You can fly in any time you like, but you might never leave. . . .
words and photos :: Mason Mashon
Mason: If you had asked me five years ago, the idea of landing a plane with wheels on a sandy beach to go surfing wouldn’t have crossed my mind. . .
. . . but you couldn’t have asked for a better day to fly — blue skies and a clear late-morning, August horizon as we departed from Squamish Regional Airport aboard “Frog’s Breath,” my buddy Rory Bushfield’s fixed-wing Cessna. We knew very little about our destination other than the few photographs and information we had gathered from Google Earth — we knew there was a beach that would likely have surf.
As far as actually landing on the beach, everything would rely on our visual assessment once we arrived on scene. Prior to taking off, I had grabbed a few stones from the side of the airstrip so we could survey the firmness of the sand from the air. I assumed the role of navigator as Rory piloted us meanderingly through the islands and inlets of our beautiful coast. There’s something special about seeing the country from the air.
We cruised steadily with a minor headwind at 6,900 feet until the isolated beach came into view. As we descended for our first pass however, we spotted a few campers posted up in the exact spot I had considered to be ideal for us. This mild upset didn’t really register though. Before such things as the ideal tent spot came into play, we still had to land a 14-hundred-pound aircraft with 12-inch-wheeled landing gear onto an untested strip of Pacific sand. Rory cracked his window and threw out one of the rocks.
Rory: Throwing rocks as you fly over is one way to gauge how hard beach sand is — if they roll that’s a good sign, and if they don’t roll it’s a bit of a red flag. Most of the time we don’t even see the rocks again, but that’s Mason’s job, that and watching the right wheel. I can’t see the right wheel and it’s usually the one that touches down first because most of BC’s beaches and wind patterns orientate us to land facing North. Plus the West Coast beaches are a bit slanted. So it’s really important to have a good passenger you trust to tell you how deeply that right wheel penetrates the sand when it first touches the beach. You can ‘touch and go’ on a soft beach but if you stop, you will probably never roll again. Low tide is the key, but it always comes with a marine layer of cloud that appears to stick to the water.
Mason: “It’s firm!” I cried, my eyes glued to the right wheel. Rory then proceeded to skip the “go” part of our planned ‘touch and go.’ Soon enough, we had safely landed and were taxiing back down the beach towards our camp spot.
Rory: With small, 12-inch wheels it’s difficult to taxi on a beach and pretty much impossible above the high-tide line, so it’s really important to stop the plane in a strategic spot, both for a fast getaway if needed and for “high ground” as Mason calls a good safe camp spot. That’s another one of Mason’s jobs, spotting camp from the air. High ground is important if you want to be able to stay and relax at all.
Mason: The plan had worked, until we rolled up into sand that was too soft to support the aircraft’s weight, abruptly bringing us to a halt. As we assessed the plane’s arrangement and searched for wood to push it up onto the beach, the group of campers we’d seen from the air meandered over to welcome us. I quickly recognized one of them as friend and fellow photographer, Nicolas Teichrob, and they had kindly brought us a couple of cold beers (which Rory and I quickly demolished by way of a shotgun).
Nic Teichrob: After four days of remote boat-access camping in a zone we’ve been going to for the greater part of the last decade, this little plane circled, doubled back and landed. Who do I know who has a plane crazy enough to land here? We strolled over to say hey, and along the way I realized indeed they were familiar faces, Rory and Mason. Being in a place where isolation is a large part of the goal, it’s always a bit of a bummer when someone else shows up, but you can’t blame them for finding the same thing you’ve found, and it might as well be like-minded people we already know. We shared some tips on high tide line and where to gather fish and with a chuckle made our way back to our camp two kilometres to the south. There would be more stories coming up no doubt.
Mason: We were stoked! But then we quickly realized that perhaps we had been a little bit too nonchalant in our original assessment of the beach slope and high-water mark. As the tide rose, seawater began to lap against the wood blocks we’d rolled the plane up onto and it quickly became apparent that we had pushed ourselves into trouble.
The plane was jammed in the sand and the nose wheel was completely buried. On my side of the plane, the wheel had slipped off the irregularly shaped piece of wood it was rolled up on, and into the sand. The aircraft was now vibrating in the wind and the wheels were sinking in the saltwater saturated sand. There was no time for panic, but my heart was beating out of my chest. I mustered every bit of strength in my body to push and dislodge my side of the plane. The tide was flooding in. Fast.
“Nose wheel! Nose wheel! Ready?” Rory shouted as he ran to the back of the plane and began pushing the tail section. “Ready?!” I dropped to my knees and prepared for the nose wheel to dislodge from the wet sand. It didn’t look good.
“If the plane stayed lodged in the sand, the rising salt water could easily ruin the engine.”
Rory: At one point, the entire nose wheel was totally buried and I was pretty sure we were going to lose the plane. It’s pretty stressful when the ocean wants to play with your only way out of somewhere. Mason and I were scrambling and for sure we both lost hope out there, but never at the same time. That saved us.
Mason: “Higher!” I yelled. “I need more room to get the wood under!” We were stressed, but ultimately focused because we had to work fast. If the plane stayed lodged in the sand, the rising salt water could easily ruin the engine. And eventually take the plane to sea. Racing the tide, we scrambled back and forth, laying scrap pieces of wood we found on the beach. Rolling 14 hundred pounds of aircraft from one scavenged board or log to the next proved the biggest challenge. I used smaller wood pieces to arrange a makeshift wedge system to help roll the plane smoothly across the gaps. And the tide kept coming in.
