Idaho pilot becomes keeper of backcountry lifestyle, carries mail tradition since the 1970sBy Jessie L. Bonner, AP
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Backcountry mail pilot helps preserve way of life
FRANK CHURCH-RIVER OF NO RETURN WILDERNESS, Idaho — In the small airport lounge, his former wife and business partner rattles off the weather report and frowns as a surge of wind blows open the door and invites in the morning chill.
Ray Arnold slumps in a chair holding the side of his mouth. The 72-year-old pilot had a root canal the day before. Staring out the window, he weighs years of flying experience against an uneasy sky.
Finally, he lifts himself from the chair.
At his signal, Arnold Aviation employees wheel cardboard boxes into the hangar on dollies and stack them next to the plane, the wish lists of those who live and work along the only backcountry air mail route left in the lower 48 states.
Bananas. Eggs. Canned fruit. Flour. Frozen fish fillets. Oranges. Ice cream. Stripping wax for floors. An 18-pack of Coors. And bright yellow mail bags, stuffed with everything from bills and letters to magazines and Netflix movies.
“I got to get rid of the ice cream first,” Arnold says.
The pilot ticks off the items to be loaded first, guiding the workers like a backcountry Santa Claus. In the back of the plane, the parcels are arranged in the order they’ll be delivered.
Deep in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, folks are waiting.
For 34 years, the pilot has served as an ambassador to this tiny segment of Americans who prefer isolation over convenience, the roar of a river over the bustle of traffic, a sky dusted with stars instead of the fog of city lights.
Arnold crawls into the Cessna 185 and uses a pillow to position himself above the controls. The hands that learned to fly nearly a half century ago, when the pilot was young and his hip was real, adjust knobs and crank levers until the small plane lurches to life and lumbers toward the runway.
Every week, the mail plane lands on river banks and grassy cliffs scattered across remote parts of the Salmon River country, a stretch of land bigger than Indiana.
In a place where time seems stuck in a bygone era of the West, the sound of the plane reminds the wilderness dwellers they are not forgotten.
But on this blustery day, Arnold finds himself preparing good-byes — the U.S. Postal Service sent notice in March that his approximately $43,000-a-year contract was being canceled.
He flew the letters announcing the decision into the backcountry himself.
He could not know a former executive he flew into the backcountry decades ago, a businessman elected to Congress from Idaho last year, would attempt to wrangle a reprieve at the eleventh hour.
Mail has been carried over the mountainous terrain on sleds and horses; and in the unforgiving cold of a central Idaho winter, carriers in the late 1800s crossed the wilderness on skis and snow shoes.
Lafe Cox signed a contract to deliver mail to mining camps, ranches and homesteads along 45 miles of backcountry in 1942, the same year he moved into the wilderness with his young wife, Emma.
“It was a way of making a living,” Emma says.
Her husband, the backcountry letter carrier, also carried out the sick, the dead and one winter, a pregnant woman who had to be tied down to the dog sled as Lafe drove over avalanches to bring her to the nearest doctor.
That was just part of the job, she says.
At 89, Emma now lives in a nursing home in the southwest Idaho town of Emmett. Her memories of the backcountry make brief appearances, like visitors she cannot persuade to stay longer.
The family moved here in the 1950s, when the mail route was contracted to Johnson Flying Service in McCall.
About 20 years later, Arnold noticed an advertisement at the local post office. They needed an air taxi operator to deliver mail to one of the largest blocks of primitive and underdeveloped lands left in the United States.
Arnold Aviation, the lowest bidder to take over the mail route, signed the contract in 1975.
At Shepp Ranch, the roar of the plane from above nudges Mike Demerse to jump into a battered blue Jeep. At a sanded strip, the Cessna’s wheels screech to a stop.
Arnold climbs out and helps Demerse load eggs, oranges, fish and frozen vegetables into the Jeep before they head back to the ranch to visit.
The air mail route includes about 20 ranches scattered throughout the wilderness area, and this stop alone serves about 30 people, says Demerse, who with his wife Lynn organizes hunting, fishing and outdoor trips from a ranch property that straddles the Nez Perce and Payette national forests.
The Salmon River runs through their front yard.
What would losing the mail service mean? “I can’t order tractor parts. I can’t get a magazine subscription,” he says.
The couple sifts through their mail. Lynn Demerse sorts the doctor bills and magazines, grins when she finds the Netflix movie she rented.
They’d survive without the mail, but that’s not the point.
