coughed, then he retched some more. Patch cracked open his window and searched the tundra again, his face as impassive as the boulders that littered each mountainside. Suddenly he straightened in his seat.
“Oh, hell. Somebody’s down there.”
The passenger strained to look out the pilot-side window. “You’re not going to land, are you? You said we were overweight.”
“Sure, but we can lose what’s in the cargo pod. A man’s life takes precedence over a game carcass.” Patch ignored the man’s look of concern and searched for water big enough to support a landing. “The river looks shallow,” he whispered.
The plane reeled as if it had struck and broke through a wall. Once again the client bent over the paper in his lap. The stench of vomit filled the plane. “What should I do with this?” he asked, holding out the sagging paper.
“Hang on. I’m taking a closer look.”
The plane dipped again, this time without holding a circle. The stall light and buzzer came on and didn’t shut off. They plunged and bobbed and fell again. The client dropped the soaked map at his feet and looked forward with wide, startled eyes.
“Please, can’t you just call somebody?”
Patch pulled the plane out of its sharp descent and felt his stomach fall through the seat. They were over the river now, tracking it. “I’m not within radio distance,” he said.
“Maybe you can wait until we get home?”
, Mister. No one’s walking out of this storm.” The clouds had darkened and snow swirled with dizzying effect. Despite his earlier claim, Patch grasped the radio transmitter and spoke into it. Only white noise came in reply. Alaska
“Maybe he plans to float out,” the client said.
Patch shook his head. “Did you see a canoe or a raft? And for your information Kaknu is nearly two-hundred miles away—one hell of a walk in muskeg and bad weather. I doubt you’d want to hike it.”
The river drew closer, until its rocky bottom came into view and the curved bank ahead surprised Patch with its proximity and steep rise. Inches from touching down he knew the effort would ground them—maybe even do worse. He pulled the throttle back, risking a stall. The client gritted his teeth and closed his eyes just as the plane grazed the spruce tops along the far ridge.
“You’re going to kill us,” he said.
No, Patch thought, but we might be leaving a man to die. As he maneuvered the plane up and away, he stole anxious glances into the river valley from where they’d come. He pleaded silently, don’t let this happen—please, not again—but it was too late. At a height above the mountains Patch turned for a final look and saw an opaque wall of haze that reached from ground to sky. Where the clouds passed, he knew, winter was claiming its territory and leaving the land desolate.
Posted by Alan Bahr