The frigid wind whipped against the plane's fuselage as Tom Bodeen, his eyes fixed on the snow-cloaked mountain looming ahead, navigated his treacherous landing path. The Douglas aircraft’s twin engines roared in his ears like relentless beasts. The sound of power and determination, they drowned out all other cockpit noise, their steady drone matching his racing pulse. With every passing second, he edged closer to the waiting west slope where the frosted white carpet of forest trees below ended and the approaching mountain's menace began.
This would be no ordinary landing; setting down halfway up a glacier peak was a dance with danger. Tom’s gaze darted to the vertical speed indicator, his lifeline against the lurking threat of a downdraft. If you get caught in a downdraft, one of two things will happen. You’ll either live or you won’t.
Fraught with the precarious descent, adrenaline surged through his veins. Just one wrong move could plunge him into an abyss of unyielding fate. Taking no chances, he approached the mountain at a 45-degree angle to the northwest. If he encountered a downdraft, he had room to turn away.
The approach of the aircraft, the unforgiving mountain, and the wild elements all served to key up his senses. Amidst the engines’ noise and the frozen wilderness stretching before him, Tom braced himself for the high-stakes gamble that awaited. This landing would be a daring meeting between man and mountain, where survival hinged on his every calculated decision.
With his life and plane hanging in the balance, Tom’s piloting skills and nerve would be tested like never before.
“There he is!”
A thick gloved hand pointed out a distant approaching aircraft to the others.
In the chilly, biting cold of the unforgiving winter day, three men, their faces hidden beneath fur hooded parkas, stood resolutely atop the precipitous bluff. Their heavy boots crunched in the crisp, frozen snow as they stomped their feet for warmth, their breath forming icy clouds in the frigid air. Squinting their eyes against the cold sleet stinging their cheeks, they craned their necks to peer up at the approaching airplane.
The snowy terrain beneath them was a pristine, untouched wilderness, blanketed in a thick layer of glistening snow. From below, their snowmobile tracks, etched a labyrinth of trails in the snow, crisscrossing each other in a complex web of paths, a testament to their long journey up the steep slope from the dense forest below to reach this elevated vantage point.
The sky above was a desolate canvas of gray and overcast haze, a stark contrast to the pure white snowcapped evergreen trees that stood below, their branches waving in the wind as if applauding the men’s successful ascent to this wintry precipice.
From this high up, the bluff they were standing on offered a breathtaking view of the western sea stretching out into the horizon, a vast expanse of silver-blue waters that seemed to go on forever. They could make out the winding path of a distant, muddy river to the southeast, while due west, the massive Malaspina Glacier loomed. To their northwest, Hubbard Glacier stood out like white granite.
As the airplane drew nearer, its engines broke the quiet stillness of the snow-covered mountain. The men ignited a flare, and its pinkish, bright red flame pierced through the cold, illuminating their faces with an eerie glow. Exhaling frozen vapor breath, they took a step back, waiting with anticipation.
The airplane, headed straight for their mountain, banked left high overhead to avoid it and turned out to sea, only to come back, as the men lit another pinkish flare. This time it descended much lower, roaring not 200 feet above over their heads, to turn away again.
This time, when it turned back for another pass, it’s engines slowed and its landing lights came on. The men now hastily mounted their snowmobiles, the engines roaring to life. They scattered in three different directions—north, northwest, and west. Their headlights cut through the falling snow, and they each set off their own flare, creating a rectangular marked-out area of four burning, bright flares on the snow, a crude beacon to guide the approaching plane.
This perilous landing spot, perched on the side of the treacherous mountain, seemed fit only for the most daring of aviators. The risks were immense; a single mistake could spell disaster. If the plane suffered landing damage, there would be no hope of repairing it in this desolate wilderness. Even a successful landing would present a daunting challenge for the pilot to take off again. Yet, bravely, the plane and its pilot pressed on, steadily descending and slowing to put down its flaps. With incredible skill, it navigated the final updraft just past the tree line to gain the uphill slope.
As they watched with bated breath, the men stood on the precipice of witnessing the impossible—an airplane landing on the side of a mountain.
Amidst the tension, a faint beeping noise emanated from one man’s parka pocket, signaling an incoming satellite call. Like the other two men with him, he would never live long enough to answer the call.
Elinor Wells set her satellite phone down. Her husband hadn’t answered. With Tom Bodeen’s plane due to land about now, he was probably too busy with directing the landing or the unloading to answer. A glance out the window showed it was already clouding over.
“Help me get the house clean,” she told her daughter from their house kitchen usually filled with the pleasant aroma of steamy blueberry pancakes and the sizzling smell of hot bacon. “And bring in extra firewood. We might be having company.”
