Helicopters Circling the Backcountry Skies 

Wilderness broken up by reminders of civilization

I've never liked seeing helicopters in the mountains. I guess if I had logged dozens of days of heli skiing in Alaska, the distant drone of helicopter blades might instill a beating of anticipation in my heart, a skier's Pavlovian response, as in instinctively having learned there's a direct link between a helicopter and skiing epic powder. But in my experience, a helicopter is not a good sign.

This summer, while driving toward Tioga Pass, the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park, a helicopter lifted off the ground and floated up the canyon. It hovered just high enough to appear to be scanning the hillside. I leaned forward over my steering wheel, looking uphill, following the flight of the chopper.

I hoped to see what it was searching for. Then, the helicopter skimmed the edge of the hillside and took a soaring turn around a bend, out of sight. I got that eerie feeling I get whenever I see a helicopter when I'm outdoors. It's the feeling that something has happened.

Seeing that helicopter on my way to Yosemite affected my mood. In fact, every time I see a helicopter, it alters my experience of the day. As I set off on my day hike, a serious pall hovered over my thoughts.

I'll admit I've witnessed the flight of helicopters in mountains for reasons other than injury or death. I've seen them dip a bag into water and carry it over the horizon to douse flames. During my first summer at Merced Lake in Yosemite, Secret Service helicopters circled our camp for days before Laura Bush's visit.

Last spring, while digging a snow pit on a mountain face above Sonora Pass, helicopters from the Mountain Warfare Training Center buzzed the basin during a drill, and I felt as if we'd been transported to the mountains of Afghanistan. But when I'm out for a day hike, for whatever reason, these experiences are not what overcome me once I hear the thump of blades or the drone of an engine.

Several years ago, I left Tuolumne Meadows in the evening and a couple of helicopters buzzed the skyline, searching for an elderly woman who was missing. They'd searched for several days, and the whispers around Tuolumne were wondering how much longer the search would go on.

On the trail, I passed a couple dozen search and rescue personnel headed for the road. They looked tired and dirty. The helicopters seemed to be taking a direct route between Tuolumne and Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, as if they were shuttling out the last supplies. Then, just as the sun faded behind the granite summits of the Clark Range, the helicopters disappeared and everything went quiet. The search was over. They had not found her.

Whenever I hear or see a helicopter, I think of lost hikers, injured people, dead people and eternally vanished people, and how that could be me someday. It's always the bad news stories that fill my head with imagery, and I'd like to change that.

So I drove out to Nampa to talk to Jake Powell, a biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game on a breezy fall morning.

"We use helicopters to count anything from chukars to bighorn sheep," Powell said.

They survey sage grouse in the Owyhees, pronghorn, moose, mule deer, elk and mountain goats. Fish and Game will also count salmon and steelhead redds on remote river sections like the Middle Fork of the Salmon with helicopters. Using a helicopter is the most reliable way to survey game, and it provides a basis for wildlife management and setting hunting rules and regulations.

From January to the end of March, four or five survey helicopters are running every day around the state. Powell has been at it himself for 10 years and once logged 20 flight days one February.

"It's physically taxing work," he said. "You're not out there sightseeing. You're looking at a certain patch of ground, and you're concentrating. You're trying to find animals."

The pilot flies 40-50 mph at about 100-150 feet above ground, using a search pattern following contours varying between 500- and 300-foot intervals, depending on the terrain. Two biologists, sitting on each side, record what they see. Winter is the most important time to count. Game tends to congregate in more accessible, lower elevation open terrain.

However, it's impossible to count every single animal in the state from a helicopter. This is known as visibility bias, and over the course of years of research, Fish and Game and the University of Idaho have developed a scientific model that can factor in animals that are settled in trees or bedded down in brush.

Fish and Game prefers to use a Bell 47 helicopter--the kind from MASH with the big bubble windows--because it gives the best visibility. These are old helicopters, however, and they're getting harder to find.

Helicopters are also dangerous, and Powell acknowledges they've lost colleagues in crashes. In the future, unmanned drones, satellites or infrared cameras on airplanes may take over the surveying but for now, helicopters are the most efficient way to survey Idaho's rugged, mountainous terrain.

So when I say I don't like seeing helicopters in the mountains, I don't mean they shouldn't be flying over or landing in wilderness. I think for the right reasons they should. But a lot of the places we travel in the West are peaceful, beautiful places. In these places, days blur and the sensory overload of civilization dissipates.

In these landscapes, the only thing buzzing in your ears are mosquitoes, and the most powerful sounds are wind and thunder--the jolting arrival of a helicopter is a reminder that something else is going on.

The next time I'm backcountry skiing on Pilot's Peak or up at the Williams Yurt in the Sawtooths and I hear an oncoming helicopter and see the round windows that make it look like a dragonfly, will that be enough? When the vibrations start that instinctual response, can I kick the old negative reaction? I'd like to say that when it happens, I'll see a pilot and two observers looking down on me, then I'll know they're out there looking for game. I hope that's the image that sticks with me.

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