One of the two cats that were living in a log cabin within rifle-shot range of the Bettles Lodge. I did not know about them, I did not care. I would take this picture on a subsequent stop in Bettles, years later.
I like to imagine what a certain juvenile kitten might have been doing on the afternoon of July 5, 1991, as I approached Wasilla from the north. I had hoped to make the flight home from Point Hope in about eight hours – certainly, I wanted to arrive the same day that I left, July 2. The first delay I encountered came in the form of heavy rains and almost zero visibility over the Kobuk River, and so I was forced to land in the village of Shungnak and overnight there.
I got out the next day and flew deep into the Interior, where the rain yielded to sun and dry conditions. So dry, that I flew between the plumes of smoke from dozens of forest fires. I landed in Bettles, located on the Koyukuk River, a short distance from where it flows out of the Brooks Range, the farthest north mountains in the country.
I stopped there to gas up and to buy a sandwich at the Bettles Lodge, and to slake my thirst with a Pepsi. Not only did I not know there was a kitten hiding out in the woods behind my Wasilla home, but I did not know that there were two cats living in a log cabin within rifle-shot range of the lodge. I did not know, I did not care, and if someone had told me I would have thought, “so what?”
Three years earlier, I had flown my now deceased father into Bettles and overnight there. This is him, with my airplane, the Running Dog. You can see it was a very small plane, but it was a good one. I loved that dog. I miss it terribly. I hate being stuck to the ground, or forced to fly only in other people's airplanes.
By the time I finished my lunch and drank my Pepsi, smoke from the fires had drifted in over the runway and had dropped visibilities below minimum. I had no choice but to wait it out – and it turned into a two-day wait. Instead of being home, I spent the Fourth of July in Bettles. Before the night ended, I think I became the only guest at the lodge who did not get wildly and loudly drunk.
I was invited to join in, of course, but I had a plane to fly, a family to reach. I just wanted to sleep, wake up, find the smoke had moved on, get into my plane and go. But the noise of drunkenness rose in a steady crescendo from the pleasant banter and shy laughter that begins a party to the screeching, yelling, shouting, off-key, bellering singing, bodies slamming against walls crunch that so often ends it - in this case, punctuated by the explosion of firecrackers and the screaming whistle of rockets. On the night of July 4, 1991, there was no sleep for me.
I arose bleary-eyed in the morning to see hat the smoke had thinned out. I got my shot and I took it. Just before I left, I overheard the attendant at the Flight Service Station tell the pilot in front of me that an airplane had disappeared. He told him to keep his eyes open and to check the emergency frequency now and then, but he didn't say anything to me about it when I stepped up for my weather briefing..
Still, as I headed south, I reqularly checked the emergency frequency– and was I surprised when, as I neared the Yukon River, I suddenly heard “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” It was the downed but uninjured pilot. I relayed the message to the Civil Air Patrol pilots searching for him and they went and got him.
Finally, I put the Yukon, the Tanana, the Nenana and Interior Alaska behind me; I flew past the massive flanks of Denali, aimed the Running Dog at a saddle in the Talkeetna Mountains directly head of me and then flew right into it.
As I exited the saddle, the mountains dropped sharply away and the lake spattered Matanuska - Susistna Valley appeared before me. About ten miles dead ahead was the spot that held my house and family. Almost immediately, I came upon a bald eagle, gliding at my same altitude. It locked one eye into mine and although I was most anxious to get back to Sunflower and the children, I pushed the stick hard to left and put the Running Dog into a steep bank and did a 360 degree turn around that eagle. As I did, it rotated around a pivot point in such a way that it’s unflinching eye never left mine.
The only sign that the eagle moved at all was the changing patterns of light and shadow that flashed across its face, body and wings as it pivoted to watch me pass by.
I then leveled my wings and flew a bee-line straight toward a certain small, familiar, patch of marsh. Just beyond that, in the midst of the birch and spruce woods, sat the little red house with the green canoe in the back yard.
It is at this point that I like to picture what the juvenile kitten might have been doing. I picture it nestled down in the woods behind our house, napping happily in the splotchy sunlight filtering down to the ground through the branches, birch leaves and spruce needles. As I draw near, the juvenile cat hears a sound that it has heard many times before – the drone of an airplane.
