A Family Adventure


Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

North to Idaho

June 16, 2019
Emilie Phillips updated October 2, 2019

This is the 9th day of our flying tour to Utah and Idaho.

Before leaving Utah, Tyson wanted to see two more airstrips — Dark Canyon North and South. We overflew Dark Canyon South. It was washed out, but it must have been impressive to land when it was usable. The runway ran straight to a shear cliff drop off at the end. Tyson continued to Dark Canyon North where he landed. It was overgrown with sage brush, but otherwise not difficult.

Canyonlands National Park

We stopped back at Moab for fuel. There, we ran into Joshua again, the mechanic who had worked on our oil cooler. He and his wife were headed to Marble, Colorado to camp for the weekend. I was tempted to tag along, but it was out of our way. We discussed our plans to head north to find cooler weather, fewer thunderstorms, and see what we were missing in Idaho. The Bearhawk oil temperature was still rising to red line on takeoffs and landings. In cruise it would cool off. Joshua thought the temperatures were similar to what he sees in his plane. Like many people we met, he advised us to come back to Utah in the fall when it is cooler and the thunderstorms have died down.

Our plan was to arrive at Johnson Creek, Idaho, before nightfall. We had not brought our guidebooks to Idaho, only our digital FAA charts and what we could find online. Johnson Creek is the gateway to the Idaho backcountry. Mooney and RVs go there. It has grass like a golf course, showers and wifi. It’s so popular it has published approaches. We figured we would go there first and then ask around for other destinations. That evening, we discovered we were wrong about Johnson Creek.

Wasatch Range

Continuing our policy of alternating pilots, I flew the first leg north. To keep the oil temperature down, I followed wide canyons where I could. I crossed the mountain ridges in the same low passes as the train tracks. The land underneath of us slowly changed from ochre to green. I stayed east of the Wasatch Mountains, passing all the famous ski areas. I was surprised to see the dense grid of Salt Lake City clear through three different notches in the Wasatch range. Finally I landed at the next airport we had picked out, Malad City.

Malad City was the best airport we had found north of Salt Lake City, but it wasn’t great. It was outside the congested class Bravo and class Delta airspaces near Salt Lake City. It was in a low valley which would be good for the engine. It had the lowest gas price around. And after two hours, I was tired. In fact, I made my worst landing of the trip there. But it had only a paved runway. It had run out of gas. We found no courtesy car or nearby restaurants. And the fading building with the bathroom looked like it was straight out of a horror movie. We piled the grumpy lot of us back into the plane.

Tyson flew us over the next several ridges to American Falls, Idaho. It was mid-afternoon by the time we landed. We barely made it through fueling the plane without a full-family hangry meltdown. Thank goodness we found the keys to the courtesy car and a restaurant not far away in town.

Storms over Idaho Rockies

Tyson continued flying the rest of the way through Idaho. I fell asleep and napped. Tyson and Isaac saw the twisted black lava at Craters of the Moon National Monument. They detoured west of the tallest Rockies to avoid dark thunderstorms. I woke up a half hour from Johnson Creek.

The mountains up there are covered in squiggly dirt roads. My Mom says that the loggers put them in and then transfer ownership to the forest service when they are done logging. I’m not sure why the forest service has to continue maintaining the roads. Next I noticed they have lots of fires out there. We didn’t see any burning, but I saw charred trees everywhere. Fifteen minutes out from Johnson Creek, I stopped my lollygagging and helped Tyson with the approach to Johnson Creek.

We had expected a well manicured grass runway, and that we found. We hadn’t anticipated just how steep the mountain walls were surrounding Johnson Creek. To fly a standard pattern size, you would have to fly 2000ft above the field, or twice as high as normal. The airport approach instructions said to absolutely land to the south and takeoff to the north because of rising terrain. We had 15 knots of wind from the north, so that would be a 15kt tailwind. Tyson started his descent on downwind. Our right wing was tight up against the ponderosa pines. On the left side, the airport was a thousand feet below the left wing. By the numbers on the approach description, there was room for a proper base leg. But calculating the numbers is one thing. Looking at the solid wall of mountain outstretched at the north end of the runway was another. Tyson made the turn and everything still looked good. At last, the final leg was relatively unobstructed. Tyson landed and pulled over to a campsite in the first third of the runway. He sat shaking for a few minutes before he could get out and greet the other pilots and families on the field.

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