Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Greener Pastures

Yesterday I convinced Don and Suicide Pete to join me out at Kahana, to try our hands at a bay crossing on what was forecast to be our final day of northerly winds. It had averaged around 9 mph NNE all morning. The direction and wind speed were looking so perfect, I went so far as to claim that you could even fly a mattress across the bay on a day like this. But by the time we got to mid launch on the north ridge, the average wind speed had dropped to 5 or less. Our bay crossing dreams slowly faded - as it got lighter, we realized we'd be lucky to make it across the bay just to reach the beach LZ!

I hucked off first, from the high launch, but sank like a brick (or a mattress), and went for an emergency top-landing, pretty far below the low launch. I managed to kill my wing in just such a way that it snaked down perfectly between the umbrella trees, and didn't snag on anything - cool! But then I lost my balance on the steep terrain, and did a back somersault into a deep hole obscured by the undergrowth -- a nice hiding spot for wild pigs. I frantically clawed my way up and out of there. Yikes! You just can't tell what's underfoot sometimes. Later in the day I realized I probably lost my sunglasses there - if you see a wild pig sporting an old pair of Maui Jims, maybe you can politely ask if they found them on the north ridge.

I hiked back up as far as mid launch, and watched Pete take off from high launch. He worked it hard for a few minutes, but eventually sank out and barely made it over the boat ramp to the beach. It just wasn't looking good for the bay crossing crew. Maybe the hubris of that mattress comment I made had ticked someone off.

After watching Pete disappear, I took off for a second attempt from mid launch, and actually got some good cycles, probably more thermic than anything else at that point, and it was enough to get me to high launch altitude. I headed around the corner to where I expected to find the good stuff - but there wasn't any good stuff there, just shade and still air. I continued on a slow steady descent along the north face, kicking treetops, hoping for a little cycle to save me, and knowing I was definitely not going to make it back the way I came. But that was okay - as I've always told folks, if you get low around the corner, there are plenty of nice pastures to land in along the north ridge. (I landed in one myself a few years ago, and I don't remember that it went too badly, except for a little mud and some trailblazing to find the highway.)

I made it to the far corner of the north face, ridiculously low, but then at the last possible moment I got a little thermic boost that made me think I could at least punch out to the flat fields of Punaluu. But that boost was instantly followed by a hard sink cycle, and I realized I'd never clear the high dense tree line in front of me, with its power lines and farm buildings. So I turned back and looked closer at the pasture below me - it was full of bovine type critters, and surrounded by barbed wire fences, with power lines on the low side. Now that I was faced with the reality of actually landing in one of these pastures, it was looking like a pretty poor option.

I aimed for the high end of the field, making a big swooping turn and intending to touch down on a nice high plateau just over the fence from the pasture. But at the last moment I sank too low and slammed into the barbed wire fence with my boots. As I bounced off, the wing draped over a large bush on the fence line. I fell backward onto my rear end, and immediately lost my balance on the sloping ground, reaching out to catch myself with my right hand, still holding the brake handle. My arm sank into a muddy hole up to my neck. Ewww! I pulled it out of the stinking hole and tried to stand up, but both my legs sank into mud holes up to my knees - the suction was powerful and I could barely move.

I realized I had fallen into a truly diabolical paraglider trap: this upper part of the pasture with no cows in it had appeared to be solid grassy ground, albeit sloped and sort of lumpy - but now I realized that there was a constant flow of water from the forest above, that turned the lumpy grass slope into a pockmarked bog of mud and clay. Maybe the cows had designed this trap in their resentment at our carefree soaring life: they had repeatedly perforated the slope here with deep holes, which were filled with mud from the constant flow of water from above, and hidden from casual glance by lumpy tufts of grass perched on the few remaining borders of solid ground. I cast a wary glance at the cows, wondering if any bulls would take offense at the red fabric of my glider in the tree. I knew I'd better hurry out of there before they got too curious.

I managed to unstick my legs, and started to navigate the little ridges of hard ground with the grass lumps growing on them, but every few steps I would lose my footing and sink into another mud hole up to my knees. As I got to the bush and started yanking my wing out, the air was instantly filled with white fluffy seeds floating around and sticking to my mud soaked skin and clothing, and burning my eyes. Now I was truly tarred and feathered. A nice coast guard helicopter buzzed by, and then buzzed by again, and then again. I waved politely, trying to convey that I was fine, but I'm sure I must have looked awful down there.

"Sir, we've spotted a possible terrorist paratrooper, camouflaged in mud, and we're heading in for a closer look . . . oh well, never mind, it's one of those nutball paragliders, and it looks like he'll be cow fodder before we can even get to him". Sure enough, the cows were starting to head my way. Nice cows! Nice little cowsies! I ripped the last few lines off the bush, choking and squinting through the airborne fog of fluffy seeds, and hastily rolled my gear up into a muddy, gooey blob. I lofted it over the barbed wire fence and scrambled over to join it before the malevolent fiends could get to me. Whew! There were cattle tracks on the other side as well, but no cattle visible, so maybe I was safe for a moment.

