Saturday, March 10, 2007

Pilots Help Out at Blanchard

By Murdoch Huges:

Paraglider pilots turn out to help the ailing owner of the Blanchard LZ.

It looked like rain … “A perfect day for a work party,” I thought, as we packed our flying gear and our Rat Terrier, Wolf, into the car for the trip north. There is nothing more difficult than a work party in sight of launch, with puffy, little, white Snow Geese clouds overhead honking at you to get up there before it’s too late. However this project was one I’d be happy to participate in even on the best of flying days.

Tom Wake’s field is the Blanchard LZ, and has been for many years. Hang glider pilots first secured permission to land there, and of course they were also the first to fly from little Blanchard Mountain’s 1150’ launches overlooking the San Juan Islands. In the early years, before retirement, Tom only stayed there part-time because of the extensive traveling he did in his occupation. My first flight after obtaining my P-2, was from Blanchard’s west launch on June 28th, 1998. Jim Reich of Fly BC was there with some students that day, and he still kids me about my first launch attempt, aborted, as I turned too quick and my lines caught my new glasses, knocking them halfway off my face (before I started wearing a string to keep from losing them). I grabbed my glasses with one hand and pulled brake with the other, falling forward down the hill headfirst toward the cliff. I didn’t go over, and I saved my glasses, as well as providing Jim with a huge grinning remembrance whenever he sees me.

Since Jan and I live only fifty minutes from the Blanchard launch, I’ve had many flights there since, and countless landings in Tom Wake’s twenty acre fields. Not once in all of those years has Tom asked for anything from the pilots, while graciously providing us parking space and the use of his fields for landing after flights over one of the most beautiful sites that exist anywhere. Of course pilots have tried to pay him back in some small ways, like helping out with his landscaping and gardens on occasion.

This was to be one of those days. As we drove north we decided to go the “back way”, exiting I-5 at Conway. The quicker way, almost as scenic, is to exit I-5 north of Mt Vernon, taking the Chuck-a-nut Drive highway angling seven miles northwest toward the coast. The “back way” goes west on Fir Island Road, past Conway (the site of a famous motorcycle tour stop, the Conway Pub, renowned for its burgers and oysters). The backcountry road eventually turns north, becoming the best road through the Skagit Valley tulip fields (it’s the best road because it is the “Best” road, that’s its name). The tulips weren’t out yet, but the daffodils were, with many flocks of Snow Geese and Trumpeter Swans feeding in the green fields. The Best road takes you right through the small village of Edison, past the Longhorn Tavern where we often retire after a long day of flight. Then the road goes east crossing Chuck-a-nut Drive, where you turn back north for a couple of miles to Tom Wake’s place, which is the farmhouse with a windsock at the road marking his long driveway.

We were arriving a bit late on this day, but were relieved to see many cars lined up along Tom’s driveway, and workers everywhere. After the gauntlet of backslappers telling us “it was about time we got there”, we got directions from the many supervisors on what had to be done. A paragliders’ work party never seems to lack for supervisors giving countermanding orders, and it’s kind of fun to go to them one by one and say, “Well so-and-so said to do it this way…” Luckily Tom Wake was there as the final arbitrator, and a lot of work was accomplished in spite of the ensuing confusion I caused.

Tom Wake was recently diagnosed with a rare cancer of some type, after a bout of internal bleeding. He spent some time in the hospital for an operation, and has to return soon for decisions on methods to fight it, whether with chemo or more operations. We tried not to pester him with questions about it, so I don’t know too many details, but as you all know, the big “C” is always serious and life-threatening.

Tom was home on the day of the work party though, and while he can’t do any lifting he looked pretty good for what he had been through, and he was extremely happy with the amount of work accomplished. He told me it was twice as much as he had hoped to get done. Tom is proud of his beautiful house and his gardens and had been worried about what would become of them this year. We (the royal we) planted flowers and blueberry bushes, weeded around the house flower beds, mulched the fruit trees, rototilled the main garden, put down woodchips, weeded, and all of the other stuff that goes with spring planting. By the end, Tom was beaming.

There were 15 pilots (and drivers) there, and even I worked hard, holding up shovels and various other implements of torture I have been running from since my days growing up on a dairy farm. The funny thing is, I have never attended a Blanchard work party where we weren’t rewarded with great soaring, and it was true on that day. After lunch at the Longhorn we got to launch around 2:30pm, with a pilot soaring way above us. We soon joined him there and flew for hours.

Finally, with frozen fingers, I landed back in Tom’s field, thanking him silently for helping to make such a day possible, and very proud of the fifteen pilots who were there to show him our gratitude, sharing a silent prayer that he will be there with us for many years to come.
p.s. If you couldn’t make the work party, you can always volunteer a few minutes of time to do a little work around his place, anytime. The thermal gods will look kindly upon you, but you can always go there just to fly.

Murdoch Hughes
“The Seattle Barista Killer”, April, 2007,
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“Murder In La Paz” Eppie Winner, Best Mystery, 2005
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