Just as we prepared to transfer the gap between boards, a wave doubled in size as it pushed up the beach and washed over the wheels of the plane, subsequently scattering the carefully placed pieces of our wooden ‘road’ and displacing them 30 feet down the sand. That wave had also kissed the belly of the plane, and for the first time, I truly thought we were going to be screwed. It was too late to run two kilometres down the beach to get help from Nic’s crew, and both Rory and I understood we had maybe 60 seconds to push the plane up the hastily replaced eight-foot boards, before the next surge took them away again and our plane fell victim to the rising sea and liquefying sand.
Precise communication and all our summoned strength got us onto those boards and transferred to the next. Exhausted, we rolled Frog’s Breath to dry safety. It was 9:00 p.m. and thankfully the only thing dipping into the Pacific that evening was the glowing red and purple sun. We named our patch of high ground Camp Frog Water and strung our hammocks up on the ocean side of the plane — if a higher tide surged in our sleep, we wanted to be the first to know.
Mason: “What the F*CK IS THAT!” Rory’s voice woke me instantly. “There’s something in the waves man! What is that?!”
I scrambled awake to see what all the commotion was. Morning had arrived, our hammocks were barely above the high-tide mark, and no more than 60 feet from where we were sleeping, Rory had spotted humpback whales in the surf.
“The whales were within 20 feet when a wave shoaled behind us. Rory and I nodded to each other, time to go.”
We assembled our boards and wandered down to the beach to a sand bank with a nice deep channel, perfect for surfing. A bald eagle soared overhead and landed on an old-growth Sitka spruce at the back of the beach, the tallest tree around. By lining up the bird’s easily visible perch against the mountains in the background we were able triangulate our location in the rolling water to help us find the right take-off spot. The majestic bird curiously watched us catch more than a few waves, so I named the spot ‘Eagle’s Landing.’ The surf was small, but peeling perfectly along the shoulder of the sandbank into the channel. While waiting between sets, a pair of humpbacks greeted us — we could smell their breath as mist shot up from the sea’s surface.
“Holy shit, man, they’re getting really close,” Rory exclaimed. Almost too close for comfort, I thought. The whales, a cow and her calf, were within 20 feet when a wave shoaled behind us. Rory and I nodded to each other, time to go, and as the wave began to break we split the peak and both rode right to shore. It was easy, in a spot like this, to understand why we should give these massive creatures their space.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon fishing for Coho salmon that were jumping in the sheltered bay and exploring the new surroundings of this remote surf haven. We set a crab trap that we found at an old squatter’s cabin and fished from the rocks as the whales circled offshore. The following day, we were graced with glassy, head-high peelers all morning, and in the afternoon we surfed directly in front of Camp Frog Water, where the seas had become a dumpy beach break with some hollow waves at low tide. It became very apparent that this place was paradise.
Rory: Surfing with those giant whales was insane, especially after seeing that one so close, from camp. The one time they came towards us, I saw real fear in Mason’s face. That scared me. We both paddled away as fast as we could and fortunately a big wave came and we were able to cruise into shore where we watched a whale and its calf roll around in the surf, beaching themselves on the sand. I was scared of getting pinned under one after watching that. I took my camera out every surf from then on, but we never got that close to the whales again.
Mason: As the morning fog began to dissipate, we decided to survey the sand on the entire beach by walking it end to end. Anticipating a clear afternoon, we instead watched as another fog bank slowly crept towards us. With the intention of leaving that afternoon, we rushed back to Frog’s Breath to collapse camp and load up. We pushed the plane down off the berm and piled our stuff in, but by the time we started up the engine, the fog had become dangerously thick for flying. Getting somewhere is only half of the adventure — you still have to get home. We decided to taxi down the beach in hopes of finding a ‘sucker hole’ to escape through, but as we rolled away from camp it became apparent that we’d missed our narrow window. With fog condensing on the windshield, terrible visibility, and the knowledge that there were a few potentially plane-damaging logs scattered on the beach, we decided to double back following the only thing we could see; our tracks in the sand.
Mason: We had only planned for a few days on the beach, so our food stocks were nearly depleted. I opted for fishing instead of surfing, knowing that we needed to catch some food in case the fog closed our next low-tide window. I ended up hooking into a big salmon, but as I adjusted the drag on my reel, my line snapped. I watched the salmon sprint away, dancing victoriously as he skipped along the surface of the water. I had no more lures with me and camp was a long walk away. Thoughts of how we would survive if we couldn’t leave had crossed my mind more than once on the walk back. Rory seemed less stressed.
Rory: Rationing food sucks. Blow it if you got it! But I remember a few times during each day just sitting there, thinking about how awesome it was to be there and how lucky we were that everything went our way. I was also worried the whole time about getting outta there, but every day brought us more treasure: sun, waves, fish and smiles. It was a genuinely sweet feeling — we were just living on the beach with sick waves, total isolation and trusty ol’ Frog’s Breath ready to rip us outta there any time Mase, myself, the weather and the tides were ready.
Mason: The next morning we awoke hungry and to the thickest fog yet. With no chance of escape, we surfed out front for a couple of hours before I wandered back down to the sheltered bay to fish for our apparent survival. Luckily, I hooked into a small salmon fit enough to feed both Rory and I for lunch. As we ate the delicious fish, the fog began to break and the tide was dropping. Hope was not lost.
Once the always-welcome Pacific sun had dried up the sandbar, we pushed Frog’s Breath off the berm one last time. It was a breeze after all of the practice we’d had over the last few days, and soon we were rolling back down our private sandy runway watching as our exit window opened. Like the fog bank before us, our eyes were wide open to the potential that this could be a new way to explore the rich, remote surfing in BC. Rory fired up the plane, pulled the throttle full, and we took off above the fog. — ML