Sometimes I wonder what I'm a gonna do but there ain't no cure for the summer time blues, Eddie Cochran 1958. Most of you will not remember that song but I do and it came to mind when I landed at Aspen airport and realized hardly a flight this summer has gone by without some sort of weather challenge. Instead of our typical bluebird skies, they have been gray and threatening for most of the summer, and that gives a conservation pilot the blues. It has been one of the cooler, wetter and stormier summers I have seen here in Colorado, and yet it is also one of the hottest tinder-dry summers further west in California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, creating an unprecedented fire season in the West.
This was all brought front and center on a recent trip up to northern Montana. As is EcoFlight's custom, we plan our overflight schedules carefully to ensure there is never a dull moment. So, to get way up to the Canadian border near Libby, which is close to Glacier National Park in Montana, we planned overflights en route both in Bozeman and Dillon. I complimented myself on being creative as all the flights had to do with large-scale land conservation. This "play" had all the cast assembled and the "scripts" (mission) written, and even the weather was forecast to be good. And indeed it was, until just a bit north of Yellowstone National Park, when 1XE and I entered into a firestorm of smoke and very low visibility. An evening or two of harsh thunderstorms in the Northwest had set off over 100 wildfires, burning over one million acres and turning the West into a scene from some apocalyptic movie.
The rest is history. This has unfortunately been the status quo for EcoFlight all summer as missions were made more difficult maneuvering around severe thunderstorms and the El Niño-driven moisture that lay heavily on mountain passes and peaks; and now smoke complicated things further.
Libby, Montana, our destination, is in the heart of the Yaak Mountains and home to some of the wildest country in the lower 48 near the Purcell and Selkirk Mountains. It is also a gateway up into the wilds of the Canadian Rockies. The mission for the day included the opportunity to meet one of the real heroes of the conservation movement, the champion of the concept and project Y2Y, Harvey Locke. Stretching some 2,000 miles in length, the Y2Y (Yellowstone to Yukon) region is one of the last intact mountain ecosystems left on earth. It is home to the full suite of wildlife species that existed when European explorers first arrived. Harvey and his gang are working to protect this interconnected system of wild lands and waters, and harmonize the needs of people with those of nature.
The takeoff from Kalispell was surprisingly smoke free. As we approached Libby to pick up other members of our crew including Fish and Wildlife folks, it became clear that we would not be in the clear reference the nearby mountains. We were by this time IFR (I follow roads) or in this case it was IFTT (I follow train tracks), until it became obvious that even if we could pick up our passengers, it would be impossible to view and photograph our flight objectives. We quickly moved to Plan B which was to navigate through the smoke to the North Fork of the Flathead, where we captured some stunning images of Glacier wreathed in smoke, and spoke at length about the growing support of the ongoing 15-year effort to expand the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, and the challenges of managing a contiguous ecosystem, needed to support the wide array of wildlife, which in itself is an indicator of an intact and flourishing landscape.
Now, back in Colorado, it appears the smoke has followed us back into our Shangri-La valley that is home. Being with Harvey Locke was inspiring, a reminder of why I do what I do with EcoFlight, and why we persevere in our efforts to maintain viable, sustainable and healthy ecosystems.