THE PLANE, THE PLANE
  A COPD'ERS HARROWING EXPERIENCE IN THE ALASKA WILDERNESS  
by Lou Ledda WOP5@AOL.COM


   
 

Now I know what they mean when they say" balance is important.  I was teetering in the middle of a narrow metal beam.  I slowly & carefully shuffled my feet towards the vertical beam about 10 feet away. 
  
I THREW MY ARMS AROUND IT - I WAS IN LOVE
 
I kept thinking of all those Jerry Lewis pratfalls I've made in my life.
 
What was I doing teetering on this oil rig in darkness so black that it sucked the wind out of me?  Fortunately I had my inhaler with me & 2 puffs seemed to work. I've had so many situations with my emphysema that I even remember to take my inhaler into my dreams
 
 Below was the planet earth, above was Neil Armstrong's moon.  The moon was ominous & gray but the earth looked like Broadway on a Saturday night. What night was it?  I don't know.  I could smell my own fear & the feeling of loneliness was starting to get unbearable.  By the way I had no idea this was a dream.
 
Eventually I would wake up, as I always did, but the dream would replicate many times over in the past 10 years. Who knows what this dream meant?  Maybe living alone was not easy for this gregarious Italian.
 
I'VE GOTTEN INTO MANY A JAM IN MY LIFETIME, But I've  never had a life experience loaded with such fear, loneliness & anxiety to compare to that recurring dream until, this summer in Alaska. 
 
It started a couple of days after my arrival at my son Bob's fishing lodge in Soldotna Alaska.  He proposed that I join him in an exploratory flight into the wilderness in his new Super Cub, fitted with pontoons.  He said he would definitely stop over at Crescent Lake to fish for some Arctic Grayling - a very exotic fish.

 
Last time I did Crescent Lake was 15 years ago, when I had to hike 3 miles up Crescent Mountain to get there. Flying in was too good to pass up, even if I was still tired (exhausted?) & a little bonkers after a 24 hour trip from Texas with 3 long flights & lots of layovers.  I was sure I would have a lot of SOB (Shortness Of Breath) incidents but it was worth it. I made sure I had some small oxygen canisters with me, extra clothes, food, & plenty of water, just in case. 
 
It took me awhile to make a decision -- go or no go -- fight or flight. You always live on the edge, when severe breathlessness can be right around the corner. There's a thin line between recklessness &  faintheartedness.
 
It reminds me of what they say when they raise the terrorist alert -- "be vigilant but lead a normal life."  People are usually perplexed by that, but someone with a respiratory problem isn't.  They do that "oxymoron" all the time, if they want to have any kind of quality life.
 
The Piper Cub, fitted with pontoons, was docked at the bottom of the hill behind Bob's house on Longmere Lake.  It wasn't easy stuffing a big guy like me in the back of that little 2 seater. I wished I had finished my research on "Low Carbs" vs. "Low Fat" Diets.  I almost didn't make it into that back seat.  I felt like a claustrophobic sardine.
 
It never occurred to me before, that being overweight might be one of the leading causes of claustrophobia.
 
 I knew this wasn't going to be easy, but as they would say in  the Marines Corps - "No Guts no Glory." 
However, this time I think my guts were adding to the problem -- the SOB (Shortness Of Breath) problem.  My chin was practically resting on my knees & my guts were pressing against my flat diaphragm.
 
Bob revved up the engines & we taxied out to the middle of the lake. As he throttled forward, the pontoons lifted off from the surface of the lake, & the next thing you know, we were zipping across Cook Inlet into the wilderness -- a wonderful thing. 
 
We flew across the tundra & between the mountains until finally he dropped altitude & banked towards the blue break in the brown & green color scheme -- it was Crescent Lake. He made a breathtaking landing. There was barely a bump or vibration as the pontoons touched the water -- "Nice job, Bob."  
 
Eat your heart out IMAX.
 
