June 25 was one of those rare "red alert" days, where the weather lined up (light winds, high base) coupled with the fact that it was a weekend (= lots of retrieve options via the public) and it was late June (= lots of daylight hours to go XC). In fact the longest day of the year had only been a few days before!
Weirdly enough, a lot of the "top guns" who would have been salivating at such a day were otherwise occupied...finishing up at Chelan comp #1, on their way down to Chelan comp #2, or traveling in Europe.
I had noticed the upcoming conditions the day before and had made a tentative plan to fly to Lilloet via the Duffy Lake Road, and even onwards to Cache Creek if the day allowed. I announced my intention to some pilots at launch and had some interest, although there were other pilots interesting in flying to Whistler, to Squamish, or to Gold Bridge. But I had a few people interested in coming along.
|Light winds, high base, what's not to like?|
Launched early, before noon, and was able to get up on the SE side near the towers. It was a pretty easy climb out and I could see nice cu's forming and no overdevelopment in the Kamloops area or the Chilcotin (yay!). However there was a rather unwanted east wind, and we were only getting to 2700 m or so, which made the idea of flying to the Duffy Lake road a bit less interesting.
We were a gaggle of 6 pilots, milling around behind launch, when, after some radio chatter about what to do, we opted to fly down the Anderson Valley to D'Arcy, since that was the alternate route to Lilloet as well as an alternate route to Gold Bridge and Bralorne. Now, we don't often fly this valley for 2 reasons:
1. It's a narrow windy valley.
2. It's full of power lines.
Neither feature make it an enjoyable valley to fly in regularly, but with the light winds, the fact we weren't planning to come back via the same valley, the fact cloudbase was supposed to get higher (the prediction was 3500+ m), and the fact we actually had a gaggle (= safety in numbers) to help with the transitions and finding lift, made flying this valley possible.
Once you get to Birkenhead Mountain, you actually get the odd "safe" LZ, but I was feeling good and staying high, and I knew from previous trips to Birkenhead Provincial Park that up ahead were really nice LZ's (off the main road, but on the way to the Park, which on a weekend would have lots of cars going in and out, so lots of retrieve options). The clouds were still behaving, cloud base was getting a bit higher (I was getting to 3100m at Birkenhead Mountain), and I could see the route to Lilloet was looking good from a sky point of view.
From a LZ point of view: not so much! After D'Arcy, you pretty much lose all LZs, and Anderson and Seton Lake have no LZ's and the surrounding mountains just drop right into the water. There is a railway along the west side of both lakes, and in a real emergency, you could *maybe* put it down on the tracks (fortunately the train is very infrequent), but then you'd be faced with a multiple hour walk out along the tracks, either backtracking to D'Arcy or continuing to Seton Portage or Lilloet, depending on where you ended up on the tracks. But it was the weekend (!) and there were oodles of boats on Anderson Lake. I figured if I ended up on the tracks, I could probably get a boater's attention and then get a boat ride back to civilization.
The first jump to the north from D'Arcy was the scariest with leaving the safety of the LZs as well as losing a good chunk of my gaggle...we ended up splitting in half with the others saying they were going to fly to Gold Bridge, and those sticking with me (Chloe, Kiwi Tom, and Lorne) had never flown to Lilloet either. So it was the blind leading the blind. But after the first couple of jumps I was getting more comfortable and the skies were still looking great (we were getting to 3300m by now), and we were staying so high that the lack of LZs was more of "background noise" than a full-on concern.
The east wind we had experienced back at launch had never gone away, so even though the west side of Anderson Lake (facing east) was not the "standard" side to fly along, the east wind meant the thermals were actually flowing up that side of the terrain, the train tracks are beneath you (rather across the lake if you were flying the other side), and the fact it was near the longest day of the year meant the east-facing slopes were still in sun and working just fine. I believe a lot of the other flights along this route are on the other side of Anderson Lake since that side faces west.
Up ahead I could see the land bridge that separates Anderson Lake and Seton Lake, with the community of Seton Portage nestled inside it. I've never actually been to Seton Portage, so had no idea what there were for LZs, but it looks like (from the air) that there are a couple of fields you could land in. The road in is over the mountain Pass from Carpenter Lake, so it's not an easy-accessible community, so the traffic in-and-out would be minimal, but again, with the weekend, I figured there would be some traffic out to get a ride if needed.
|Seton Portage RASP...still light winds!|
However we were staying high (cloud base was by not 3500m) and I could see all 3 lakes from my viewpoint: Carpenter Lake with brown water (its water level was very low...you could actually land all along its shoreline right now), Anderson Lake with blue water, and Seton Lake with glacier-green water. Plus I could now see the Moha valley with all its fields, and the terrain in general was becoming more dry and less treed, good from a landing point of view!
