Recently, I went back out to Hell Hole Reservoir, this time with a group of representatives from the Native American organizations* on whose ancestral land the project that our client proposes is taking place. I was anxious before we headed out – there were several representatives of several different native organizations present, and my experience in the past is that where there are several organizations represented, each tends to view the others as interlopers and at best tension is created, at worst, the situation can become explosive and even violent (in Southern California, these situations sometimes turned into fist fights).
I needn’t have worried. While all of the individuals had their own interests and priorities, all worked well together, and seemed to respect each other. That was good…very good. Indeed, one fellow began asking questions that seemed to be aimed at provoking the others, but it quickly became apparent to everyone that he wasn’t trying to upset them, but rather to help them understand the sorts of questions that they would have to be prepared for, as these would come from the regulatory agencies. So, the one who seemed like a troublesome individual at first ended up being extremely valuable.
The other thing that had me anxious, again based on past experience, is that often when native groups do get along, it is because they have what they view as a common enemy, and often that is the archaeologist. Indeed, it was not beyond question that the whole trip could have turned into a game of “whack-a-anthropologist.” Again, though, I needn’t have worried. While it was a given that we weren’t always going to see eye-to-eye, it was understood that we all had our priorities where they were for valid reasons, and everyone worked well together as a result. All in all, it was a good trip.
I had to duck out of the second day of the trip, however, as I needed to complete some archaeological surveys at remote locations. These locations were so remote that they could not be reached by car or by hiking – we were to be flown out to the locations by helicopter.
I am the son of an aircraft mechanic. Specifically, I am the son of a helicopter mechanic. This being the case, it is rather remarkable that I had not flown in any form of aircraft until I was 25. And I did not fly in a helicopter – the aircraft that my father has spent so much of his life working on – until I was 32.
On that morning, I stood near the landing pad, itself on the edge of a cliff, waiting for the helicopter to arrive. Due to the odd acoustics of the mountains, the sound of the helicopter would appear and then vanish, and sometimes sound like something other than what it was. After about five minutes of listening to this weird chimerical sound, the helicopter finally arrived.
The pilot, a fellow named Scott, gave us a quick safety briefing – essentially amounting to three basic rules:
1. Don’t fall out of the helicopter while it is flying.
2. Don’t get hit by the helicopter’s blades when it’s on the ground.
3. The results of failure to follow rules #1 and/or #2 will be worse for you than for the pilot.
With this nut o’ wisdom gained, we were off.
We entered the helicopter and strapped in, the odd 4-part seat belt with spring-loaded buckle (for quick removal) seeming unfamiliar but not uncomfortable. The pilot increased the engine throttle, and the blades above us began to turn faster. After a moment, we were leaving the ground.
This felt wrong. In an airplane, the lift comes from the wings at the side, and so it feels as if you are being pushed off of the ground. In a helicopter, the lift comes from the rotors at the top, so it feels like you are being lifted up by a skyhook – a rather disconcerting feeling, really. As we rose up, I felt my heart beat a bit faster, but I was okay. I looked through the windows at my feet (a rather odd feature of helicopters, but one that makes sense, is the windows at the feet of the people in the front), and saw the ground drop away. After a moment, I began to get used to this, and then the helicopter began to move forward.
Do you remember a few paragraphs ago, where I mentioned that the landing pad had been built on the edge of a cliff? Ummm…yeah…well…
As the helicopter moved forward, we suddenly went from being 20 feet above the ground to being close to 500 feet above the ground. My stomach dropped into my pelvis while my heart simultaneously lodged in my throat in a failed attempt to invade my skull. I looked down into the canyon below us for a moment, before I realized that I’d probably be better off looking forward. As there were no arm rests, I took to clamping my very white knuckles over my knees.
Despite my best efforts, I kept sneaking peaks down into the canyon below, and thinking such cheerful thoughts as “you know, if the helicopter suddenly stopped working, we’d just plummet to our deaths, and from this height, that’d take a bit of time, and we’d be conscious of our impending doom the entire way down…OHMYFUCKINGODPUTTHISTHINGBACKONTHEGROUND!”