“The point is, is it a basic government service or not?” she says. “Is getting the mail a privilege or a right?”
A delegation of Idaho lawmakers were asking the Postal Service the same question.
From the cramped cockpit, endless forest rolls out over the mountains like carpet. Living here requires a certain inclination for quiet, and stillness, a lifestyle built from grit and determination to outwit a seemingly uninhabitable terrain.
The roads are impassable for about six months of the year. The backcountry radio used to provide the only source of communication, but now people also access the Internet through satellites.
“With the world the way it is right now, it’s a good place to be,” said Sandra Alley, who lived off and on in the Idaho backcountry for about a quarter century with her then-husband, Jack Badley.
The vast landscape could be terrifying, especially for a 22-year-old carrying her first child in the 1970s.
About two months into the pregnancy, Alley was sick. Walking to the ranch outhouse, the pain ripped through her stomach and she dropped to the ground. Her husband heard her screams and rushed to her.
They called for the pilot, and Arnold landed 45 minutes later, helping Badley carry his wife to the plane.
Her right ovary had exploded. The baby would not live. But Alley, now 57, still chokes on her gratitude to the pilot who flew through a storm to help. She can’t speak for several moments through her tears.
“I should have died,” she says.
The U.S. Postal Service faces a potential $6.5 billion loss this year. Postmaster General John Potter says thousands of carrier routes have been eliminated as mail volume declines.
A March 24 letter notified the Idaho backcountry residents the air route would be cut. If they made the trek to the mountain town of Cascade, a daylong affair for most of them, a mail box would be available at no cost.
“The initial decision was made with the thinking that there was going to be an acceptable alternative,” said Al DeSarro, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service Western Region in Denver.
Arnold delivered the letter to the Yellow Pine Bar caretakers on April 1. They thought it was a joke, partly because it was April Fools Day, but mostly because they couldn’t imagine sustaining their livelihoods without Arnold.
As the plane circled above the property, Arnold peered down for a landing spot that would avoid deer. Sue Anderson pushed a wheelbarrow carrying muffins and coffee to the landing site.
“I guess it might seem to some people as selfish, to want to get your mail,” said Anderson, 45, who helps maintain the ranch with Greg Metz, 46.
Arnold ate a muffin while the couple listed their frustrations with an outside world that couldn’t understand Cascade was a million miles from nowhere to those who live along desolate stretches of the Salmon River.
They grumbled about the postmaster general’s remark in March during a House subcommittee hearing:
“We must serve every customer and every community. Rich or poor, from the biggest cities to the smallest towns, we must provide the same high level of service. We must provide the same access. We must make our services available — in both easy-to-serve locations and locations so remote they can only be reached by mule, by swamp boat, or by bush plane.”
The comment became a battle cry in the Idaho wilderness.
A month later U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, visited Arnold’s small hangar. The lawmaker remembered the pilot who flew him into the backcountry more than three decades earlier, Arnold says.
He wondered if Minnick’s visit might bode a change in the postal service decision — and indeed in May, the agency ditched the plan to sever the backcountry mail contract. “There was no other alternative” for mail delivery, said the agency’s DeSarro. Minnick hailed the decision as a victory.
Actually, the postal service is exploring alternatives, requesting quotes to find out if the service could be provided at a cheaper cost. Arnold is bidding for the first time since he took over the contract in the 1970s.
On a rainy Monday morning in mid-June at the Arnold Aviation office, Carol Arnold prepared for the Wednesday mail route and jumped to answer a customer who called in over the backcountry radio to place a grocery order. Food and hardware requests also come by e-mail.
“It would take a special person to live in their world, I don’t think I could,” Carol says.
The postal service will have a hard time finding another pilot to deliver the mail for less money, said pilot George Dorris who dropped by the office and sipped tea with Carol. They could probably find one who is more efficient, doesn’t stop to visit, he quipped. “But the people back there won’t bring them rhubarb and cookies,” he added.
Arnold, who estimates he flies about 17,732 miles a year, has been paid $2.45 a mile for the past several years. He carries passengers and freight with the mail to break even.
He asked the Postal Service for $2.95 per mile, a yearly contract worth $52,309. After weeks of negotiations, he says he and the agency have agreed on a number, $2.85 a mile, for a $50,536 yearly contract.
“I’ll give em’ the dime,” Arnold says.
He has not received an official contract for the next year, he says, nothing has been finalized. He’ll most likely deliver his first mail route in July on faith.
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