Once past Seton Portage things were just excellent...a nice high cloud street, a light east wind, and I could see the beginnings of Lilloet and the safety of civilization and LZs. The only thing that would have made things nicer would have been a light SW wind...as it was we had been fighting an easterly cross-wind for most of the flight which made "downwind" not really a thing and thus slower-than-usual groundspeeds for an open distance flight. But hey: flying to Lilloet, shouldn't complain!
|Flying over Seton Lake. Seton Portage is directly under me. You can see the FSR dropping into SP just past my pod.|
As we dropped into Lilloet Lorne was asking what my intentions were. It was only 5pm, continuing to Cache Creek was a possibility, so I decided to see what would happen on the crossing to the cliffs behind the Lilloet airport...it's a long crossing. Somewhere along the way we had lost Kiwi Tom, but he had turned around shortly after D'Arcy and returned to Pemberton as he needed to be back in town that night and couldn't risk the possibly-long-retrieve. So it was just myself, Chloe, and Lorne.
|Lilloet RASP...light winds which is very rare!|
Crossing Lilloet to the airport cliffs was a long glide, and with the lack of west wind it was slower than a usual downwind crossing would be. I could see a nice cloud street continuing to Marble Canyon, but after that it was blue, no cloud streets, and meanwhile Lorne was saying we had a retrieve arranged if we landed in Lilloet. That, coupled with the lack of a cloudstreet past Marble Canyon, the possibility of landing in between Marble Canyon and Cache Creek, and the fact we had just had a fantastically scenic flight over some unlandable terrain made me think "Yeah I'll stop now". So rather than continuing into the blue, I switched modes to "tourist mode" and hung out over the cliffs at the airport, enjoying the view of the Fraser Canyon which we often don't get to see via paraglider!
BTW, Lilloet airport is an uncontrolled airport (like the Pemberton one) so we can land there. There was little air traffic that I could see but with the fact it was a weekend and a likely time for recreational GA pilots to be going in and out, I decided landing closer to the main road and away from the runway would be the better option. I could see a nice empty field at the T-intersection at the bridge over the Fraser River, but just as I was setting up my final approach a herd of horses popped out from the small building at one corner and started milling about the field. Sooo, quickly popped over to my backup LZ (I try to always have a couple of backup options just for cases like this) and landed in the waist-high spearhead grass in zero wind.
|Coming in over Lilloet and the Fraser Canyon.|
Now for those of you who don't know, spearhead grass is the bane of clothing and shoes. It sticks to everything and has a barb, so will not come out without a lot of work. The few times I've landed in spearhead grass fields, I usually have to throw away my socks as they are pretty much unusable by that point (or spend hours pulling them out manually). So after Lorne and I packed up we were walking out with sharp pokes with every step. That's why I usually avoid speargrass fields if possible, but hey, as a backup LZ, they'll work in a pinch, and of course are not farmed so you don't have to worry about crops.
Lorne had called his friend in Lilloet so our ride was more-or-less ready for us when we reached the highway, so it was just a matter of finding Chloe. Turns out she had landed on the other side of the river (her radio was not working so couldn't hear what we were doing for landings) so we were able to find her next to the gas station just at the entrance to the Duffy Lake road back to Pemberton.
|Looking back at Lilloet from over the airport. You can see the tip of Seton Lake where we came from.|
All collected, we were back in Pemberton in about 2 hours, and before dark! Many thanks to Lorne for arranging the retrieve! Otherwise we would have been hitchhiking which usually adds a couple more hours to the whole retrieve, or gotten a hotel in Lilloet and retrieved the following day.
|Looking over Lilloet and the 2 possible routes in from Pemberton. Our route via Seton Lake on the right, the alternate route via the Duffy Lake road on the left.|
While it was not a long flight (the straight line distance is only ~100 km), it was a very technical flight and over terrain that is pretty unforgiving. A typical day in Pemberton you can't (or shouldn't) do the flight due to valley winds at both the beginning and ending of the flight...Lilloet is notorious for afternoon winds. After having done the flight via the Anderson/Seton route, I must admit I think it may be safer vs the Duffy Lake Road route. At least along 2 lakes you have the possibility of landing on the train tracks....along the Duffy there are only a handful of LZs and most of them are on the Pemberton end of things. Once you get past the highpoint of the Pass, it's pretty much a canyon all the way to Lilloet and the only places to safely land at that point are up high. I'm so glad I did the flight as the scenery is outstanding and I don't often do open distance flights due to the retrieve issue. But once in a while it's good to get outside your comfort zone!