The pilot looked over to me as I quietly whimpered into the comm. System (oh yeah, that’s another thing, the helicopter is so loud that everyone inside wears a microphone and ear phones so that we can communicate) and asked “You doing okay?”
I held back the urge to scream “You madman! Do you not see that this mode of flight is an abomination, offensive to the very gods themselves? Did you learn nothing from the tales of Daedalus or Phaeton? Put this foul whirlybird back on the ground before you incur the wrath of lord Apollo himself!” and instead simply stated a quiet and unconvincing “yes.”
“Okay” he replied in a cheerful tone of voice, meanwhile increasing our speed and moving us out over the reservoir.
After a few minutes of the twenty minute ride, I calmed down, and actually began to enjoy myself. The view of the project area was amazing, and there was a joy to be had in watching the mountain ridges and peaks pass below us as we glided along. Finally, we came to our destination…sort of.
Looking down at the landing spot, it bore a resemblance to the air photos, but didn’t look quite like it. Also, it was marshy – Scott had to keep the helicopter from sinking into the mud when we finally touched down. At his suggestion, I jumped out of the cockpit and went to the luggage hatch to grab my maps out, sinking to my ankles in mud and stagnant water everytime I took a step. I reached the luggage hatch, and pulled my maps out, and then slogged back to the cockpit, splatter mud on the lower windows as I landed back in my seat.
I handed the maps to the pilot, and watched with a mix of amusement and irritation as his face took on a horrified expression. He then began pushing buttons on his GPS unit, and went from horror to confusion, and then resignation.
“They gave me the wrong coordinates! This site is ten miles to the southeast!”
And with that, we ascended again for another 20-minute helicopter ride. This next ride was much easier on me, and I didn’t experience any of the anxiety. Finally, we descended into a meadow, this time it was clearly the right location, the field technician and I got out and retrieved our equipment, and the helicopter left.
We spent the next three hours performing our surveys, finally finishing just as we heard the blades of the helicopter violently splitting the air somewhere to the west of us. After a few minutes, the helicopter descended, we stowed our equipment in the cargo hatch, climbed inside the cockpit, and we were off again. Once again, the liftoff and flight was actually enjoyable, and the fifteen minute flight to the next location as over too soon – though the landing was a bit nerve wracking as we had to do a near-vertical descent due to the density of the trees surrounding the landing site. Once again, we pulled our equipment out and set to work as the helicopter flew away.
A few hours later, we had completed our surveys and were preparing for a bit of a rest when we heard the helicopter once again coming our way. As soon as it landed, we put our equipment back in the storage compartment, climbed in, and were unnerved by the fact that the helicopter didn’t seem to want to lift off. The helicopter has a maximum height of 6,000 feet, and the mountain was approximately 5,500 feet up, resulting in a hard climb for the aircraft. After a few moments that were tense for me, though the pilot didn’t seem to mind too terribly much, we were off and moving – though we barely cleared the trees at the end of the meadow.
I don’t know if it was the change in temperature, in wind currents, or what, but the ride back to the landing pad was much more turbulent than any other ride that day. We kept feeling the helicopter dip as we rode towards the landing pad – and each time, I found my tension rising, until, for the first time since that morning, I was simultaneously figuring out how long it would take use to fall, and what type of death we’d be likely to face if the helicopter suddenly stopped functioning.
Thankfully, this trip was also the shortest one of the day, and we were soon back on the ground. The field tech and I exited the helicopter, retrieved our equipment for the last time, and headed towards the truck, our knees shaking the entire time. We put our gear in the back of the truck, and then climbed in. As we sat down, we both looked at each other, and the tech said what we both were thinking:
“Well, I can now say I’ve flown in a helicopter. And I am in no hurry to do it again.”
So say we all.
*The usual term used for these organizations is “tribes”, but I avoid using it except in regulatory and legal contexts where the term is used in regulations and guidelines. With the Possible exception of the Yokuts, the social organization of Native Californians before Europeans arrived was at the level of the band, lineage, or village (or possibly chiefdom), not at the much larger level of the tribe. In fact, most Californian anthropologists refer to organization here as “tribelets” – as it was generally more sophisticated than a band, but didn’t incorporate as many people or as large a geographic area as a tribe.