It cannot know just what that sound means, but it is a common one in the valley and so causes the cat no alarm. Even as it keeps its eyes closed, the kitten turns one ear toward the north, to follow the drone as it grows louder and louder and draws closer and closer. The young cat hears the Running Dog. I do not know it, but the nose of the dog is pointed right at that kitten.
Suddenly, the kitten detects something unusual in the sound. The roar stops altogether, and is replaced by sound of an engine idling, a propeller slowly spinning, and of wings gliding, slicing, the air.
As I approach the swamp, I pull the throttle all the way back to idle, then shove the stick forward, forcing the nose of the Running Dog to point downward towards the swamp. This puts the tiny, wood-framed, rag-clad, airplane into a steep glide. It picks up speed as it swoops down over the swamp until finally its wingtips dip below the tops of the bordering trees.
Now the sound is strange to the kitten. Not threatening, just strange. More gentle than the growing roar of before, but unusual, a sound that it does not understand. The kitten has heard the sound of raven wings, beating and slicing the air, but it has never the sound airplane wings swooping.
The kittens eyes come open. The kitten is calm but tense, as it tries to determine is this sound signals a threat.
Now, as the wheels of the Running Dog near the level of the marsh grass, I shove the throttle full forward and pull back hard on the stick. This causes the Running Dog to roar mightily. I climb up over the trees behind the house, directly over the spot where I like to picture the cat to have been sleeping.
To the kitten, this roaring, beating, noise can only be terrifying. The poor little feline jumps up, and then flees madly in whatever direction its feet first fall.
At least, that's what I like to picture. What I know for certain happened is that, as the Running Dog rolled to full power, I climbed upward over the tops of the trees and then over the shingles of the little red house, then climbed above it in a tight, spiraling turn.
I did not know about the juvenile stray cat hanging out in the narrow strip of woods that separated our house from the marsh. If I had known, the thought that the suddenly roaring engine of the Running Dog might have sent that cat fleeing in terror would have delighted me. In fact, I almost certainly would have turned that airplane around to swoop back down upon that cat, to terrify it, to send it fleeing far into the swamp. I would have then climbed up, turned back and then dive down on that kitten for a third time; I would have grazed its ears with one wheel of the dog, and then blasted its face with prop wash.
That cat would have fled until its legs gave out and its lungs collapsed; never again would it have dared to return to the Kracker house; never would there have been any critters known as the Kracker Cats.
This blog would not exist.
But I did not know, so, instead, I put the airplane into a climbing spiral over the house until two little girls bounced out the front door, waving their arms excitedly. Behind them, an assortment of older, rowdy boys tumbled out, followed by a beautiful, raven-haired woman. All waved happily, then climbed into the mini-van, backed out of the driveway, and began the five-mile the drive toward the Anderson Lake Airstrip.
I flew above them, weaving and lollygaging about the sky 500 feet over the mini-van, slowing down my forward motion. In this way, we would reach the airstrip at the same time, and they could watch me land - my wife and children always loved to watch me land.
Early in the afternoon of the day following my return, I stepped out of the house with a ham sandwich in hand and took a seat on the back porch. It was the kind of beautiful summer day that I fear folks whose lives are restricted to the Lower 48 cannot know. The sun was warm and the sky deep, clear, clean, blue. At long last there was no snow, no cold. The leaves on the birch trees had sprouted into their full splendor of green, and now hung translucent in the sun. Except for the chittering of squirrels and the calls and songs of birds, it was quiet and peaceful. All was pleasant. I felt happy, relaxed.
Then I saw it -- the kitten, walking out of the shadows cast by the leaves onto the spongy, mossy, ground. Painted over a base kitten coat of white were splotches of gray, marbled with varying shades of black and brown. The green eyes of the juvenile feline bore into my own as it padded softly, silently, straight toward me, stopping occasionally to lift or drop its head in a kind of bobbing motion.
I knew I should yell and curse and scare it away, or perhaps pick up a rock or a stick and chuck it at the animal. But I did not. I just sat there on my porch as the kitten closed in on me.
Soon, the kitten stood at my ankles. It looked up at me, then meowed. Next, it climbed onto my lap, then reached up, placed its paws in my beard and began to knead. I placed two fingers on its head, between its alert and friendly. Its fur was soft, pleasant to the touch. I gently scratched its crown, then let my hand run down its neck to the top of its back. The kitten purred.
It had stepped out of my dream and become real.
I did not know it, but my life had just made a fundamental change. Nothing would ever be the same again.
The kitten who stepped out of a dream to become real.