Bob taxied the plane to a shoreline spot he liked, but we (he) only caught 1 Arctic Grayling.  We tried one more spot that turned out to be zilchy. Bob then decided to abort & try another lake for Dolly Varden trout. Fifteen minutes & how many mountains later we were dropping down into Fishers Lake. He shut down & let the plane drift to locate a school. Then he climbed out, stood on a pontoon & started to do some casting.  No "In & Out of the Plane" for me. I sit & wait until Bob tells me  "The Eagle has Landed."  It didn't take long. He hooked 2 - one right after the other - a good thing. Then a bad thing happened. When he dropped anchor, it disconnected from the boat. 
 
Bob wanted that anchor back, so he runs the plane onto a small peninsula adjacent to where the anchor deposited.  He gets out of the plane & starts to wade towards where he thought the anchor was.  Good thing he had chest waders, since he hit a few deep spots along the way. Meanwhile, I "huffed & puffed" my way out of the plane & went to the end of the peninsula & started fishing.
 
THEN A REALLY BAD THING HAPPENED, RIGHT BEFORE MY VERY EYES - The wind picked up & the plane started to move.  I ran to the plane.  Before I could get there, It eased off the peninsula shoreline  The only thing I could think of was:
 
1) Yell to Bob.   Yep, I ended up yelling  "THE PLANE THE PLANE"
 2) Cast towards the plane & hope that the hooks on the lure connect with something on the plane to slow it down. 
 
Yea! - The second cast hooked on the plane. Glad I didn't drop the rod when I ran towards the plane.
 
I had to set the reel drag just right. Too tight & the line would break. Too loose & the line would peel off to fast.  All that fishing experience playing big game fish on light line came into play here.  The plane started to slow down.  By his time Bob had his clothes off & had dove into the icy water and was swimming towards the plane.  At this point it looked like he might catch up. He's a powerful swimmer.  But then a bad thing  happened -- again.
 
PLUNK!  The fishing line broke and the plane started to pick up speed*. 
 
All of a sudden the plane was free to distance itself from this strong swimmer. Bob started swimming faster to try to catch up. After a few minutes, He stopped swimming & started treading water.
 
Even though he was quite a ways out, I could see that he looked really exhausted. & seemed to be shivering. The thought of my son, Bob drowning out here was unbearable to think of. I could barely breathe. He kept treading water, taking it easy, making some progress, & eventually I was helping my shivering son out of the water -- a miracle. Bob quickly put his dry clothes on.
 
By that time, the plane had reached the other shoreline & had stopped. 
 
* WHY DID THE LINE BREAK?
When a lot of line has peeled off the spool, the extra line has more drag in the water and can easily break.  I should have loosened the drag, but it is difficult to make yourself loosen the drag when you look down & the spool is starting to empty. But it's the only right thing to do.
 
We began to calm down & started to discuss our situation.  
 The situation:
It was going to get dark & a lot colder pretty soon. 
We weren't dressed for it & I was shivering & already having difficulty breathing.
I was almost out of oxygen.
It would be near impossible for us to be located in the dark.  
 
The conclusion: Bob would cross the river into the woods & hope that he could make it to the other side of the lake.  We had no idea whether that was even possible.  The shoreline might just keep winding around.  The thought of standing there alone on the tip of the peninsula running out of O2, shivering worrying about Bob, becoming more & more breathless, had me panic stricken again. When you have severe respiratory problems you become very fragile. I told Bob how I felt, but we finally decided he had to do it & leave me alone.  He estimated he would return in 1- hours just before dark -- a ballpark estimate if I've ever heard one.  Especially since we didn't know how much winding around that shoreline did.  Bob trudged along, crossed the river & disappeared into the woods.  Fortunately there were no deep holes where the water was over his head.
 
I stayed in one spot & didn't move too much to conserve O2 & energy. I tried not to get too panicky & feed the breathlessness and I  also tried not to think about bears. Over the last 15 years, I've seen dozens of bears & quite a few close up.  Like the ones that we watched attack our camp as we scrambled into our raft on our first wilderness trip.  Luckily Bob would have a better chance with a potential bear. If they wanted me, standing at the edge of that peninsula, they had me.  In the condition I was in, I couldn't out run a 3 mile an hour Dachshund, let alone a 35 mile an hour grizzly bear.  There's that joke that came to mind about the 2 friends being chased by a bear, when one says "I don't think we're going to be able to outrun this bear.  The other guy says "I'm not trying too.  I only have to outrun you"
 
Instead of worrying about the bears, I began to think about all the jams I had gotten into in my life. And how temporary my anxiety & fear turned out to be, after I escaped & eluded the fickle finger of fate and good things started to happen.  
I was getting more & more SOB. Then I realized it. Even though I had changed my 02 to a lower setting to conserve it & still get some benefit, it finally ran dry. I stopped daydreaming & started to concentrate on purse lipped breathing exercises to keep my blood oxygen content high & to expel the excess carbon dioxide.
 