I gathered up my muddy gear and slowly tiptoed my way across the last of the mud holes to the high flat ground I'd originally aimed for. From here I could see a road below with power lines along it, and at that moment I also spotted two large dogs loping down the road together. Uh oh. I waited a moment for them to get out of sight, then hustled down to the road, climbing over a gate to get there, and I headed in the opposite direction, towards Punaluu. The dogs were headed more towards Kahana, which would have probably been the shortest way to the highway, but I didn't think the chances were good that those dogs would give me a free pass. I would have scared my own dog in my current state, covered with slime and lugging a dripping mud ball along with me.

I was definitely heading out the long way around: the road wound deep back into Punaluu Valley before hooking back to pass by the shrimp ponds and out to the highway, about a mile, or maybe closer to fifty. On the way I passed a bull that was roaming free in the woods - I pretended I didn't see him, just kept my head down and chugged on by, and luckily he ignored me. Almost at the gate, a farmer drove by and asked if I was okay. Turns out he is a buddy of Chopper Dave's, an airplane mechanic named Richard who now works on Fedex planes and runs some farms back in the valley.

I got hold of Peter on the radio and he met me at the gate and drove me back to Kahana. I hope his truck isn't too muddy after that ride. I unloaded my soggy gear, rinsed myself off in the park shower and put on some clean clothes that Don happened to have with him. Then I began to take stock of the damage.

First, the electronics: my phone was rebooting every few seconds and vibrating for no reason. When it did occasionally power all the way up, it would give me a warning about an incompatible accessory. Wait, water and mud aren't compatible? The phone is working okay today, although it is still giving me the warning. My camera was soaking wet - we removed the battery, but the viewfinder was completely fogged over - it won't turn on today, and I'm pretty sure it's a goner. My vario and GPS were smeared with mud but appeared to be okay. My radio was okay.

As for the flying gear: the canopy was pretty filthy, but the risers and lines were caked with mud. The harness was thoroughly smeared with mud - and my reserve surely got wet. My boots weighed 10 pounds each from all the mud stuck to them.

Then I remembered I had left my jacket and my helmet (well, Dave's helmet) at the pasture. Don and Pete kindly offered to help me retrieve them - otherwise I probably would have just left them to the cows as souvenirs of the big one that got away. We waited at the gate until a nice farmer came by and let us in, so we could drive all the way to the pasture. We passed by a bull roaming free (a different one from the one I passed before) and heckled him from the safety of Don's truck. We met another farmer at the pasture, who explained that the water at the top was running from an old leftover water line that used to irrigate the plantation in the old days. He said he hoped I didn't have any open cuts, since the water was pilau (polluted). Hmm, it would be hard to find a part of me that didn't have open cuts at that moment. Hopefully I don't come down with anything too nasty.

I'm spending the day today sorting through and rinsing off my muddy gear. I have plenty of time now to reflect on my mistakes. After that exhausting ordeal in the mud trap, and the exciting escape from the cows, bulls, dogs, and bacteria that lurk under the north face of Kahana, I can now say with some confidence that the pastures over there are actually not that great an option for bombing out after all. Next time I head around that corner, I plan to start with a bit more altitude, and I will be sure to turn back before the pasture becomes the only option.


Anonymous said...

Gee Alex, that's quite the adventure! Sorry to hear about your camera, I already know what that feels like. So we'll be missing your great pictures for a while now, but I'm glad you at least found a soft place to land hard.
I've landed in fields with cows and other ones with horses before, they're just curious and come up to sniff the glider.
I guess we'll call you Bog-y-man Alex now.

volfik said...

oh man, i was always afraid of those nice lush green fields here in Hawaii, now i know why ;((

sorry dude, that really sucks !!

but, i'd pay money to see your landing, followed by the slide to the brown abyss, followed by frantic escape from blood thirsty cows ;)

had an uneventful, but really pretty flight at Tantalus today with FireDave, both Jorge and I popped our TNT cherry ...

hopefully it's good up there again tomorrow ...


Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear you lost gear, Alex. I've landed in that area before, but didn't encounter any bogs. Must have been during the dry season ;-)

DaveZ said...

Great story! Sorry you had to live it, but all great writers must suffer for their art.

Alex said...

Thanks for the comments, guys! I am still in the process of cleaning up my gear. My wing is hanging up to dry on a line on my covered back lanai, but it's not drying too quickly with the amount of moisture in the air right now.

After thinking about it some more, I don't think avoiding those pastures is really the best lesson for me here. I think the most important lesson for me is that I have a lot of work to do on my landing approaches, especially outlandings in unfamiliar areas. In this case, I made a faulty decision to aim for a spot just beyond a fence. Last year when landing out during the Rat Race, I made the same faulty decision twice, except with power lines instead of fences - and I count myself extremely lucky to have got away with those poor decisions. I definitely need to do some more work on the decision-making that goes into an outlanding approach, to build in room for encountering sink, gusts, wind gradient, and other contingencies. Making mistakes is a necessary part of the learning process. I guess I'm just lucky I only had to suffer a mud-soaking for this lesson.