Flying northbound at an altitude of 5,500 feet, the engine of my Cessna Cardinal -- a single-engine, four-seat airplane -- was humming reassuringly smooth. As I approached Coeur d'Alene, I saw clouds that could possibly block my planned route to Sandpoint. I called Flight Watch radio; the dispatcher informed me that they were reported to be scattered to broken cumulus clouds.
With that in mind, I altered course, gently banking around the biggest buildups to stay on visual flight. In between the clouds I suddenly saw the glorious colors of a rainbow arcing out of the east, as though it was a portal beckoning me onward to my destination.
A few miles farther north, the clouds gave way to clear skies. On my right I spied Buttonhook Bay at the south end of Lake Pend Oreille. It had been a little over four hours since I had taken off from my only stop at Redding, Calif., on the trip from Van Nuys, Calif., to visit my son Matt in Sandpoint. I had called Matt from Redding to tell him that I guesstimated my arrival at about 6 p.m., depending on the winds aloft. Over Cocolalla, with its own little race-track shaped lake, I called Sandpoint Airport radio for advisories about wind direction and traffic.
An airport voice came back with: "The wind is out of the north favoring Runway 1, and there is no reported traffic. Oh, and your son is here; stand by."
Matt came on the air: "Hey Dad, you're right on time; it's 10 minutes to six."
"Aeolus, the wind god, must have been sleeping, Matt. I'll be there in just about 10 minutes," I said. Throttling back, I started to descend. The airport is only 1.5 miles inland from the lake, and a turn out to the lake and a re-entry on a diagonal to the runway gave me an eagle's eye view of the town, Schweitzer Mountain and the airport. Four hours and 26 minutes from Redding, and nine hours from the time I left Van Nuys, I heard the chirp-chirp of my tires as I touched down on Sandpoint's Runway 1. As I taxied off the runway, I saw Matt's pickup waiting for me near a tie-down.
Matt, my older son, moved to Sandpoint about nine years ago after friends with whom he worked in Antarctica regaled him with stories of the beauty and serenity of the area. I first visited him in December 1991. I flew up on Alaska Airlines with stops in Portland and Seattle and then on a Horizon Air commuter plane to Spokane; Matt drove the 160 mile round trip to pick me up -- a long and arduous trip for both of us.
During that first visit I found Sandpoint Airport only 1.5 miles from his house. It was a revelation. The airport is only 3.5 miles from the center of town and 8 miles from Schweitzer. To top it off, it has a paved, lighted runway of good length, fuel facilities, a warm and comfortable pilot's lounge and office, and even offers courtesy cars for visiting pilots. This, I thought to myself, is a pilot's paradise.
And that is part of the reason I have flown up three times in my own plane and why I'm sure more trips will follow.
Seeing Sandpoint and Lake Pend Oreille from the air is a kick. The Federal Aviation Regulations require that pilots stay at least 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within 2,000 feet over congested (populated) areas. At that altitude cars look like little Lego pieces and people are almost invisible. But you can clearly see the valley called the Purcell Trench that stretches north from Sandpoint -- once a tongue of ice that created glacial Lake Missoula long, long ago.
At an even higher altitude you can get an exalted view of Sandpoint's unique topography, nestled in the northwest corner of the lake at the end of the Long Bridge. Looking down on the town, you can see City Beach and how it resembles the gnarled head of some ancient Scottish golf club cut from the limb of a tree with the shaft in the hands of the town of Ponderay. In winter you can also see the snow crystals scintillating in the sun in the back bowls of Schweitzer in a way that even the skiers never experience.
In sparsely populated areas an experienced bush pilot can take you down to 500 feet above the surface where you might be able to spot a moose or even a bear or cougar, although these creatures are elusive and generally like to travel under the cover of the woods and brush. The sight from the air is unique to each individual, and each one will find his or her own epiphany in flights over Idaho's Panhandle.
Non-pilots who visit Sandpoint Airport can take a sightseeing flight and tour of Sandpoint, Lake Pend Oreille, Schweitzer and the Selkirk and Cabinet mountains. You'll see them the way a hawk or eagle does -- an experience you will long remember.
The route to Sandpoint from Southern California
The most scenic and practical route I found to Sandpoint from my home in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., is north over the Great Central Valleys of the state for re-fueling of both plane and pilot in Redding. From there the scenery becomes spectacular on the climb north: first over Lake Shasta and then a few miles to the east, mighty Mount Shasta, 14,162 feet high and capped with snow resembling a whipped-cream topping, even in August. Near Bend, Ore., I see the Three Sisters of the Cascades loom up to the west: North, Middle and South Sister, all snow-tipped and higher than 10,000 feet, and a smaller sibling southeast at 9,175 feet.
At Redmond, Ore., I turn northeast toward Pendleton, Ore., (where they make those great wool shirts) and then fly on over Walla Walla, Wash., toward Pullman and Moscow, Idaho. The most accessible and least mountainous route to Sandpoint is from the south over Coeur d'Alene. Fourteen miles due north from Coeur d'Alene is Lake Pend Oreille, and 8 miles farther there is a 4,558-foot peak after which you can start a descent to land in Sandpoint.
Sandpoint Aviation is managed by Jorge (call him George) O'Leary, (208) 263-9102, and offers sightseeing flights, aircraft sales/rentals and maintenance. Summer hours are from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; in winter, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, look up www.SandpointAirport.com.
At 74, Richard Davidson, aka Ray Davids, substitute teaches in between trips to Sandpoint. This is his first contribution to Sandpoint Magazine.