Now, another BAD THING HAPPENED.  A REAL blood-curdler, started to take place right before my eyes. The plane started to move along the shoreline to the left.  Bob couldn't have gotten there already.  Oh my God - the wind had picked up & shifted so that it was blowing along the shoreline, instead of across the lake (Mama Mia!)  I said out loud: "Bob will never be able to catch up to it". This blew the hell out of my pursed lip breathing exercises.
 
Then some good fortune finally came my way (another good thing happened); the plane stopped It probably got caught in the trees. Just then a Bush Plane came barreling over the mountain. The first one I'd seen all day, except for the dozens on Longmere Lake.
 
  I started waving & shouting.  I stopped shouting when I realized I was getting more SOB (short of breath) & the pilot couldn't hear me anyway. He dipped his wings but flew right past me.  I guess he thought I was just being social. Here I am all alone on the tip of a peninsula in a wilderness lake with no fishing rod, or no boat or plane in sight.  I thought, "He would have landed had he thought I was in trouble."
 
 Well, he was gone & I got back to my worry & panic. I had to reduce the panic & calm down or I would be in big trouble I mean bigger trouble.  I was hungry & really thirsty.(yes; I had food & water in the plane).  in the Marines, we were allowed only one small canteen of water per day when we were in the field.  It was called water discipline.  Well, the last time I had a glass of water was about 14 hours ago.
 
I started to pray.  I usually pray, not to be shielded from adversity, but to be able to handle it with the right attitude.   That didn't seem to be working this time, so I started praying to "get me out of here"
 
I always say "gimmee a break" when someone is trying to "BS" me but now I really meant it. "Please gimmee a break.  I need one, "GOD - right now."
 
It was really getting cold now the sun was low & way far away.  My shivering was getting to be uncontrollable.  My warm clothes & oxygen were in the plane. 

I HEARD THE ENGINES OF A BUSH PLANE AGAIN BUT WHEN I LOOKED UP THERE WAS NO PLANE FLYING OVERHEAD. BUT WAIT -  THE SOUND WAS COMING FROM ACROSS THE LAKE.  IT WAS THE SUPER CUB SLOWLY COMING IN MY DIRECTION. 
 
HOORAY!  HOORAY!!  IT WAS BOB!!!  ( a really good thing happened)  I had to calm down I was getting more SOB.    Inside of a few minutes Bob rode the Cub onto the shoreline.  I got in that plane as fast as I could -- which wasn't too fast since I was out of both steam & air.  Shivering & stress causes your body to use up more O2, so I needed the warmer air of the plane cabin.  Finally Bob shoehorned me in & we were on our way.
 
Within a half hour the pontoons were touching down on the waters of Longmere Lake & we were tying up the plane at the dock at the bottom of the hill behind Bob's House. 
 
No way I could climb up that hill today.  Bob took me up in an all terrain vehicle he uses to carry supplies & gear. When we got to the top of the hill there were about 20 people by the fire eating their dinners.  My family was there, hugging & kissing me -- daughters, grandsons.  I was starting to feel really good.  I felt their warmth & the good cheer of the grandsons was with me now. "GRANDPA LOU!  GRANDPA LOU!  
 
Someone made me a plate of charcoal grilled halibut, & salmon with sauce Verde.  After that I had a nice caribou burger. I was starving. Then I somehow managed to walk up the little hill & the stairs to Bob's house & crashed on the couch.
 
I always knew it was great to be alive, but now I was really convinced
 
I WONDER IF THIS WILL NOW REPLACE MY OIL RIG NIGHTMARE.

 

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