As she spoke she continued to looked out the kitchen window to check the weather. Her husband had built the only house around here for miles. A modern two-story log cabin, it lay sited on the bank of a normally placid, flowing river at the base of a steep, tree lined hill. The brownish-green color of the water in front of the house was produced by the reflection off the water of the dark green fir trees above combined with the spring mud. The brisk water flowed along the grassy banks, with scattered, scraggly, old dead trees, some fallen, amidst the underbrush.
“Who would that be?” her daughter, Marianne, asked of their callers, for they never had guests.
“Don’t you remember? Your father hired a bush pilot from Juneau for a delivery today.”
“Here at the house? I thought they were meeting up on the Osawa slope?”
“They are, but we should be prepared just in case they come back here tonight,” Elinor told her while running her hand over the blond butcher block countertops to check for any missed dried blackberry jam or leftover sugar grains from making pies.
“That’s a long way from here,” her daughter said. “Why do you think they’d come down here to the house from that far out?”
“I asked your father to invite him.”
Samuel, Elinor’s husband and Marianne’s father, had arrived here some twenty-six years ago. He caught salmon on the river back then, which thrived in the icy waters, before joining his brother in working this property’s placer gold mining claim. The two brothers lived in a tent in those days with only the Haida Indians as neighbors. Yet now Samuel had a home and a family. Their claim was large, the ore of it said to be good, and their house, though of modest size, respectable.
“I thought father never invited him over. Why’d you invite him?”
“We should be sociable,” Elinor answered. “Besides! He’s making a late landing and the weather’s expected to turn bad tonight. He should spend it here with us. We shouldn’t make him fly back in the dark in the middle of a snowstorm.”
Marianne considered this for a moment, her mother’s words sinking in. “That’s probably a good idea, Mother. It already looks like snow.”
Elinor smiled, grateful that her daughter was receptive to the idea as she added, "Besides, one should always be gracious.”
Marianne seldom ever met anyone out here in this frozen land, so she didn’t argue. She even helped put more things away. “Who is the pilot?”
Elinor Wells wondered if she should tell her. She had no guarantee he’d come by. Yet she chose to share the secret.
Marianne wasn’t an expert on freight pilots, but she seemed to remember his name.
“That name sounds familiar,” she noted in distant recognition while drying and putting away the glassware. “Why is that? Do I know him?”
“No. You’ve never met.”
“Is he married?”
Elinor asked her husband to invite him precisely because he was single, a fact her daughter quickly picked up on.
“How old is he?”
“Oh! I don’t know,” Elinor said, scrubbing now to remove the coffee and hot chocolate stains out of the bottom of one of their white mugs while trying to remain nonchalant about the question. “Somewhere between twenty or thirty, I suppose.”
That should get Marianne’s interest and it did.
“Really? What sort of fellow is he?”
“Expensive, that’s for certain,” Elinor replied. “Your father has to pay extra for him.”
“I can look him up,” offered Marianne, wanting to learn more about him. She got out her iPad and connected it to their Wi-Fi satellite internet connection. Though slow, clunky and costly, they’d finally gotten service three years ago. “Where is he from?”
Elinor gave a secretive smile to herself, knowing what her daughter would find. She’d already looked him up herself. Her plan was for him and her daughter to meet.
And her husband equally planned that they didn’t. He didn't want his daughter meeting some bush pilot with a short life expectancy. That there was no one else out here desirable worth her meeting was not an excuse in his mind. To his way of thinking, when she was old enough to leave the house and live on her own, she could meet anyone she wanted.
Yet Elinor's own mind remained unchanged. Marianne was getting too big for her britches and the lowlife's for men in the mining camps around here were looking good to her, her having no common sense about them at all. Until she was old enough to leave and live on her own, she needed to meet someone else besides the bankrupts, wanted criminals, and vermin that passed for men living around here.
It could lead to another argument later and Elinor couldn’t shake the feeling that this time their disagreement was about to reach its boiling point. Elinor knew she and her husband’s differing opinions over Marianne had been a simmering brew for some time. She wasn’t looking forward to a fight with Samuel, but if he didn't want one, he had best bring Bodeen home with him tonight. She had planned and thought about this too long. Tom Bodeen was successful, well-known, and liked by all, the type of man she believed Marianne ought to be exposed to. It just might very well prove worth the argument with Samuel for Marianne to meet a worthwhile man.
Yet as the late afternoon descended, her tension rose with dread as the potential heated confrontation neared, likely with Marianne overhearing. But she couldn’t help but wonder if her plan to invite Tom Bodeen wouldn't be worth the angry spill just to get it out in the open.
The only thing she knew for certain was that, when Samuel came through the door tonight, he'd better have Bodeen with him or there'd be hell to pay.