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A Yankee Notebook

October 1,, 2012


MONTPELIER, VT – “You want to try a loop?” Peter asked from the seat behind me. I glanced quickly at the altimeter on the control panel in front of me. About 4000 feet; light overcast; heading into a southerly wind. All this registered in much less time than it takes to tell it.

“Sure,” I answered, hoping my voice betrayed no hesitation. A second later the horizon in the windscreen became suddenly an unbroken carpet of autumn colors as we dove. “Pickin’ up a little speed,” said Peter.

Then he must have pulled back hard on the stick, because I weighed more than 600 pounds. The carpet of color became a blank screen of gray, and I weighed nothing. Then I was hanging in my harness, and nothing visual made any sense. But my mind was racing: He hasn’t got enough momentum to get up over the top, I fantasized, and we’re going to spin! I think I reached for the buckle of my four-point safety harness, the first step in getting ready to pop the canopy, roll out, pull the rip cord on my parachute, and pray for the best. But in the half-second it took to think all that, the horizon reappeared – upside down! – I was squashed back into my seat, and we were floating softly along again as we had been, with only the sound of the wind around the canopy. My breakfast returned to its proper location.

“How’d you like that?” Peter asked.

“Whoa-ho! That was something!”

“You want to do another one?

“I think that, in deference to my stomach, I’d rather not.” I’ve mildly regretted that response ever since. How often do you get to do a loop in a sailplane over Franconia Notch?

This Public Television outdoor show we’re filming madly as the shooting season draws to a close has made it much easier for me to fulfill my commitment to do something new each week. Some weeks I pile up enough new things to last me the following month.

This one began in a Holiday Inn in Concord, New Hampshire. Not very outdoorsy, I know; but Mother and I were there for the premiere of New Hampshire Public Television’s latest special – “Bird Tales” – about migratory songbirds that travel from North America to the Caribbean and beyond. There were questions from the audience afterward (always interesting), supper with the crew, and finally off to our room. Next morning at breakfast, the Chinese couple at the next table asked if we knew where they’d find the leaves were at their peak of color. In the old days, I’d have pretended I knew and sagely guided them up into Franconia Notch or onto the Kancamagus Highway. Mother, however, suggested Google. I added, “Foliage New Hampshire.” A minute later they looked up from their iPod, nodded effusively and said, “Yes, yes, thank you! Got it!”

After a rest day, I took off the following morning to do something that, far from new, could easily get old: the seven-hour drive from Montpelier to Bar Harbor, cutting across the geographic grain of New England and in traffic almost the whole way. But it was worth it. We poked around Mount Desert with Michael Good, the proprietor of Down East Nature and Birding Tours, with whom we’re hoping to travel to Cuba this winter.

Birding with Michael was definitely – embarrassingly – new. Woods that I would have passed without a second glance were, to him, alive with tiny songbirds: a large flock of yellow-rumped warblers on their way south, chickadees, nuthatches; on the beach: eiders, scoters, sandpipers, yellowlegs, loons, a great blue heron, cormorants, and bald eagles – many of them within a few hundred feet of busy traffic. Not only could he spot and identify birds I wouldn’t have known were even there, but he could hear ‘em, too. He must have parabolic eardrums.

All too soon we had to tear ourselves away for a five-hour drive to Franconia. The westering sun made every spot of dirt on my windshield an opaque smear. Stopping for gas, I squeegeed the inside of it, which made life a lot easier – not to mention less deadly. The crew were long behind me. I had a burger at the local restaurant, checked into Franconia Lodge, and slept like the dead.

Morning, the day of our sailplane flight, broke with a thin layer of frost on the truck and a thick layer of fog everywhere. But by 8:30 the ground crew at the Franconia Soaring airport was warming up the towplane, a 1956 Cessna reconnaissance craft whose camouflage paint barely covered its French Air Force markings. FAA regulations require that if a loop in a glider is contemplated, all aboard must wear a parachute. I got my instructions and climbed stiffly into the narrow seat up front. The film crew fastened little video cameras here and there on the glider, the towplane hooked its line to our nose, and we were off, jouncing down the grass runway, a legacy of the Second World War. The jouncing stopped, and we were up, climbing toward Mount Lafayette.

We dropped the line somewhere above 5000 feet, and were on our own. Low clouds streamed over Cannon Mountain and ran down its sides. With a glide ratio of 38 to 1, the sailplane felt (to me, at least) just like a regular light plane, but a lot quieter – nothing but wind noise past the canopy. Then Peter popped the question I’d been half-dreading. And that’s where we came in.

Photo by Willem lange